West Brom boss Roberto Di Matteo keen to show attacking is the new defence
West Brom have always been seen as a halfway house in Premier League terms. Before continuing, and as a non-bitter Nottingham Forest fan, there is nothing wrong with being labelled a yo-yo team. You get the whirlwind of a Premier League season alongside the evident financial benefits. You also get emotional elation every two or three seasons. That’s more than Arsenal.
Having said that, mid-table obscurity is quite genuinely a dream. The sanctity of rubbing shoulders with the elite of English and European football more than every other season is the aim of West Brom. Its board. Its players. Its fans. Some supporters may say that actually they would rather the constant excitement, but secretly they wouldn’t.
Clearly this is not a destination that the club has yet reached. They have had four separate spells in the top league, and have survived relegation only once. In 2004/5 (survival season), they finished one point ahead of Crystal Palace.
Quite frankly, it is not particularly difficult to see why the Baggies were unsuccessful. In their first two relegation seasons their top scorer scored five league goals. In 2008/9 Chris Brunt got eight. This is woefully inadequate, and in a league where the lower teams really need to be clinical in front of goal, Di Matteo knew as much.
Additionally, West Brom have historically been too profligate at the back, conceding the most goals in the division in two of their three relegations. It is fairly apparent that with these two combined, the club had a recipe for significant problems.
The main criticism of the Baggies previous assaults has been their desire to play expansive football. While this has enabled them to achieve comfortable promotions, and set the Championship alight in doing so, it has led to them becoming unstuck against teams of greater defensive stability.
So the question at the start of the season was whether Roberto Di Matteo could succeed where previous incumbents Gary Megson, Bryan Robson and Tony Mowbray had failed.
West Brom currently sit sixth in the Premier League. They have 11 points from their first seven games, and crucially have already played Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool, taking four points in the process. They are a team inspired.
So have they learnt their lesson? Have they stopped trying to play silky attacking football in favour of a solid foundation, grinding out results along the way? Well, no actually. Not at all.
In fact, the club are playing as attractive football as they ever have. They are conceding almost two goals per game (although six of these at Stamford Bridge). They are counter-attacking in the same way as they did last season.
In fact, last week at the Emirates, they produced their best ever performance in the Premier League. This was not the plucky, lucky underdog gaining a freak result away at a top club. This was a display that showed style, verve and class. Arsenal were lucky to only lose by one goal.
Peter Odemwingie is the finisher, of this there is no doubt. He has showed ability that West Brom have arguably not had for a decade. His awareness and positioning show him to be a poacher, but he also has the power and pace stereotypically associated with talented African strikers.
But if Odemwingie is the finisher, Di Matteo is the architect, and must take the plaudits (not ‘laudits’ Ben Shepherd).
It is easy to forget that this is only the Italian’s second job, and that his management career started only two years ago.
Over the course of his reign, he has managed to instil a sense of belief in his squad, a belief in a system whereby flair and flourish is not something to be feared, even when the underdog. In their previous four seasons in the Premier League, they have scored three or more in a game six times. They have done it twice already in seven games this term.
But the second thing that Di Matteo has added is a resilience not seen before. His side have gained five points from losing positions, and also came from behind to beat Manchester City in the Carling Cup. A West Brom that allowed all belief in an attacking system to dissipate after conceding seems to be something of the past. This is all the more impressive given the thrashing on the opening weekend at Chelsea
The old mantra remains. No club has survived relegation by the beginning of October. But whatever happens, Roberto Di Matteo has shown that West Brom do not have to ignore the values and ideals of attacking football in order to survive in the Premier League. Instead he has sculpted a squad which has an underlying resilience, a refreshing demeanour and a capable finisher.
And you know what, I don’t groan when I realise West Brom are on the telly any more. Now that’s a compliment.