Steve Clarke adopting the spirit of José Mourinho

November 24, 2012

Steve Clarke has built his success at West Bromwich on the tactical principles of José Mourinho’s Chelsea side of 2004-2006.

If Sir Alex Ferguson is often credited for inspiring new managers, José Mourinho’s legacy is one of quality rather than quantity. Following André Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, Steve Clarke is the latest former ally to step out of the shadows.

Although Clarke, Mourinho’s assistant at Chelsea, has worked under various managers, his style most resembles that of the Portuguese – certainly more so than Villas-Boas (former scout) and Rodgers (ex-reserve team coach), whose attacking mantra differs from the Special One’s win-at-all-costs mentality.

Taking charge of West Bromwich this season, Clarke has adopted several tactical features from Mourinho’s old Chelsea side, which won consecutive titles through a dynamic, high-tempo 4-3-3 system based on solid organisation and intelligent counter-attacks. Clarke prefers a 4-2-3-1, but further dissimilarities are hard to find.

Organisation

There is one thing Mourinho’s former and current staff often highlight when asked about his strengths, and Clarke is no different: “His preparation for training and matches was on another level to what I’d ever seen. His attention to detail was extraordinary.” While it is difficult for us to grasp what these details are, their importance is unlikely to have escaped the Scot, and his side appear prepared, focused and tactically intelligent (though some credit must go to Roy Hodgson for instilling a sound defensive structure).

WBA’s set-up against Sunderland

Translating this onto the pitch, West Bromwich are a tight unit that usually covers the space from their own penalty area to the half-way line. The back-four is narrow, the full-backs can defend and the wingers usually track back.

They are always in balance, and the holding midfielders, Claudio Yacob and James Morrison, are rarely in a position from which they cannot recover. This gives West Bromwich six players on the right side, which is another Mourinho trait; when leading, his Chelsea side often attacked with four men – Frank Lampard, the two wingers and Didier Drogba – leaving six behind.

Quick, short passes

West Bromwich’s passing style is interlinked with their defensive security. The combinations are quick, tidy and hold a high-tempo, but are always made safely. The risk is low (low ‘creative freedom’ for FM geeks). This demands from the players agility, focus and movement, but little invention. Importantly, Yacob and Morrison are good on the ball, preventing mistakes from occurring in the defensive midfield zone.

Clarke also keeps the players concentrated to create small triangles (which 4-2-3-1 is perfect for), which again makes combinations easier. During more direct attacks, the players quickly find the three attacking midfielders, which venture ‘between the lines’, for then to play through Shane Long whose off-the-ball movement is excellent.

As a final point; although West Bromwich are predominantly a counter-attacking side, lead by what can appear to be a gritty Scot, midfielders such as Morrison, Yacob, Chris Brunt and Zoltán Gera are all technically sound and easily capable of keeping West Bromwich in possession for shorter periods. It’s not all defending.

Transitions

As seasoned Mourinho observes know, the Portuguese is obsessed with transitions and views them as the area where games are won and lost. Some insight on this is provided by Zlatan Ibrahimović in his autobiography. “They are important seconds. In such situations, a single unexpected manoeuvre or a tiny tactical mistake can be decisive, and Mourinho studied this more thoroughly than anyone else in football. He got the players to think quickly and analytically.”

Clarke has clearly picked up on this, and West Bromwich’s counter-attacks are intelligent indeed. His side often win the ball relatively deep, but instead of punting it long, they combine through three to four quick, short passes, just to ease off the opponent’s immediate pressure (which most sides assert to win the ball back quickly). Once a player has time, a pass will find either an on-rushing midfielder or Shane Long moving into the channels.

It is worth noting that most of Mourinho’s counter-attacks at Real Madrid feature the striker drifting into wide positions (often to exploit the space left behind by a full-back), particularly when Karim Benzema plays, and Long’s role is similar. This drags central defenders into uncomfortable zones, and leaves space for the midfielders to storm into – providing they are quick, focused and reactive enough to get ahead of the opponent’s midfielders. The process is sophisticated – and the level of detail is probably beyond what we can imagine. Typical Mourinho. Typical Clarke.