A lot has happened at the Hawthorns since my last article in a summer full of controversy and upheaval for West Bromwich Albion. Of course, it hasn’t all finished with the futures of key assets Matheus Pereira and Sam Johnstone still unresolved and, with the season just a few days away, how ready is the club to rise to another promotion challenge?
When Sam Allardyce announced that he was going to leave the club at the end of last season, the hunt for a new head coach was launched, with Sporting and Technical Director, Luke Dowling, heading up the search team. By the time Valérien Ismaël was appointed a month after the end of the season, Dowling was gone and the club was in apparent disarray.
While the long term outcome of that turbulent month is yet to be seen, the club has been making more of the right noises since the Frenchman was appointed. Dowling’s position undoubtedly became untenable when his first choice of head coach, Chris Wilder, was vetoed by the absent owner, Guochuan Lai, and his second, David Wagner, opted to take a job in Switzerland. It left the club without any football experience at board level but, just ten days later, the board made what looks to be a very astute appointment.
Ismaël’s early managerial experience in the lower reaches of German football and a one game spell in Greece were nothing to write home about, and did little to suggest that he would be a successful head coach. However, at Austrian club, LASK, he came to the fore as he guided them to their first ever appearance in European football losing to Manchester United in the last sixteen of the Europa League. If that was impressive, his performance at Barnsley was remarkable. Under his leadership, the Tykes earned 75 points from 40 games last season which, had it been repeated over the full season, would have seen them pushing Brentford for third spot.
Interestingly, given Dowling’s departure, Ismaël also acted as the Sporting Director at LASK and was also the senior football man at Oakwell. That, coupled with Ken’s statement that he will “reassess how our football operation functions” suggests that the club may not look to replace Dowling, although they have appointed former Reading and Chelsea chief executive, Ron Gourlay, as a consultant to assist Ismaël and Head of Recruitment, Ian Pearce, in managing the summer transfer window. Gourlay may not be a popular figure with Reading fans, but I suspect he has been brought in for his experience in negotiations rather than a talent scout.
I think it is fair to say that Dowling’s spell at the club cannot to be considered a success. Appointed in September 2018, he presided over three permanent head coaches and his record in the transfer market was mixed at best. For me, however, it was the lack of consistency in the style of play that was his biggest failing, most aptly demonstrated by the switch from Slaven Bilić to Sam Allardyce last season.
Ismaël’s arrival may herald a change of approach for the club. In Ken’s statement on the day, he acknowledged the failure of a short term outlook in recent years, and suggested that the appointment of the Frenchman is part of a new long term vision. They are only words at this point, but if they are backed up by actions, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Some fans may demand instant success, but a long term consistent approach to how the club is run and how the team plays is key to the long term improvement of the club as a whole.
The new Head Coach does represent a change in footballing style, but that is far easier to do in pre-season and, if it is the plan to stick with a high pressing approach in the longer term, then you have to start at some point. It is certainly “en vogue” at the moment, and if the club adopt the approach across all age groups and stick to it irrespective of the head coach, it could prove to be a positive long term strategy.
So while the non-playing staff situation is settling down, there is still a lot to resolve itself as regards the on-field talent. The concern remains more about what hasn’t happened rather than what has. There seems little to complain about as regards the signings of Alex Mowatt, Matt Clarke, Quevin Castro and Adam Reach, but Albion are still short of a striker, and full back cover. More of a concern is that the two players expected to leave the club, Sam Johnstone and Matheus Pereira, are no closer to an exit and it would seem that the funds their sales would raise are needed for Ismaël to further strengthen the squad.
While Johnstone returned early from a summer with the England squad and kept his head down, his Brazilian teammate has opted to take to social media in response to the new Head Coach questioning his commitment. I suspect that the tone of the response was down to a misunderstanding of what the Frenchman said. Ismaël used the word “commitment” to describe Pereira’s desire to leave the club while the player seems to have taken it as a sleight to his professionalism in training, something that Ismaël had previously praised him for.
While I can understand the Brazilian’s frustration, he should not expect the club to let him go for less than his worth and remember that he signed a four year contract less than 12 months ago. Similarly, I can understand why Ismaël has not involved him in the first team preparations – we all expect him to leave the team needs to prepare for that. Pereira’s outburst seems unlikely to help his situation and,it will inevitably sour his relationship with Albion fans. However, it does not entirely spoil it for me – I feel privileged to have watched him play for my team.
While Pereira’s relationship with the Head Coach has deteriorated, Ismaël has succeeded in re-invigorating some players that were marginalised by his predecessor, Sam Allardyce. Jake Livermore, Karlan Gant and Grady Diangana have all impressed in pre-season and, as skipper, Livermore has been very vocal on how impressed he has been with the new boss, voiced along with some veiled jabs at Big Sam. However, with Matt Phillips having been used as a central striker, it seems clear that Ismaël has come to same conclusion as his predecessors that Ken Zohore just doesn’t cut it.
Pre-season has passed without conceding a goal and concluded with a comfortable 4-0 with over Birmingham City. The players seem to be responding to Ismaël’s methods and keeping so many clean sheets is evidently impressive, but they haven’t really been tested with their only game against a club from a higher division being a 0-0 draw with newly-promoted Watford.
And so to the question posed in the title of this article – are Albion ready? I guess the simple answer is “not as ready as they would like”.
The lack of a new striker on the books is obviously a concern, but Grant and Diangana are proven goalscorers at this level and Albion proved two years ago that you can win promotion without a prolific front man, although it is an issue I’m sure they will look to address. As I mentioned earlier, I think they need some additional cover at full back, although the 3-4-3 formation that Ismaël prefers means that you have the option of playing a wide midfielder at wing back.
In reality, Albion won’t be ready until the closure of the transfer window and the squad is fully assembled – even then, late signings will undoubtedly need time to get up to speed with the intensity that the new man demands meaning that the season could be six or seven games old before everyone is fully on board.
It’s the same for everyone, however, and a COVID-subdued transfer market means that there are very few clubs that have done anything like the business they would like at this stage.
Personally, I think the team are in decent shape and, accepting the fact that the owner will not be putting any more money in, there’s not much more the club could have done given the state of the transfer market. With games against promotion rivals Bournemouth and Sheffield United to come very early on, Albion can only hope their preparations are at least as advanced as their opponents.
Whether the team are ready or not, the fans are certainly ready to get back to attending games again. That alone is enough to raise the excitement levels for this new season – let’s hope that Baggies can keep those levels high!