An eighth place finish last season- Albion’s third since promotion from the Championship in 2009/10- can justifiably be considered a triumph for the West Midlands side.
However, failing to consolidate one’s position in the transfer market at this level can be extremely perilous- as Newcastle found out last summer.
Have West Brom made sufficient provision to guard against a similar decline and do they possess the squad depth to launch another assault on the top half?
Clarke asserted the following in June of his obligations in the market, “There are three or four players that won’t be here next season that need to be replaced and we have to replace them wisely.”
In his press conference before the game against Everton however, he conceded “We have been under-active compared to others. I’m hoping we will be busy.”
What has forced such a change in tack from the Albion head coach?
Thursday’s unsettling news that Nicolas Anelka has walked out of the training ground and looks to be unavailable for the foreseeable future on compassionate grounds leaves the Baggies short.
Clarke has been left to muddle through his transfer plans with Richard Garlick, the club’s former legal director, after their director of football Dan Ashworth was recruited by the FA; to this we may partially attribute their failuire to replace the outgoings as avowed.
Evidence comes in the signings of Diego Lugano- an increasingly unproductive veteran in a position where strengthening is unnecessary for West Brom- and Matej Vydra- a striker unproven at the top level- which smack of an inability to make full and appropriate use of the contacts Clarke clearly boasts, as Ashworth began to do last season in the shape of Yacob and Lukaku.
The departed Zoltan Gera provided industry and guile despite his injury problems, Jerome Thomas tricky wide play and Marc-Antoine Fortune was a troublesome target man. Although none of these trio can claim to have consistently commanded a starting berth, before their summer departures they provided Clarke with the ability to approach games in different ways.
Managing a combined total of three shots on target in their first two games of the season against Southampton and Everton, they lacked invention and a Plan B at home- they threw on Vydra and Rosenberg as a forlorn gesture in the 86th minute, only for Rickie Lambert to consign them to victory in the dying seconds- hardly the most effective double substitution in living memory.
Loss of Lukaku
Most undermining of their efforts to reach the top half again will surely be the return of last year’s top scorer Lukaku to his parent club Chelsea.
The 20-year old Belgian scored 17 goals (117.82 mins per goal) and was by far Albion’s most active attacking force- being the focal point of 25 clear cut chances and boasting a shot accuracy of 58%- despite making a number of his appearances from the bench.
The incumbent strike force is still led by Shane Long who, by way of contrast, scored just 8 goals with a shot accuracy of 45%.
The signing of Scott Sinclair should provide goals but he has not operated at the highest level for a while now and it will take him time to bed in. The 24-year old will probably also be asked to operate on the left of midfield in a 4-4-2 , whereas he has become more accustomed to playing higher up the field- as a true winger- in a 4-3-3 for Swansea and albeit scarcely, Manchester City.
Move of Morrison
With this pair due to occupy the striking positions in the remodelled 4-4-2 formation, James Morrison will find himself playing on the right of midfield.
A revelation as an attacking midfielder occupying positions in between the lines, he created 64 chances from open play last year- a team high- and laid on eight goals for his colleagues.
The Scot’s crossing is less productive and and saddled with defensive responsibilities in protecting that flank shown by the graphic (right), he will find himself less able to influence proceedings from the top of the box.
Against Everton he tried to force himself inside into such areas, but this left Jones exposed at right-back and allowed Baines to stretch his legs on the overlap.
Threat to progress?
It would be foolish to extrapolate from just two games, but Clarke’s inability to turn the tide of both encounters was somewhat endemic of the dearth of options he finds himself with.
His strikers are alarmingly similar- players that like to run the channels and test defenders on the ground- whereas Lukaku and Fortune posed an aerial threat and a direct option when chasing games.
That said, this Albion side boasts a defensive solidity that previous sides have not.
Youssouf Mulumbu is one of the most underrated midfielders in the division- holding his position intelligently in front of the back four, breaking forward sporadically yet with impact- and in Gareth McAuley, last season’s player of the year, they have an exceptionally consistent defender.
Clarke has them well organised and they will be one of the hardest-working outfits in the division- Saturday’s battling goalless draw at Everton proved they have character for in abundance, if not yet the requisite quality.
Don’t expect West Brom to experience a slide like the one observed on Tyneside, but if their strikers can’t step up it could be a Long season if they want to repeat last term’s heroics.
Morrison image was taken from the FourFourTwo Stats Zone app.