Team Analysis: Can West Brom and Osaze continue their impressive start?

Glancing at the Premier League table after nine games is a little confusing.  In addition to the fact that Liverpool appear to be at entirely the wrong end of the table, you cannot ignore the fact that in sixth place, just two points behind second-placed Arsenal, you’ll find none other than West Bromwich Albion .
West Bromwich Albion
Previously known as perhaps the ultimate “yo-yo club”, too good for the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League, West Brom are playing some excellent football as well as producing some fine results and consequently are one of the surprise packages in England so far this season.

The West Brom side blends an interesting combination of veteran players and inexperienced Premier League hopefuls, guided by a young and ambitious manager, much to the joy of the Hawthorns faithful.  In truth, it will be a quite a sensation if the Baggies end the season in their current position. But, given the huge progress that the side has made so far this term, it seems that something has changed at West Brom. Here are some of the main reasons for Albion’s great form.

The Mental Strength:

A good start to the season by newly-promoted clubs is not exactly something new to the footballing world.  Leagues are littered with plenty of smaller sides who have carried over the momentum of the previous season and started well, only to fall away and finish the season in the kind of position that everyone expected.  Remember that only two years ago, Phil Brown’s Hull City took the Premier League by storm, beating Arsenal and Spurs to reach third place after seven games. They fell away horribly and won only five games during the remainder of the campaign, just about avoiding relegation.

Is there any reason to believe that West Brom’s fate will be any different? Looking at their season so far, it is hard not to be struck by their excellent record against the top clubs so far.  They have faced all of the top five, losing only to Chelsea on the first day of the season and have recorded victories against Arsenal and Manchester City.

It is also important to mention their away form, where they have picked up four points, half the total that they reached on their travels during the entire 2008-9 season, their last in the Premier League.  Those four points have been won at Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium.

In short, there appears to be a self-confidence and determination that were perhaps missing for West Brom during previous adventures in the top flight.   The best example is perhaps the victory last month at Arsenal.  Having gone ahead early in the second-half, rather than sit back and protect the lead against the inevitable Arsenal onslaught, the Baggies played the Gunners at their own game with incisive attacking football to race into a three goal lead.  Confidence and lack of fear is the name of the game for West Brom.
Similarly, at Old Trafford earlier this month, West Brom showed incredible character and determination to recover from a two goal deficit to win a point against Manchester United.

It is also worth noting that the Baggies’ excellent start comes after a 6-0 hammering on the opening day against Chelsea.  Less determined sides would have found it a demoralizing blow, but their incredible recovery since then shows that Albion are made of sterner stuff.

Perhaps the real key to their season will be whether West Brom can match their impressive displays against the best sides in the land by picking up points against the less glamorous sides in the Premier League.

The Coach:

Roberto Di Matteo is probably West Brom’s biggest star of the season so far. A young and relatively inexperienced manager, Di Matteo has tackled the top division head on in his debut Premier League season.

The former Chelsea star began his management career at MK Dons as recently as 2008 after replacing Paul Ince who left for Blackburn Rovers.  Ince had been an enormous success at MK Dons, but Di Matteo carried on seamlessly where Ince left off, guiding the side to a third place finish in League One, eventually losing a play-off semi-final to Scunthorpe United.

Di Matteo’s calm and focused management style caught the eye and West Brom came knocking after only a season at MK Dons.  At the Hawthorns, Di Matteo would also have big boots to fill, replacing the well-regarded Tony Mowbray who had left for Celtic.  Once again, this appeared not to intimidate Di Matteo in the slightest and he guided West Brom towards the top two of the Championship where they would remain for the vast majority of the season, securing automatic promotion in second place behind Newcastle United.  Moreover, they did so by playing good attacking football, scoring 89 goals to win 91 points.

Despite his great achievements so far as a manager, Di Matteo remains a modest and understated character, always quick to give his players the credit for the side’s achievements.  He appears to have been largely responsible for the mental change of the side.  There is little other explanation for the fact that far from overhauling the squad that was relegated in 2009, Di Matteo has retained many of the same faces, but has produced remarkably different results.

Eyebrows were raised when Di Matteo resisted the temptation to bring in a plethora of new faces over the summer.  The signings that he did make were hardly regarded as ‘big name’.  There were plenty tipping West Brom’s demise before the season had even begun.  However, Di Matteo’s purchases have so far proven to have been shrewd buys and he can be credited with a good eye in the transfer market.

On his arrival at the Hawthorns, Di Matteo bought in Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara , who is proving to be more than capable in the Premier League and was particularly impressive against Arsenal.

