Why other Premier League clubs should be following West Brom's example
Following a testing set of fixtures through October, a period in which a trip to Anfield was sandwiched by the visit of Spurs and Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion have gained 10 points from a possible 12. A haul which places them second behind only Chelsea in the subsequent form table.
November’s list of opponents will have provided easier reading for Tony Pulis and his squad than October whilst more favourable games, particularly those against Burnley and Hull, certainly boosted prospects a successful month. Even more impressive than their last five weeks is that 14 games into the season the Baggies sit 7th in the Premier League despite not once holding 50% possession in a game. Pulis’ infamous style of football has received plaudits and condemnation from pundits and fans alike. Admiration is usually shown for his ability to get results without lavish spending, before questions arise of the true cost of his success, should aesthetics and entertainment be sacrificed for financial stability?
In this latest reincarnation of Pulis-ball, there are definite signs of an developed balance between solidity/style, enforcement and entertainment. Last season West Brom finished in 14th having scored 34, currently they have scored 20, a rate which would see them finish with 54 if continued. A hypothetical total which nevertheless highlights improvements made thus far.
Summer signings can be thanked in part, despite the manager’s grievances and public remonstrations about a list of five targets of which between none, and a maximum of two eventually transpired. This protracted saga included the failed pursuit of Malaga midfielder Ignacio Camacho and the questionable arrival of free agent Robson-Kanu, a player who Pulis openly admits was not one of his targets. Acquisitions of Nacer Chadli and Matty Phillips (finally) have allowed WBA to add individual flair which was often absent last season in addition to improved support and creativity that should enable Salomon Rondon to excel.
Criticism will undoubtedly arrive for refusing possession even in easier home fixtures despite being a similar tactic to that which brought Leicester much admiration on their way to the title. Sticking to the plan should be applauded rather than ridiculed. On 21st November Burnley arrived at the Hawthorns as the only other Premier League side yet to hold majority possession in a league game. Something had to change in the Monday night fixture that even Sky Sports and ‘MNF’ struggled to promote as an exciting fixture.
However, it proved to be a master class in the Tony Pulis and West Brom way. Forcing Burnley into having more possession made them collapse, reverting to a style closer to that which had seen them relegated two seasons earlier. If Sean Dyche had stuck to his more recent principles the game may have headed towards a dour 0-0 draw, providing a stern test of Pulis’ commitment to his style.
The last four matches have seen the baggies name an unchanged side, playing in a quite defensive 4-2-3-1 formation with seemingly strict instructions given on positioning. The areas in which the eleven players effect each match only ever sees minor changes, with the holding players, Fletcher and Yacob maintaining strikingly similar areas of influence to those of both James Morrison and Salomon Rondon. This area is compact, constrained almost entirely to the confides of the centre circle. Deployed as a tactic against Burnley, it allowed West Brom to disrupt Burnley’s possession of the ball (which they had not adjusted to having) by crowding the area containing their most influential and creative players. After winning the ball Brunt and Phillips provided outlets whilst remaining reasonably narrow, enabling Rondon to find them and launch counter attacks whilst running on to sustain an attack. Throughout the game this worked to devastating effect.
In the most recent fixture, a 3-1 win against Watford, the side maintained positional discipline in regards to distance from each other and either goal, yet shifted across to the left to combat where Watford most frequently tried to attack. This is a simple method that most sides should (and usually do implement) but achieving it with such control and consistency is impressive.
Furthermore, the game plan, regardless of Rondon’s relatively deep starting position (which can be attributed to his ability of bringing teammates into play) is not wholly defensive. West Brom almost always make less passes than their opponents and are usually inferior for passes in the final third. Yet even so they have frequently created more chances in recent matches, requiring less time with the ball to make good scoring opportunities. Fullbacks contribute too, reliably aiding in compacting the midfield around the half-way line without scampering further forward at risk of jeopardising the team.
Next up is a visit to Stamford Bridge and league leaders Chelsea. 1st v 2nd in the form table will be an interesting tactical exchange. It is unlikely that West Brom will revert to the 4-1-4-1 (or 5-4-1) that saw them dismantled by Manchester City but likely that Pulis will attempt to make his side particularly difficult to break down. This could be achieved with the same personnel by withdrawing the front four even further back, meaning that Brunt Phillips and Rondon would still have opportunity to break and relieve pressure.
Following Chelsea two of the Baggies three fixtures are Manchester United at home and Arsenal away. Given United’s current form, being only a single point ahead of WBA and having scored less goals, Pulis and his side should be confident of getting a result. Arsenal meanwhile have started the season well, surprisingly appearing stronger on the road than at the Emirates. This factor and potential frustration for home supporters may cause the Gunners to leave themselves vulnerable to counter attacks by piling men forward.
West Brom have nothing to fear at the moment. When the plan doesn’t work it will usually be against a side they are not expected to beat. Unlike in recent seasons they will have more confidence in their ability to score even in games where defending is priority, they now possess both the plan and the players to damage any side. This all during a period in which similar sized and smaller clubs have often outspent them.