Little surprise in Steve Clarke’s immediate assimilation

by Ciaran Kelly

Post-Hodgson, many believed that West Brom – without the Englishman’s tactical nous, acclaimed mid-table track record and the Baggies failing to implement Hodgson’s signature defensive marshaling – were set for a season of struggle.

Of course, only eight games in, it is probably slightly premature to believe that securing a further twenty-six points in the next thirty games is going to be as seamless as the first fourteen points claimed were, but, already, Steve Clarke has silenced the cynics who placed him in the same bracket as the likes of Les Reed, Sammy Lee and Terry Connor.

Certainly, before even looking at Clarke’s record, four important differences set him apart from the above-mentioned. Firstly, he has never rested on his laurels while assisting for fourteen years at the highest level and has purposefully learnt from an array of different coaches, personalities and philosophies at various clubs: Ruud Gullit at Newcastle, José Mourinho at Chelsea, Gianfranco Zola at West Ham and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool.

Secondly, in comparison to another eternal assistant like, say, Alejandro Sabella of Argentina – who only worked with Daniel Passarella, but at six different teams over the course of thirteen years, before taking his first managerial job at the age of fifty-five with Estudiantes – the forty-nine year old Clarke may have judged his potential coaching peak at just the right time, which is much owed to the Scot putting humility, in learning from more acclaimed names in football, ahead of his ego.

Also, Clarke’s entry into management was meticulously timed, with the Scot feeling that the chance to take over Leicester in the Championship in 2008 was too premature, yet realising that after Liverpool curiously sacked him – following Dalglish’s departure last summer – an opportunity to manage in the Premier League had to be taken immediately, while his job history was still fresh.

So, as a head coach rather than manager, it has been a seamless transition of sorts for Clarke as with West Brom’s acclaimed technical director set-up, Clarke’s main focuses have been tactics and matters on the training field. This suits the Scot perfectly as even with Dan Ashworth’s departure for England at the end of the season, the Baggies’ pursuit of Lee Congerton of Southampton suggests the technical director position will remain and Clarke will be able to focus on on the field matters (admittedly, recruitment influence was still clear with Claudio Yacob’s signing and the loan capture of Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea).

Perhaps, most importantly, in joining a club where he had no allegiances or ties – and where he would not be under severe pressure to deliver anything other than to consolidate mid-table status and maintain the club’s healthy, annual £9 million profit – Clarke has been blessed with a safety blanket of sorts. Sure, everyone knew that his acclaimed defensive drills and set-piece knowledge would build on Hodgson’s organised set-up, but the Scot has been eager to integrate a new philosophy at the Hawthorns.

After all, Hodgson’s teams, traditionally, have been set-up as reactive outfits, who rarely dominate possession and are more concerned with structural zones without the ball. Clarke, though, has given West Brom a much more proactive edge: eagerly pressing without the ball, which, alongside West Brom’s comfortable ease in their intricate use of ground ball, is one of the clear indicators that the players have already bought into Clarke’s vision.

Integral: Yacob, foreground, and Mulumbu, background.

This ambition to not be passive and settle for decent, rather than momentous, results has seen Clarke already strike a delicate balance between not being too open (owed to Youssouf Mulumbu and Yacob’s crucial metronome instincts and shielding abilities) and not going the desperate way of many mid-table sides in the past, whereby they are happy to bank on one spring counter-attack and settle for a draw.

As a result, positive results against Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton have followed, while the performances against Aston Villa, Reading, QPR and Manchester City were also encouraging: reflecting the fact that the Baggies have conceded just nine goals in eight games in the league, yet, equally importantly for mid-table teams, scored a very healthy twelve goals.

This change in approach is stark when compared with Hodgson’s once-interpreted reasonable return of eight points from his first eight games last season, with the Englishman conceding nine goals in these eight games in 2011/2012, but overseeing the netting of a fairly average seven. Much of Clarke’s improvement of these statistics is not only owed to tactics and philosophy, but, rather, how hands-on and approachable the Scot is and, as a result, it has been little surprise that occasionally flaky names like James Morrison and Shane Long have been West Brom’s star performers so far this season.

Still, it must be noted that man management is a trait that comes to Clarke naturally as while his time alongside Gullit at Newcastle was far from a success – with the thirty-six year old rookie Clarke too meek to question Gullit’s controversial benching of Alan Shearer, Duncan Ferguson and Rob Lee, having, himself, reinstated the trio for a 5-1 caretaker defeat to Manchester United on 31 August, 1999 – Mourinho would prove key to Clarke’s mental progression from 2004.

Sure, Brendan Rodgers and André Villas-Boas may seem the more attractive and flamboyant Mourinho protégées, but it was no surprise to hear Mourinho recently refer to Clarke as “the incredible one.” This has been an annual mantra in Mourinho’s rhetoric since 2008, whenever Clarke has moved on to a new assistant job, and while always something of a background figure to the public throughout his time at Chelsea, Clarke was crucial to Mourinho’s success and a key disciple.

After all, Clarke’s excellence permanently spawned Mourinho’s trademark: the Clarke role, whereby the Portuguese always picks an in-club assistant who acts as a tactical consultant, which saw Giuseppe Baresi and Aitor Karanka appointed at Internazionale and Real Madrid respectively. Also, in slightly more unsavoury circumstances, ironically, in Mourinho stating that Clarke and Les Miles, Chelsea’s communication officer, saw Frank Rijkaard enter Anders Frisk’s dressing-room at half-time of Chelsea’s vitriol-filled 2-1 second-round defeat to Barcelona on 24 February, 2005 , Mourinho used a respectable figure and someone he trusted to try and influence proceedings.

The real moment that stands out in the pair’s relationship, though, is when Mourinho threatened to resign – in what Carlo Ancelotti failed to do, before Ray Wilkins’ sacking in November, 2010 – when Roman Abramovich planned to replace Clarke with Avram Grant in the summer of 2008. Although the matter was ‘resolved’, with Grant instead arriving as director of football, this was the final nail in Abramovich’s and Mourinho’s footballing relationship and revealed just how integral Clarke was to Mourinho’s success and relationships within the club.

Therefore, from his roller-coaster experiences with Mourinho, Zola (the merits of attractive football and an appreciative fanbase, but desperate hierarchical uncertainty) and, even, Dalglish (Clarke was one of the few people to escape the Damien Comolli farce with credibility), Clarke is incredibly well-rounded but like names such as Carlos Queiroz, naturally, doubts remained about his training ground acclaim until he put his theory into practice with West Brom. Having fatefully found the perfect, stable environment at the Hawthorns, Clarke’s one-time interpreted conservativeness has already proved inspired patience.

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