• Rickylee Poulton

BAGS OF ISSUES: WHY HAS IT ALL GONE WRONG FOR VALERIEN ISMAEL?


It is safe to say that at the time of writing that most West Brom fans would have liked to see Valerian Ismael out of a job before todays game against Millwall.


With the Baggies currently sitting fifth in the Sky Bet Championship table, having broken the record of most home games unbeaten this season, and having their best start to a league campaign not so many months ago, why is this?


Brought in for his high pressing football philosophy most Albion fans will be wondering where it has all gone wrong for the ex-Barnsley manager and his beloved 3-4-3.


In this article I will take a look into what I believe to be the fundamental issues at the Hawthorns right now.


Ismael’s Influence


West Brom broke the usual managerial mold in the summer, paying £2 million to Barnsley for a manager who nearly completed the unthinkable at the Yorkshire club as he guided them into the playoffs despite them being 21st when he took over on game week 8.


The appointment of Valerian Ismael garnered a mixed reaction from the West Brom fans with some not liking his (perceived) boring style of play with others excited to see a clear vision of how to play football being instilled at a team which had lacked direction for so many years.


One of the first worrying signs for Ismael was what most would deem a poor transfer window which saw £0 pound in transfer fees with the club instead opting for freebies (Alex Mowatt, Adam Reach and Kean Bryan) and loan deals (Jayson Molumby, Matt Clarke and Jordan Hugill).


This was a cause for concern for the majority of Albion fans, as for a long-term project to work, the board needs to back their manager.


Mix that in with the fact that the Baggies star player Matheus Pereira had left for a total of £16 million, and the question most fans were asking was, where has the money gone?




Despite this significant lack of investment, West Brom got off to a flying start as they became record breakers for the first time this season and went on a 10-league match unbeaten run.


They played a unique way of football that few fans had seen before. Pressing high constantly, quick transitions and the long throws opposition teams began to fear so much, it felt like this was an Albion team that you could truly get behind.


The players were working hard, the manager was showing passion, seen sprinting down the touchline to celebrate a late winner against Peterborough, a real sense of excitement began to build.


Unfortunately, this was as good as it got for Ismael's men as in that Peterborough game a shift could be felt for the Baggies, there tactics had been found out!


Ismael is known for his strict footballing philosophy; a main feature of this philosophy is an almost insane desire to play a 3-4-3. Whilst it is a good formation, it has problems with being overrun in midfield.


Peterborough against Albion played 5-3-2 in a deep block, causing Albion a lot of problems for multiple reasons. First being, Peterborough playing to frustrate. Time wasting at any given opportunity and not attempting to play from the back or gain any territory in the West Brom half.


The second issue for Albion was that due to them playing a 3 in midfield it was often too crowded to create any chances through the centre of the pitch, leaving the baggies with only one real option within the 3-4-3 formation. This was to go out wide and try and attempt a high volume of crosses. The main issue with this is that West Brom’s front 3 on the day (Matt Phillips, Karlan Grant and Grady Diangana) were not suited to winning headers from high balls into the box and for 89 minutes Peterborough looked comfortable with their man mountains at the back winning any ball that came their way, up until that dramatic Semi Ajayi winner which led to Valerien Ismael sprinting to the players in passion.


However, despite West Brom coming out with 3 points on the day, Peterborough had laid down the foundation for stopping this West Brom team. What has followed in the months after this has been described as turgid and poor by a large section of the Baggies fanbase.


Since then, multiple teams have followed the Peterborough formula with Derby, Preston, and Middlesbrough all taking points from Albion using the same 5-3-2 formation.


All these frustrations finally boiled over to a 2-0 defeat to Preston last night where Albion were played off the park by a team sitting 13th in the table. It was a horrible night for all West Brom supporters whether they loved Ismael or hated him as a dull Hawthorns stadium was made worse by the display of the team out on the pitch. It was a truly awful performance made worse by the atmosphere at the ground chants for Slaven Bilic to come back and to get Ismael out rung round the stadium as it rose to what was probably the loudest the crowd has been all season.


In truth West Brom were never really in the game, slow to every second ball, poor whenever they did break out of the Preston press and players visibly going against the instructions of the manager with Conor Townsend refusing to play from the back and instead telling the keeper to play long.


Both goals for Preston on the night were almost comical with the defence just not seeming to even try and get the ball. Slow reactions and a lack of effort were visible as the ball deflected off the boot of an Albion defender and into the path of Emil Riis Jakobsen.


