Clarke's gamble pays off in Baggies win

Posted by Matthew Evans

Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesShane Long celebrates with Romelu Lukaku after scoring West Brom's final goal. Lukaku and Marc-Antoine Fortune also scored for the Baggies.

It was fun in the sun for West Brom as they secured a 3-0 win over Southampton Saturday at St Mary’s, which was reward for a bold tactical decision by manager Steve Clarke.

Albion were missing Chris Brunt through injury and Youssuf Mulumbu was serving the last game of his three-match ban and Clarke could quite easily have gone to try and contain the Saints. However, he took a risk and started with a three-pronged attack of Marc-Antoine Fortune, Romelu Lukaku and Shane Long. The three forwards did their job expertly, in terms of both attacking and defence.

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The use of a three-pronged attack meant Southampton struggled to play their natural game of passing the ball around the back and bringing it out. This forced them to go more direct at times, which was far more suited to the defensive abilities of Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson.

It was certainly a return to a form for those two at the heart of defence. McAuley had a bit of an iffy display last week, but that was a rare blip in what has been a superb season for the Northern Irishman. Saturday he was back to his best, winning some crucial headers at a time when Southampton were putting on the pressure.

Of course, the main evidence that Clarke’s tactical change worked was that Fortune, Lukaku and Long were the scorers, although Clarke could not have been happy to see Fortune sent off unnecessarily for retaliating after Gaston Ramirez was ejected for shoving Long in the face in the 70th minute.

The three-pronged attack also meant Graham Dorrans could get an opportunity in his preferred position of central midfield and I felt that he really excelled in his natural role. After a couple of early misplaced passes, Dorrans really settled into the role. He showed a couple of nice flicks in and around the Southampton area in the first half, while doing a good job defensively. In the second half, Dorrans was one of the few Baggies who put their foot on the ball and passed it accurately.

Lukaku's 14th goal of a fantastic season was the perfect example of the young Belgian's maturity and the way he has developed in his time with the Baggies. In the first half, Lukaku had three gilt-edged chances to extend West Brom's lead before the break. Although he tested Artur Boruc on all three occasions, they weren't his best efforts. That is what made his finish in the second half so impressive.

The Chelsea loanee only had one chance then, but he showed tremendous composure when running down on goal, breaking away from Nathaniel Clyne before rounding Boruc with great calmness to place the ball into the net. It was also fantastic to see Long back on the scoresheet. He had a positive impact against Newcastle last weekend but really needed a goal after struggling in the second half of the season.

He's probably hit much better shots in that time than the one he scored with Saturday, but he should have been delighted to see it hit the back of the net. On the whole, it was probably West Brom's best away performance this season.

In an action-packed match with three goals and three red cards, it would be easy to overlook what exactly this win means for West Brom in the grand scheme of things. Albion have 48 points, their highest tally in the Premier League, beating the 47 they registered last season.

Clarke said when he arrived at the club he wanted to reach 50 points and that is a very realistic target for Albion now. It would be just reward for a fantastic season in which West Brom haven't been outside of the top nine, a tremendous achievement in itself.

In addition, it was Albion’s 14th win, again a club Premier League record. Considering some of the doubt that surrounded his appointment, Clarke must be pretty happy with himself at the moment, as will the club hierarchy who appointed him.

He has addressed some of the problems the Baggies had last season, particularly their home form without sacrificing too much of the defensive stability that Roy Hodgson provided. Reaching 50 points will complete a superb debut season as a Number 1.

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