Clarke, Gera and Yacob key to Albion start

Tuesday 27th November 2012 12:06

Gera: Arguably the catalyst for Albion's flying start

Gera: Arguably the catalyst for Albion's flying start

TEAMtalk Editor Simon Wilkes outlines the crucial factors behind West Brom's stunning start to the season under new manager Steve Clarke.

When Match of the Day host Gary Lineker asked Mark Lawrenson "what are West Brom doing this season? Why are they so good?" on Saturday night, Baggies fans up and down the country waited with baited breath.

Sadly the answer that Clarke 'has tweaked the team and added a little more flair' was lazy, ill-informed and lacking in any great knowledge of how the Scot has steered Albion to their best start to a top-flight season since 1953.

Clarke has been a revelation since taking the reins from Roy Hodgson, silencing those critics who questioned whether he'd able to make the jump from number two to a managerial position.

The former Liverpool, Newcastle, West Ham and Chelsea assistant is one of three factors behind Albion's rise to the upper echelons of England's top tier, with the other two being the return to full fitness of Hungarian playmaker Zoltan Gera and the shrewd summer capture of midfield terrier Claudio Yacob.

Excited Baggies fans are starting to dream of a possible European adventure, with leading scorer Shane Long admitting it's starting to creep into the players' minds too.

But Clarke is refusing to entertain such thoughts, keeping his feet firmly on the ground and repeating the mantra that the 40-point survival target is still the club's number-one priority with the campaign only 13 games old.

Despite this Albion supporters are basking in the glory of seeing their team secure four straight top-flights wins for the first time since 1980.

Rival fans are impatiently waiting for the Baggies' bubble to burst, but Albion have already displayed great bouncebackability having responded to successive defeats to Manchester City and Newcastle with the aforementioned winning run.

Clarke inherited a squad of players who finished 10th with 47 points last season, and 11th with the same points haul in 2010-11 - but his handling of the players has been the secret of his success so far.

He hasn't 'tweaked the team' as Lawrenson suggested, in fact he has quite rightly kept faith with the 4-2-3-1 system favoured by both Hodgson and Roberto Di Matteo during their time at The Hawthorns.

What he has done is pick a settled backline and keep the attacking players on their toes.

Shane Long and Romelu Lukaku rotate the lone striker role, with Clarke having to manage Long's ongoing hamstring injury, meaning Peter Odemwingie often plays wide left or wide right.

Yet there have been no grumblings from the Nigerian, even after he dropped to the bench at Wigan despite his winning brace against Southampton.

In Chris Brunt, James Morrison and Graham Dorrans the Baggies have three international midfielders who can unlock top-flight defences - but the jewell in Albion's attacking crown is Gera, whose return to full fitness has arguably been the catalyst for their flying start.

Gera will turn 34 in April but has the hunger, drive and commitment of a man 10 years younger - and marked his return to the first team with the first goal of the season, a sublime 25-yard strike which knocked the stuffing out of Liverpool and laid the foundations for a 3-0 victory.

The three-time Hungarian Player of the Year became a firm fans' favourite in his first spell with the club, having arrived from Ferencvaros for £1.5million during Gary Megson's reign and bagged 21 goals in 139 games.

He broke fans' hearts when he opted for London life, joining Fulham and shining under Hodgson at Craven Cottage, being named their Player of the Season in the 2009-10 campaign, when he was the driving force behind their fairytale run to Europa League final, scoring 10 goals in all competitions.

Gera was reunited with Hodgson at The Hawthorns, re-signing on a free transfer in August 2011, but got injured against Tottenham in November and missed the rest of the season.

He is now fully fit and firing on all cylinders, playing in the centre of Albion's forward trio and revelling in the freedom he has in Clarke's system.

That freedom is available due to the third factor behind West Brom's stunning start - the addition of Yacob to the starting XI.

The 25-year-old arrived in the Black Country somewhat under the radar, having been identified by Clarke and Dan Ashworth as someone who could be a valuable addition to the playing staff.

Clarke liked the look of Yacob - who had played 147 games for Racing Club in Argentina - and threw him in at the deep end for the visit of Brendan Rodgers' Reds on August 18.

The Argentinian rewarded that faith, running the show in Albion's engine room and producing a man-of-the-match performance.

Alongside fellow hardman Youssouf Mulumbu, Yacob has formed a combative midfield shield, with their discipline and commitment playing a crucial role in ensuring the Baggies have a belligerent backline.

Clarke said: "Claudio has been an outstanding signing for us.

"When I came to the Albion in the summer, I sat down with (sporting and technical director) Dan Ashworth and we spoke about what I wanted to do with the squad and what I could see as beneficial to the squad, and that was the type of midfield player I asked for.

"We were lucky to get him because he slipped under the radar a little bit. Dan had got a few scouting reports on him, I sat and watched six or seven dvds on him and decided he might do a half-decent job for us, and he has done more than that."

Albion's squad depth will be tested in the coming months, with Odemwingie and Mulumbu to represent Nigeria and Congo respectively at the African Nations Cup.

But Clarke has rolled with the punches brilliantly so far, seeing Boaz Myhill prove an able deputy for injured number one Ben Foster and the likes of Morrison fill the defensive midfield role in Mulumbu's injury absence.

And he knows the club's fans are keeping their expectations in check, saying: "I think they are very knowledgeable. They understand where the club has been, where the club is trying to get to, and they know along the way there will be ups and downs.

"Like the supporters, we all want to dream a bit but we know the main task in hand is to just keep picking up the points from game to game.

"If we can do that consistently, then it can be a good season for us."

So next time you watch the Baggies on Match of the Day, feel free to mute the punditry, especially when Lawrenson is offering his 'insight'.



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