The worst thing was the lack of reaction from the Albion fans, players, and manager. As if everyone expected the goal to come and instead of anger, a sense of resignation went around the ground.


Even after the goal, Albion had a lot of play but never looked like scoring and the game was crying out for a change in system that did not come.


Preston's second goal, by the head of an Aston Villa loanee, Cameron Archer, (who, incidentally, played for Albion’s youth teams in the same age group as Garnder and Hickman) sealed the fate of the game. With not a single shot on target against Preston and another missed opportunity to gain ground on those above the majority of fans had seen enough of Ismael and his 3-4-3.


As effective as the 3-4-3 has been in defensive transition up to this point and how it has shown glimpses of how effective it can be if used correctly. With a 3-0 win over Peterborough still fresh in the memory of Albion fans in which the baggies created 4 xg and limited Peterborough to just 0.07.


Despite their obvious underperformance on the pitch and lack of any real creative flair, Albion this season sit 2nd in the xg table and have the 2nd best defence in the league statistically.

Albion have also broken two club records and were unbeaten at home up until the last home game of January.


Aswell as this, the process of creating a pathway from the academy to the first team is a huge bonus for the club as in recent years young talent has been lured away from Albion.


Academy


Nathan Ferguson, Louie Barry, Morgan Rogers, Fin Azzaz and Tim Iroegbunam are names most West Brom fans now all too well, exciting young talent some supposedly soon to be in the first team yet only one went on to make a league appearance in blue and white. Why is this? It’s a question a lot of Albion fans have asked but seemingly none have had an answer to. To me the issue seemed simple bar Kyle Edwards, Rekeem harper, Dara o shea and Nathan Ferguson how many of their fellow academy teammates did they see make it into the first team? The short answer is not enough. In 20218 West Brom had a potential golden generation within their reach exciting young players such as Sam field (QPR), Jonathan Leko (Charlton), Tyler Roberts (Leeds), Kyle Edwards and Rekeem Harper (both of Ipswich) were coming through the academy. 4 years on and none of them are still at the club. Take Tyler Roberts for example, currently playing for premier league Leeds united after being forced out by one of the many footballing dinosaurs the club has employed in recent years Alan Pardew.

The problem with the academy at West Brom is not a lack of ability it is a lack of faith.


Ismael looks set to change this by implementing a philosophy throughout the club by making sure the under 23s play the same system as the first team in order to make sure they are tuned into the tactical requirements of the first team if called upon. And within the first 6 months of his reign the baggies are beginning to reap the rewards as young winger Taylor-Gardner Hickman saw himself converted into a right wing back this season under Ismael and it's safe to say He has looked at home in his new position with a man of the match performance against hull city on his league debut. A benefit that wouldn’t have been expected from Ismael is the versatility amongst the youth with Gardner Hickman already playing in 4 different positions this season and excelling all but left wing. Ismaels influence on the academy so far looks to be nothing but positive.


This is absolutely crucial for Albion if they are to stick with the academy model as young Baggies need to see that they will be given an opportunity to get into the first team. It may just get them to stay that season longer and not give into the temptation of jumping ship.


Atmosphere



The Hawthorns is not a nice place to be right now. A place with such rich history within the beautiful game has turned toxic, boos every half time and chants for Ismael out leaves many supporters wondering if the damage done is irreversible. Following the covid- 19 pandemic football was played behind closed doors meaning that the Albion fans missed out on two things, being at the Hawthorns for the day they were promoted and the premier league season where it was clear than the players could do with a boost from their fans. With fans returning this season may expected the best atmospheres football had seen for a while seeing as fans had spent so long without being able to watch their team, for most teams this was true with a football having a good feeling for those enjoying decent seasons. But for Albion it’s been a different story, even when results were good at the start of the season the hawthorns wasn’t exactly bouncing. For opposition fans they may be confused as to why Albion fans are so aggrieved at home this season as they were unbeaten at home until recently and even still only have 1 home loss this season, yet we are seeing more empty seats than ever before. A major issue for the support this season is that the players need a lift from the fans and the fans need a lift from the players, however neither looks like happening without the other. Most fans would point the reason to the poor support as being down to the dire brand of football being played on the pitch. Whether that be because teams look to sit in and frustrate the Albion or due to their own passing problems most games at the Hawthorns this season have been boring and it can sometimes feel like you are watching the same game over and over again with the same formation being played and the same substitutions on 60 minutes; it is for the most part uninspiring and this is being reflected in the lack of noise coming from the baggies faithful.



