WEST BROM 1-1 NEWCASTLE
For many managers, the tactical tone of a team is set by one section of the side. In Steve Clarke's case, it is the defensive midfield positions.
When the West Bromwich Albion head coach has been able to field the dual shield of Claudio Yacob and Youssouf Mulumbu, their results have been outstanding. When the Argentine and the Congolese are paired from the start, they have taken 30 points from 18 matches. When one or both is missing, that return drops to less than a point a game.
Yet as Albion kept that ratio broadly the same, their first-half problems were caused in part by the suspended Mulumbu's absence and Clarke’s change of shape. Perversely, therefore, their second-half salvation came after Yacob's withdrawal and a switch of system from the Scot.
In the first half, there was a gameplan Clarke could recognise. A side sat deep, broke at pace and played 4-2-3-1 intelligently. It wasn't his.
Since his January recruitment drive, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation, partly because he had a Frenchman to play behind sole striker Papiss Cisse. Here he actually had two. Yoan Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko interchanged constantly, one playing in the middle and the other operating on the right. It made them particularly hard to track. Gouffran was the more effective in the final third, scoring a goal and setting up Steven Taylor when he had the chance to add another.
However, it was the second successive game that Albion had problems picking up attacking midfielders in central areas, particularly those making runs into the box. Tomas Rosicky had been particularly effective for Arsenal at The Hawthorns a fortnight earlier.
It is no coincidence that Mulumbu has missed both games. In an imbalance in the Albion squad, there are no other senior holding midfielders. Their difficulties against Newcastle were compounded by Clarke's tactics.
Unusually, Albion left themselves outnumbered in the centre of midfield because they opted for a wide 4-4-1-1, trying to stretch the game. Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans were pinned to either touchline. With Yacob playing the anchor role, James Morrison was sometimes operating against two men further forward. With Yohan Cabaye operating in a more advanced role than James Perch, it tended to leave the latter as the free man.
Perhaps Marc-Antoine Fortune was supposed to cover him but it didn't work out that way. His selection was a surprise. Clarke has rarely started with two strikers together but when he has, it has tended to be in more winnable games. A home encounter against a side with a poor away record certainly came into that category, hence the uncharacteristic boldness.
There was a division of responsibilities between the two strikers. Romelu Lukaku was the spearhead and the man charged with running in behind the Newcastle defence. Fortune operated just behind him, but not deep enough to offer meaningful assistance to Morrison and Yacob.
But, seeing Albion’s problems, Clarke responded decisively. He withdrew Yacob but restored numerical parity in the centre of the pitch, moving Brunt from the left wing to the anchor role, playing Dorrans and Morrison in front of him and using three strikers, two in wide roles.
The logic was that Brunt, with his passing range, could act as a quarterback, and that Albion could play a more direct game. By using central strikers on the flanks, they had three aerial targets. It also helped them earn corners, and Lukaku hit the bar from one of them.
One ploy Newcastle used, especially at goal kicks, to match up, was to bring Jonas Gutierrez back to operate as an auxiliary wing-back, purely for that phase of play. It meant left-back Massadio Haidara could tuck in and he and the two centre-backs could match up against the Albion forwards. In open play, however, Albion were looking for Dorrans and, in particular, Morrison to break into the inside-left and inside-right channels. The latter was more of a presence in and around the Newcastle box.
Going with three up front was an approach Clarke had used with some success in the second half against Arsenal and now seems to represent his Plan B. It is radically different from his usual blueprint when six men usually stay behind the ball.
While the headline statistic was that Billy Jones' equaliser was the first goal by an English Albion player this season, tellingly it was also the first from a full-back. West Brom's full-backs do not get in the opposition box often but, chasing the game, Jones did; at the end of the first half, it might have brought a penalty. In the second, a diagonal run infield got him a goal.
And yet, while a right-back scored and three centre-forwards led the fightback, there was a common theme to Clarke’s thinking. His midfield normally protects the defence. Here, with Brunt’s passing, it provided the platform to attack.