It is 11.30am on a blustery morning at West Bromwich Albion’s training ground and Carlos Corberán is marching down the pitch with a ball under one arm and whistle in his hand.
“Excellent,” he purrs, nodding in approval as his players execute an intense pressing drill, and it soon becomes clear that Corberán is a head coach who is extremely hands-on.
The training pitch is where he springs into life and Telegraph Sport has been given exclusive access to observe the highly regarded Spaniard in full flow, before a packed schedule of matches.
A self-confessed disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, after working under the Argentine at Leeds, Corberán is a fascinating character and football obsessive who has transformed the culture across the club.
He is also emerging as a leader in a time of uncertainty; an emblem of hope for a fanbase that has become disillusioned and frustrated with the club’s direction.
West Brom are still under the control of unpopular owner Guochuan Lai and remain in talks with a number of parties over a potential sale, with a Nigerian and American group thought to be the two front-runners.
The valuation is understood to be around £30 million, plus the various debts and money owed in loans. Sources have confirmed negotiations are “moving”.
‘Being a coach is a dream’
Corberán faces uncertainty if a takeover is not completed soon, with pressure to raise money through player sales in the January transfer window.
Try telling that to him, though. The 40-year-old is refusing to allow any outside noise to damage the team spirit he has created. Whatever is happening behind the scenes, ‘King Carlos’ will be in every day until 8pm, plotting a path back to the Premier League.
“Being a coach is a dream, and I cannot be more proud than I am to represent this massive club,” he says. “Before I worked here, it was one of the clubs that caught my attention, but now being here I realise how important it is.
“You live with a lot of responsibility because you know how much you’re impacting the club and the fans. I want to put this club at the highest point and give my best for them.”
‘It’s all about finding solutions’
This is a rare opportunity to witness the meticulous preparations and extreme detail of Corberán, who has guided West Brom up to third in the Championship.
He celebrated a year in charge in October, marking the occasion by presenting every member of staff with a bottle of Estrella beer (last Christmas it was a bottle of red wine from Valencia).
We were invited to attend last Thursday, ahead of the game against high-flying Ipswich, and Corberán has called a 10.30am team meeting before the players start training. Meetings are the norm here, with another after training. The day before matches, every player is seen individually for 15 minutes each.
Corberán’s meetings and training sessions are absolutely crucial in outlining his philosophy to the squad.
His training method is based around periodisation – a strategy in four phases of attack, defence and the transitions in between – with the emphasis on shorter, sharper sessions and the workload usually decreasing nearer to match day.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are more detailed, longer sessions broken down into analytical training with defending and attacking drills, plus small-sided games.
Corberán prefers to operate with a squad of 20 and, in the session we observe, all outfield positions have two players effectively shadowing each other.
Thursday’s session focused in more detail on how to exploit Ipswich’s perceived weaknesses. Corberán prefers to operate with a 4-2-3-1 formation but, in this game, set up with a 4-4-2 deep shape. The plan was to target, press and isolate Ipswich’s right-back Brandon Williams, as left-back Leif Davis is often higher up the pitch with one winger wide. Pressing when out of possession was vital.
It clearly worked, with West Brom winning 2-0 and sentencing their opponents to a first league defeat since August 26.
“Football is growing and the coaches have a big understanding of the game. It’s getting more difficult to prepare but it’s all about finding solutions,” says Corberán.
“It’s important that when players go out on the pitch they don’t feel they need to give the right answer every time.
“Training can help us to create habits and positive behaviours, that is why our level of concentration is so high. Everyone needs to know everything that is going to be demanded in the game.”
Every player knows his job
Corberán’s squad is a mix of experience and emerging talent, which includes captain Jed Wallace, highly rated striker Brandon Thomas-Asante, goalkeeper Alex Palmer and playmaker John Swift.
There are high hopes for Caleb Taylor, the 20-year-old son of former Birmingham defender Martin and the latest academy graduate.
“Aggression” and “intensity” are two words Corberán regularly uses as he delivers instructions. Every player knows his job and if the team loses at the weekend, it will not be down to a lack of preparation.
Along with his coaches, another key member of Corberán’s backroom staff is Tony Strudwick, Albion’s director of medical and a former head of performance with England and Manchester United.
Strudwick works closely with Corberán in developing the weekly schedule, with every player’s fitness levels and statistics captured by GPS trackers. Players are weighed every day, and were asked to send through personal reports while away during the recent international break.
The mission is always to out-run the opposition and West Brom have one of the fittest squads in a highly competitive league. The team’s average distance per match is 112km (including the goalkeeper and centre-halves, who do less running).
Fitness and athleticism is fundamental to Corberán’s explosive, high-energy game.
Corberán idolising Benítez
The manager’s influence also stretches to the training ground canteen: bread, tomato ketchup and a number of other processed carbohydrates have been removed.
As you walk towards the players’ dressing room, there is a slogan on the wall that perfectly captures his approach.
“If people are doubting how far you can go, go so far that you can’t hear them any more,” it reads.
A former goalkeeper, Corberán has been waiting for these moments ever since idolising Rafael Benítez during his tenure with Liverpool.
Corberán established his reputation in this country working with Leeds’ under-23s and then the first team. He still speaks regularly to Bielsa and describes the relationship as “a privilege”.
In his first job as a No 1, he guided Huddersfield Town to the Championship play-off final, which they lost to Nottingham Forest. Yet it is at West Brom where he feels most at home, and his impact has been significant.
After missing out on the play-offs on the final day of last season, hopes are high that this time he can go further.
On Saturday his team face another test with the visit of league leaders Leicester to the Hawthorns. As usual, ‘King Carlos’ will leave no stone unturned.