This summer, Di Matteo purchased Paul Scharner from Wigan, hardly a marquee signing.  Yet, Scharner has added a physical presence to West Brom’s midfield.  Similarly, Peter Odemwingie arrived from Lokomotiv Moscow and has so far scored three goals in just six appearances.

Di Matteo’s low key signings in many ways reflect his modest personality.  It has certainly served him well in building a squad which is so far doing far better than anyone expected.

The Players:

So far, the Baggies have gelled excellently as a team, but there are some key individuals worth noting:

Nicky Shorey –  Previously a loyal servant at Reading, Shorey was rewarded with two England caps.  However, he appeared to somewhat lose his way at Aston Villa and was farmed out on loan to Nottingham Forest.  Signed this summer, Shorey has displayed the confidence and composure that made him one of the best-regarded left-backs around.

He is a solid defender with an instinct to attack, helped by both pace and composure on the ball.  He can also provide an option from set-pieces.  Given his attacking nature, Shorey has so far slotted into West Brom’s playing style with ease.  Shorey and West Brom appear to be a very good match.

Gonzalo Jara – The Chilean international was regarded as a very promising prospect in his homeland as a youth player.  During his time at the Hawthorns he has shown exactly why.  Although naturally a central-defender, Jara has the pace to play further out wide and looks to be a Premier League quality right-back, especially judging by his performances against Arsenal and Liverpool where his impressive energy saw him battle to the very end.  Jara also has the strength and physical attributes to flourish in the top division.

Peter Odemwingie – Another example of a brilliant purchase by Di Matteo. Odemwingie had hardly been a roaring success at Lokomotiv Moscow and failed to find the net at all in ten games during the 2009-2010 season.  So far, he has adjusted excellently to the English game, using his impressive technique and dribbling ability to hit three goals in six games.  Naturally a striker, Di Matteo tends to use Odemwingie on the right hand side of the attack, encouraging him to cut inside to support the front man.

Chris Brunt – Perhaps the most impressive West Brom player at the moment, Brunt also caught the eye during the Baggies’ last Premier League campaign. The Northern Ireland international brings an excellent range of passing and considerable vision to the game.  Usually utilized on the left or centre of midfield, Di Matteo has enormous confidence in Brunt and is happy to let him engineer the game from the centre, left or even right-hand side of midfield too.

Brunt is also a very useful option from set-pieces.  His five assists and one goal so far this season are testament to his attacking quality.

The Tactics:

Di Matteo has not reinvented the West Brom wheel so to speak.  He has instead taken the best parts of Mowbray’s team – comfort in possession, a willingness to pass the ball, a fluid system – and added some defensive nous, a counter-attacking threat and developed greater effectiveness from set-pieces and crosses. As mentioned before, the Baggies are playing a brand of elegant attacking-minded football, best displayed against Arsenal.

Di Matteo usually employs a 4-2-3-1 formation.  Captain Scott Carson is a solid presence in goal, able to lead the team from the back.  In front of Carson, you will usually find the partnership of Romanian international Gabriel Tamas and the Swede Jonas Olsson at the heart of defence.  Both are strong, powerful defenders and although not the most technically gifted players in the world, they provide solidity at centre-back.  The full-back positions are filled by Jara on the right and Shorey on the left, both of whom are able to support the attack further down the flanks.

A key feature for West Brom is in midfield, where DI Matteo usually uses two midfield generals – Malumbu and Scharner – who possess the physical strength needed in the centre of the park to provide protection for the three more creative players further ahead.  That trio, Jerome Thomas on the left, Peter Odemwingie on the right and Chris Brunt in the middle, has been a real threat to defences this season.   They are a versatile enough combination that Di Matteo can switch things around between them as and when needed.

Up front, Di Matteo uses a single target man (usually Marc-Antoine Fortune or Roman Bednar), supported primarily by Odemwingie from the right flank. Sometimes, Di Matteo opts to switch to a 4-4-2 formation with Odemwingie as a second striker. Di Matteo’s philosophy is fairly straightforward.  Two imposing midfielders are tasked with winning the ball, to then hand it over to the more creative and attacking threats, especially two tricky and pacey wide men in Thomas and Odemwingie.

Di Matteo also has strong players waiting in the wings, which allows him the luxury of making tactical changes with confidence and replacing injured or suspended players with quality options.  Former Atletico Madrid centre-back Pablo Ibanez and Cameroon midfielder Somen Tchoyi are particularly good options.  Even back-up goalkeeper Boaz Myhill can be relied upon to reliably fill in between the sticks if needed.

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