Ownership


23rd November 2021


Blackpool 0-0 west Brom


“Sack the board” booms from the Albion away end as the significant lack of footballing intelligence and investment reared its head after a 3rd game without a win. Frustration on the pitch with missed chances and frustration off it with the Albion fans seeing just how far the club had fallen firsthand.


On the night Albion did not play too badly and deserved the win but it was visible that the squad was and had been in need of additions for a long time.


The lack of a clinical forward was more obvious than ever with Albion creating 2.4 xg on the night and not managing to score a goal.


However, this season has not been the only time that West Broms board have come under scrutiny. Controlling shareholder, Guochuan Lai visited England for the first time since 2019. In the December of this season, he held talks with Valerian Ismael over how the Frenchman's vision had been progressing. Since then, Albion have signed Daryl Dike for £7 million, a real statement of intent from the Chinese owner.


Looking at that deal 26 days on, Daryl Dike has been injured and still not a soul has come in or out of the club. It seems that a statement was all it was and unless Albion find some money in the next 4 days, they will be going into the second half of the season still without a striker.


Guochuan Lai took over the club in 2016 and has overseen a spell in which Albion fell from a stable mid table team to the classic yoyo club of old.


In just the last 2 years Lai has sold Ahmed Hegazi under the nose of Slaven Bilic, failed to put a head of recruitment in place and seen that there are no footballing minds at the club.


With Xu Ken being put in place as technical director, never having experience in football beforehand, It is understood that Lai wont sell West Brom for any less than £200 million. This is unrealistic for a championship club seemingly in decline. This Is understood to be the reason West Brom signed Daryl Dike in the first place as Lai believes that to get £200 million for the club they must be established in the Premier League. As it stands, promotion looks highly unlikely and without a proper management system at the club with actual football minds, things are not looking much better for the Baggies.




Squad


West Broms issues on the pitch stem back far before Ismael and will most likely continue beyond him if he is to be sacked.


Back in the initial Covid-19 lockdown, all teams had been given a fitness plan to follow in lockdown and be ready for whatever the post lockdown situation would be.


This was a major prelude to the issues within the West Brom dressing room as the squad liked Bilic mainly due to how relaxed he was about fitness. The fact that Albion were flying high in the championship at the time led Slaven Bilic to be more relaxed on the fitness schedule the Albion players were following. This is believed to be the main factor in Albion’s collapse post lockdown which saw them nearly drop into the playoffs if not for Brantford losing to Stoke and Barnsley.


This led to the relationship between Bilic and the board worsening and his eventual sacking.

The domino effect caused by a man most Albion fans loved stemmed from the toxic dressing room at the club.


Fast forward to the end of the Premier League season with Sam Allardyce taking charge.

The power dynamic in the dressing room was enough to make him want to quit football forever.


For Valerian Ismael, the problems are rearing their ugly heads once again. Obvious lack of commitment from players, senior members of the squad (such as Snodgrass and Johnstone) arguing with their manager make a recipe for the disaster, not just for Valerian Ismael, but for the club and it’s future.


The signing of Daryl Dike, a young American forward who almost guarantees goals, would not have happened if Ismael were not in charge so even if he is sacked soon, he will have at least left the Baggies a classic number 9 who fans will no doubt grow to love if he can just maintain scoring goals at half the rate he is doing currently.


Solution


The solution for Albion is not simple, as there is not one solution. A lot of people want Ismael gone, but in that case who comes in, and does anything really change?


In the past few months, with an owner unwilling to sell unless the team is stable and in the Premier League it leaves a complex set of problems.


I believe there are multiple ways of going about this.


From the owner's perspective, sacking the manager and replacing him with an ex-player like Chris Brunt or Morrison for example would give the club a feel-good vibe that it has been missing since August.


Of course, that is not a long-term solution but would perhaps help appease some of the fans.

The other, more sustainable route that would, perhaps, not go down so well with the fans is to allow Ismael to build a recruitment system and a team of footballing minds around him to help him and allow his project to be completed.


It would be a substantial risk but potentially incredibly highly rewarding as a data driven approach has worked at clubs with lower budgets than what Albion (should) have at their disposal.


If Ismael is allowed to see his vision through, I personally could see two situations.


One, where parachute payments are gone, and we are a mid-table championship club and the other where Albion are stable in the Premier League playing an exciting but solid brand of pressing football.


When Ismael joined, I was nervously excited and I have a similar feeling now, although Ismael is not blameless, the issue is at the core of this club, and we will not see a long-term change without a stable managerial situation.