In the first of a series of articles looking at various clubs' fortunes over the past season, James Baxter assesses West Brom's new status as "best of the rest"
At 3-0 and 5-2 down to Manchester United last Sunday, West Bromwich Albion's season looked to be slipping quietly away. Defeats to Wigan and Norwich in the preceding weeks had given the impression of a team keener to help relegate local rivals Aston Villa than produce a strong end to their own campaign.
Now their final fixture would be remembered for nothing other than their generous hosting of Alex Ferguson's farewell party. But the dramatic last ten minutes were fitting – a reminder to any doubters of what a creditable 2012-13 it has been.
It is true, as Steve Clarke has said several times over the past few weeks, that much of Albion's good work this season was done in its early stages. After winning 4-2 at Sunderland, the team had already gained more than half its final tally of points, from just a third of its fixtures. There were two significant features of Albion's performances from August to November.
Firstly, Clarke's "plan A" often worked. This involved keeping things tight for the first hour or so of games before hitting opponents hard towards the end. The 2-0 win over Everton in early September was perhaps the best illustration. Secondly, the team rarely faltered in games they were expected to win. Previous Albion teams would have lost at home to at least one of Reading, QPR or Southampton. Clarke's men disposed of all three in reasonable comfort.
Conversely, it should be a matter of some concern that Albion only gained 23 points from their last 25 matches. But even here, it's possible to look beyond the statistics and find things to be encouraged about. Clarke's "plan B" was more often needed during this phase of the season. Indeed, there were times, as in home games against Villa and Newcastle, when Albion were outplayed in the first-half only to turn things round in the second with a frenetic, almost gung-ho, intensity. They were able to come up with surprising results at unexpected times as well, the best example being a 2-0 win at Liverpool, which followed a run of eight winless fixtures. In this context, the Manchester United result appears a little less startling.
In short, the season has to be regarded as a success. Albion finished eighth, their highest position in English football's hierarchy since 1980-81. That fact itself, however, raises concerns. As Clarke has also said, it means that they are effectively the "best of the rest", the leader of a group of teams who are likely to find it almost impossible to penetrate the established order of big clubs.
The United game also illustrated one or two other things that have been of concern recently. The first was the extent to which Romelu Lukaku – Chelsea's player, as we are constantly reminded – augments the attack. The strikers who are under contract at The Hawthorns, such as Shane Long, will need to supply more goals next season. Defensive performances have been mixed too. There are few worries about player of the year Gareth McAuley but the likes of Jonas Olsson and Liam Ridgewell have been looking vulnerable.
There will be changes to the Albion squad before next season and we still cannot be sure how much former technical director Dan Ashworth will be missed. But fans, provided they are realistic enough to accept what Clarke says about the difficulties of cracking the top six, should feel reassured. The team might not improve on eighth place in the next year or two but Albion still give the impression of a club who have found their niche in the top-flight.