It'll be handshakes all round (boo!) as Chelsea take on West Bromwich Albion this weekend in the Premier League, with reunions on the cards for Roberto Di Matteo, Romelu Lukaku and Steve Clarke. The latter is the third Mourinho protégé to be in a managerial position in England, but actually takes up a role as Head Coach of the Albion, working alongside Director of Football Dan Ashworth (who is off to England at the end of the season). This is Clarke's first shot at the big time, and he's making a real fist of it: his side sit fifth on the table and have only lost once at home this season, to reigning champions Manchester City.
What has made Clarke's side a reasonable force is the versatility of the players and Clarke's willingness to change his side from game to game, meaning it's difficult to actually predict a line-up for this game. For example, Peter Odemwingie scored a brace against Southampton, but he was just one of three changes as Zolton Gera and Graham Dorrans made way for the bench with James Morrison, Chris Brunt and Lukaku coming into the side. The result was a switch to a 4-4-2, and another win, this time over Wigan.
That said, if the aforementioned home loss to City is any indication, one would expect Clarke to return to the preferred 4-2-3-1, with James Morrison presumably in the central attacking role to provide more cover in midfield. That would see Shane Long lead the line, and it's him we'll focus on first here.
If you're a regular read of WAGNH, you'll know we've been rather chuffed at how Romelu Lukaku's season is turning out, but the Belgian won't be a problem on Saturday, as FA rules prevent him from appearing against his parent club. Despite that, Clarke will still be extremely confident in his strike force, as Shane Long has been doing a superb job leading the line. The Irishman is a clever little player whom Chelsea fans will remember for somehow upending Alex on the way to scoring against us in this fixture last year, and with three goals thus far this season, he'll continue to be the Baggies main source for goals.
Long's a hard-working player willing to work the channels and close down opposition defenders, and the fatigue that occurs as a result is the primary reason for Clarke's customary 70-minute striker substitution, and the manager has been quick to acknowledge this trend. "I was always asking Shane to do the horrible shift which is the first hour, where he runs and chases and defenders are still fresh," he said back in September, but he'll ask Long to play play a similar role here, as Chelsea's centre-backs often move forward to instigate attacks.
Long varies his offensive contribution according to who he is playing alongside with, but regardless of individuals, the front two work as a pairing, with one generally dropping deep and the other making a movement beyond the defence. They also create chances from out wide, with the wingers varying crosses either from deep or the byline for the central two to attack. Pace in behind is an obvious attacking option, and West Brom actually top the league in offsides per game (2.8).
The following screenshots, taken from West Brom's 1-1 draw with Aston Villa early in the season, demonstrate one phase of play that one should watch out for this weekend.
In image one, we can see how West Brom have transitioned defence into attack, with full-back Billy Jones combining with the midfield to play out of the back by exploiting Aston Villa's narrowness. This allows Jones to find Gera with time and space on the ball, as denoted by the orange circle. He's aware of Morrison's diagonal run into the space between Villa's central defenders, and plays a cute ball into his path.
Image two shows how Long becomes aware of how Villa's central defenders have suddenly been drawn out of shape, a problem compounded by the positioning of the left full-back, who is too far up the pitch (a theme concurrent to Chelsea's own tactical problems). Long then arches around the back of Ron Vlaar, ready to receive what is a simple ball across the front of the box as seen in image three. It's a simple move, exaggerated by some bad defending, but it's a clear illustration of how the Bromwich attackers work as a two to break down defences.
Morrison himself is also an interesting player whose biggest claim to fame this season has been Garth Crooks' demand that England manager Roy Hodgson select the Scottish midfielder. He varies between playing a secure short passing game and more reckless, creative briefs, but the key is his ability to contrast his movement either behind the opposition midfield, in pockets of space in front of the defence, or moving deep, towards the midfield pairing.
That's been the constant feature of Clarke's side this season: a solid midfield two who sit in front of the defence and rarely venture forward. The most used duo this year has been Yousoff Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, and although it's difficult to be fully sure of the team selection, that pairing seems likely, as both are combative players who will sit deep and deny Chelsea's clever attacking players space.
Mulumbu is the more likely to move forward to support the attack, a characteristic that has only truly developed following Yacob's arrival. The latter sits back and allows the Congo midfielder to move forward, but the flipside of this is that Yacob can be isolated when the opposition counter-attacks, which might explain why he ranks fifth in the league in fouls per game (2.4).
One thing that's not really been mentioned yet is the proficiency of West Brom on the counter-attack, something that was plainly clear in their 2-0 win over Southampton. Peter Odemwingie made his name in England as a powerful poacher up front, but he's been shifted to a right-wing role of late, essentially playing as an advanced forward down that flank with direct, purposeful running.
Counter-attacks occur when the team in possession turns the ball over, and Chelsea's tendency to push the full-backs high up the pitch exaggerates this problem. Stephen mentioned in one of the comment threads that this might be a reason why Marko Marin won't be given a start, and I tend to agree with him.