West Bromwich Albion have made a fine start to the season in the Premier League, a well-deserved 2-0 victory over Southampton seeing them climb up to 5th after 10 games.
The Baggies’ home form has been excellent: 5 wins from 6 games, the sole defeat at the Hawthorns against champions Manchester City. Steve Clarke’s appointment has brought continuity to the side, and with some shrewd signings the early signs are that West Brom can realistically look to match or perhaps even improve on last season’s 10th place finish under Roy Hodgson.
Clarke has many talented players at his disposal. Peter Odemwingie, Romelu Lukaku (on loan from Chelsea) and Shane Long have been making headlines for their goalscoring exploits, while at the back Jonas Olsson and Ben Foster are two rocks upon which solid foundations are gradually being built.
However it is in the engine room where two more understated players have excelled, giving WBA the platform for their highly encouraging start and allowing fans to gleefully bellow out ‘pride of the Midlands’ from cold, wind-swept terraces across the nation.
Mulumbu and Yacob – WBA’s blossoming midfield partnership
Playing as the two in a 4-2-3-1 system, Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob have shown early signs that a midfield partnership of real promise may be starting to blossom.
West Brom fans are already familiar with Mulumbu. His performances since joining in 2009 have distinguished him as one of the Baggies’ best players, and in 2010/11 the DR Congo international was voted by both supporters and players as Albion’s player of the year.
Mulumbu offers drive, energy and strength from midfield and although the former PSG player can play well in a more rigid defensive midfield role, he gets forward well and is better when allowed freedom from the shackles of sitting deep.
Claudio Yacob however is a new name to both the Hawthorns and indeed the Premier League, having joined in the summer from Racing Club de Avellaneda in Argentina on a free transfer, in what already looks like an absolute bargain.
Thus far Yacob has proved a glowing confirmation of West Brom’s flourishing scouting network and the work of departing sporting and technical director Dan Ashworth, who is leaving to take up the role of director of elite development at the FA.
The Argentine has slotted in almost instantly at the Hawthorns and has already become a hit with fans for his outstanding defensive midfield displays.
Playing in what is mythically known as the número cinco role in Yacob’s homeland, the 25-year-old former Racing captain keeps it simple, composed and effective in possession; his pass completion statistics in the final third up to mid-October were the 3rd best in the entire division, behind only Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman.
Despite his cool on the ball Yacob also possesses a mean streak and can be ferocious in the tackle when necessary. Ben Foster, for one, is impressed:
“He’s amazing,” Foster told West Brom’s official website. “He came into training on the first day and he’s exactly like he is now. He doesn’t say a word, he comes in and just opens up and smashes everyone in training.”
“He’s a little live wire. He’s that guy in front of you that, if the opposition break on us and we look like we might be a bit exposed, gets the tackles or blocks in. It’s great when you have someone like that – it’s dependability really. He’s Mr Reliable.”
West Brom 2-0 Southampton – Mulumbu and Yacob shine together
Foster makes some interesting observations, and if we assess the 2-0 win over Southampton using Statszone analysis we can see evidence of both Yacob’s early impact at WBA and the increasingly fruitful partnership between the Argentinian and Congolese duo (as wonderful an indicator as any of the Premier League’s cosmopolitan chic).
As he has done in almost every game this season, Yacob won the vast majority of tackles he attempted. In fact against Southampton he won 100% of 6 tackles attempted, doing justice to Foster’s nicknaming him the ‘Silent Assassin':
While he can vary his passing, Yacob does have a preferred option – to midfield partner Mulumbu. In all but two of the nine games he’s played for West Brom so far, he has passed the ball on to Mulumbu more than any other teammate. Whether this is out of habit or a specific tactical instruction, it allows Mulumbu to push forward into more advanced positions, link play and create, while Yacob sits deep and screens.
The net result of Yacob’s introduction to the team therefore is a more expansive Mulumbu, who can receive the ball further forward and make more attacking third passes. A comparison of where Mulumbu received the ball in the 2-1 defeat at Newcastle – where Yacob didn’t play – and the win over Southampton shows Mulumbu receiving possession higher up the pitch when his new partner in crime is around:
With the security provided by Yacob, not to mention service, Mulumbu has become more potent an attacking threat. Already this season he has had 15 shots in 10 Premier League games – 47% of the 32 shots he managed in the whole of last season (in 35 games played) and 60% of the total number of shots he managed in 2010/11 (25).
Against Southampton Yacob was the yin to Mulumbu’s yang, allowing the man West Brom fans sing is ‘better than Kaka’ to penetrate further forward and create chances including the assist for Odemwingie’s first goal:
“Having those two in [midfield] allows you to be a little bit more expansive in forward areas,” Steve Clarke commented in pre-season, and already that looks the case. The Baggies now have 15 goals so far this campaign; well on course to beating last season’s tally of 45.
Claudio Yacob and Youssouf Mulumbu’s performance against Southampton demonstrated evidence of a very promising partnership emerging at the Hawthorns, one that could help push West Bromwich Albion to new heights this season.
And to think, together they cost a combined total of £175,000.
(photo credit: Wagsy Wheeler via Flickr)