Several teams this season have been lauded for playing with fluidity and creativity. Take Everton or Tottenham, for example. Perennially pragmatic Everton have enjoyed plaudits from every direction this season for their style of play, while Andre Villas-Boas’ Tottenham side are finally beginning to look to observers like a team of genuine quality once more.
One team who have arguably not received the praise they deserve this season, though, is West Bromwich Albion. Sitting sixth in the league with 14 points, they are currently placed above traditional big-hitters like Arsenal, and level on points with the aforementioned Everton and Tottenham. Taking 14 points from a possible 24 already, the Midlands side is 8 points off the league leaders Chelsea, having scored 12 goals and kept 3 clean sheets.
However, home advantage has played a major role in the club’s rise in form this season. Away from home West Brom have managed no clean sheets, conceded five goals out of seven conceded in total, and have only scored two, begging the question: why is the Hawthorns such a fortress for West Brom?
Putting your Body on the Line
Defensively, West Brom at home have been a revelation. As a team they have been compact throughout. Out of a possible five clean sheets at home, the Baggies have kept a total of three, only conceding to Queens Park Rangers and champions Manchester City. In addition, against Liverpool, Everton and Reading, West Brom committed zero errors leading to shots or goals, whereas away to Aston Villa and Fulham they allowed one error which led to a shot and another which led to a goal in the 3-0 drubbing at Fulham.
In addition to higher concentration and focus levels, West Brom’s willingness to put their bodies on the line for the cause is another significant aspect of their home success. Not only is the amount of shots blocked at home significantly higher (the team blocked a total of 43% of shots at home against Liverpool and 38% against Everton, compared to 22% and 27% on the road against Fulham and Tottenham) so is the amount of total tackles and ground and aerial duels won: West Brom won only 47% of ground battles and 40% of aerial battles away to Fulham who, in the same game, won a total of 13% more battles in both categories.
He Shoots, He Scores
While the old adage that not conceding goals means you cannot lose games rings true in many cases, to win games you must score goals, which West Brom have done with surprising regularity this season.
At home, goals have been rifled in. Out of a total of 12 goals scored in all games this season, ten of those goals have come at the Hawthorns. It seems that West Brom score so freely at home not only due to their natural attacking game, but due also to their ruthless and efficient finishing. Against Everton, Liverpool and QPR, the Midlands side generated a total of 44 shots, compared to 37 shots away from home against Tottenham, Fulham and Villa, with a far greater proportion of these chances being converted. For example, against Everton West Brom had a shot accuracy of 50%, created nine chances, three of which were big chances, and converted two of them, giving WBA overall a 20% shot conversion rate and a 66% big chance conversion rate. Even in defeat at the weekend to Man City, West Brom managed to keep a rather impressive conversion rate, scoring 50% of the clear cut chances which they managed to fashion.
If their attacking home form could be replicated on the road (at White Hart Lane and Craven Cottage West Brom managed only a 10% and a 0% shot conversion rate respectively) then the Baggies fortunes on their travels could be improved quite dramatically.
As demonstrated by the likes of Spain and Barcelona, the importance of effective passing can be paramount to a team’s chances of winning or losing football matches. Pass quickly and with intent to your most dangerous players, into the most dangerous areas of the pitch, and your opponents can be running around like headless chickens after the ball, watching helplessly as you dominate the game from the first minute to the last.
At home West Brom have been doing just this. Against the likes of Liverpool and Everton, not only was the retention of the ball so impressive (pass accuracy totalled 81% and 78% respectively) but so was the intent with which the ball was used. At home to Liverpool, 61% of WBA’s passes were made in the attacking half, whilst 69% of passes attempted in the final third were completed, slipping the ball into the likes of James Morrison and Peter Odemwingie, arguably the team’s most creative players, with relative ease.
However, away from the safety of the Hawthorns, West Brom’s passing takes a different form completely. Here the pace and speed with which the ball is normally moved at home is slowed down considerably. Consequently, the effect which the passing at home usually has (of moving the opposing team from one side of the pitch to the other in order to create the openings into which attacks can be launched) is negated. Against Tottenham, although a total of 343 passes were made, only 74 of those passes were made in the final third – a grand total of 28%. Although West Brom had a 78% pass accuracy rate, only 37% of these were forward passes. 63% of the time West Brom passed the ball either to the left, to the right, or backwards.
As a result, West Brom walked away from the Tottenham game with a point, having only created a single clear cut chance. Yet the Baggies could have taken more from White Hart Lane had their attacking confidence on the road only matched that of their home performances, something which could be vital to their success or failure in the League this season.