This weekend marked what is informally known (by very few) as the Nathan Ellington derby, played between the team he made his name with (Wigan) and the team he lost it with (West Brom).
However, I’m sure Baggies fans will be quick to point out that Jason Koumas did exactly the same in reverse; forging a reputation as one of the greatest talents outside the Premier League at the Hawthorns, before proving to be a flop at the JJB/DW.
Maybe this demonstrates that the grass isn’t always greener but that’s a different story. What the match did demonstrate in more obvious footballing terms was an encounter between two smaller Premier League clubs who are now looking to push on further up the table, especially the visitors, having both previously stayed up the 'right way'.
This is a subjective statement of course, hence the inverted commas, but a generally accepted ideology. Whilst it is often considered more sensible for promoted clubs to play a long ball, high work rate based style; trying to play a more expansive strategy has also proved to be successful. I bet I can name far more ‘hoof it’ teams that have been relegated than those that have attempted the tika taka tactic.
The claim that ‘small clubs can’t beat the big clubs at their own game’ is an irrelevant one in my view. To stay up you don’t need to pass Arsenal and Manchester United off the park, you must instead beat those around you who often conform to the ‘promoted club, long ball’ strategy. Wigan and West Brom have both demonstrated this well in recent years.
Whilst neither have consistently played an expansive game over their Premier League years, it has been a tactic that has served both well in recent survival successes. Wigan may not have played Barcelona-esque football under Jewell or Bruce and West Brom likewise under Robson and Hodgson; yet the styles Martinez, Di Matteo and Clarke have persisted with have often been labelled ‘the correct way to play’. Simply: get it down and pass it. It might not be the most conventional route to survival, but it’s certainly an improvement on Hutchings and Megsons' attempts.
Indeed, this approach can still lead to relegation, as Tony Mowbray’s Baggies showed in 2008-09. Yet he set the ball rolling for passing football at West Brom, which was continued under Di Matteo (who got them promoted in 2009-10) and strengthened with the organisation of Hodgson who kept them up in 2011 and 2012). Those two can’t have done a bad job, they’re now the respective managers of Chelsea and England.
What makes this current West Brom side the most effective of recent seasons is their ability to not only play swift passing football, but also to mix it up a little. Clarke has combined the technical abilities of his players with the structure Hodgson based his team around and is reaping the benefits.
Combative midfielders Claudio Yacob and Youssouf Mulumbu form a strong base in the middle of the park; whilst target man Romelu Lukaku and willing channel chaser Shane Long provide potential for the longer ball if it’s needed. If that fails, the raw pace of Peter Odemwingie isn’t a bad option from the bench.
The two most impressive players for West Brom though for me are their wingers, James Morrison and Chris Brunt, both of whom I’ve admired for a long time. Whilst they’re not conventional wingers who’ll burn a full back for pace, both are technically very gifted and tactically aware. They also possess excellent delivery from the wide areas and can both chip in with vital goals. At the DW on Saturday, both impressed me greatly, especially when combining for the first goal.
From a half cleared corner, Brunt picked the ball up on the left wing. An excellent deep cross was attacked brilliantly by Morrison who headed home from close range after a perfectly timed run lost his marker Ben Watson. In the words of Chris Kamara, that James Morrison, he gives you something (sorry).
Whilst also putting in good defensive shifts, both the aforementioned demonstrated their versatility across the midfield to thwart Wigan building from the back. Both can play anywhere across the midfield and this was demonstrated by West Brom’s tactics when facing goal kicks from Ali Al-Habsi.
Generally, Ali passes short and builds from the back whenever possible. When two strikers mark the three centre halves that pick the ball up, this is generally quite simple as at least one can usually receive the ball. West Brom though changed their system to combat this, with each striker, Long and Lukaku, picking up the wider centre backs Figueroa and Ramis; whilst Youssouf Mulumbu picked up Gary Caldwell. The wingers, Brunt and Morrison, then tucked in with Jacob to form a three in midfield to oppose Wigan’s four. Whilst outnumbered in this department, it didn’t tend to matter as Ali generally kicked it long to Di Santo when the three shortest options were shut off. This forced Wigan to play such long balls and prevent the usual style of playing out from the back, allowing West Brom to win the ball back quickly and prevent extensive Latics possession.
This clever tactic is one I’m surprised hasn’t been used before against Latics, as we’ve generally seen teams struggle to force Ali to kick long very often. Newcastle United even struggled so much last season they changed their formation to a 3-4-3 to match Wigan and prevent Ali building from the back.
The game itself on Saturday was very entertaining I thought (with my ‘footballing’ hat on anyway) with two attractive teams playing a fast paced game. With my Latics hat on though, I was satisfied with the opening fifteen minutes and the large spells of possession, but generally frustrated when we reached the final third.
Too often, when Wigan reached the edge of the eighteen yard box, the ball was repeatedly exchanged from side to side, with little attempt to get in behind. This allowed West Brom to get back into position and defend the edge of their box easily. When the ball went out wide, Boyce and Beausejour seemed reluctant to take their full backs on, seemingly not confident of beating their man. Instead, they repeatedly came back inside and passed the ball back from where it came.
In conclusion, whilst Wigan weren’t far off West Brom (some may argue a draw would have been a fair result), it’s clear the boys require a little more variety and a plan B for when the game stagnates. West Brom on the other hand, well I have high hopes for them this season. Despite both team’s shortcomings, it’s a vast improvement from the days of Koumas and Ellington.