Many people hold the belief that West Brom are much improved under new manger Steve Clarke this season. Many have said they have outplayed opponents on countless occasions with the better football, and that their position - fifth in the Premier League - is a good representation of their performances so far. The stats, however, simply do not agree.
Of course, statistics are not the be all and end all in football, but in general, teams towards the top of the leagues tend to dominate in some department, giving some indication of why they hold the position they do. West Brom's vital statistics, though, seem to have fallen under the guidance of their new boss, and yet they are only outside the Champions League places on goal difference.
The powers that be were not unhappy with the previous regime; Roy Hodgson chose to leave of his own accord at the end of last season to go on to manage the national team. They were a tactically astute team and had a very successful campaign last season, finishing 10th in the league. Steve Clarke, though, has been praised for improving the Midlands club, when there are reasons to believe he has not done so.
Surprisingly, given their results, only Stoke and Reading, often maligned for playing poor football, have had less possession than West Brom in the Premier League this season, who average a distinctly unimpressive 43.1% of the ball. It could have been that the 11 games they have played have been against the teams that keep the ball best. Not so. They are yet to face four of the top seven teams when it comes to possession this season (Arsenal, Man Utd, Swansea and Chelsea) and clearly do not keep the ball effectively, even against sides that are not used to dominating possession. Last season, however, Roy Hodgson's West Brom side averaged 45.8% possession over the whole Premier League season.
The cause of that may be that this season's Baggies have played a greater percentage of their passes long (14%) than they did last (12%); only five teams have played a greater proportion of long balls this term than WBA. Their 317 short passes per game this season is way down on the 345 they averaged last campaign, while the number of aerial duels they have won has risen dramatically, from 10.8 per game to 15.6. West Brom have undoubtedly played some good football this season, and scored some very good goals as a result, but it is not as if Steve Clarke has implemented a more possession based, short passing game at his new club.
Of course, possession and goals are not causally linked; Albion are scoring more goals this term than last, averaging 1.54 per game compared to 1.18. Effective counter-attacking means little possession but plenty of chances and goals nonetheless. Napoli have become masters of this art in recent years with their smash-and-grab football over in Italy, and West Brom have used this technique to good effect this term. While they have averaged the eleventh most shots per game this season, with 13.3 (notably down on their tally of 14.3 last term), only Spurs and Manchester City have had more attempts from quick breaks this season than the Baggies (9). Under Steve Clarke, though, they have only scored a solitary goal via counter-attacks, making up 5.9% of their league goals this term, while last season counter-attacks made up 6.7% of their strikes. While they seem to be favouring counter-attacking football more so than many other clubs, it is clearly not a direct reason for their new found success.
So, West Brom are scoring more goals this time around, and yet they are having fewer attempts on goal. Of course this points to improved finishing since Steve Clarke's arrival, with Shane Long and Romelu Lukaku impressing as they vouch for the lone front spot, as well as Peter Odemwingie excelling in a position out wide. Indeed, they have hit the target with 34% of their goalscoring attempts - up from 31% last term - leading to a conversion rate of 11% this term, compared to 8% when Hodgson was in charge last season.
With four different players sharing the top-scorer badge for Clarke's men, goals are coming from many different sources with some degree of consistency, and it is arguable that their success is down to the clinical nature of their attack this season compared to last.
What is more for Clarke's West Brom, they also concede more shots per game (16.3) than they did last term (15.6). The difference is minimal, but does make sense with the team leaving themselves vulnerable to opposition attacks when breaking with pace, as already mentioned. Ben Foster, between the posts for the Baggies both this season and last, has also had an impact on their success.
The former England goalkeeper saved just under 69% of the shots on target he faced last season, and it plain to see why he is so highly regarded amongst managers, players and supporters alike. Yet more impressively, Foster has improved on that rate this term, upping his rate to a formidable 75%. Thus, Steve Clarke's West Brom leave themselves open to more shots from their opponents, but his arrival has also coincided with a fortunate upturn in form in the man between the sticks.
While Steve Clarke enjoys the praise that comes with riding high in the European places, it should be considered that there is a valid argument that says yes, he has improved results at the Hawthorns, but he has not overshadowed his predecessor in terms of performance and style. Of course, fifth in the league after 11 games for West Brom is an achievement in itself, but West Brom have not improved as markedly as their league position suggests.