All is not perfect at West Bromwich Albion, but if you performed a quick search on Twitter and other social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was a full-blown crisis at the club. Obviously, in some fans’ eyes, that is exactly what it is, but I think it is time for a reality check to fully appreciate where the club is and what we, as Baggies fans, should expect.
Firstly, I must point out that I am far from satisfied with Albion’s current situation, both in terms of our performances this season and in terms of the overall direction of the club over the past five years. I am not a “happy clapper” as some would term anyone who would prefer to get behind their club rather than criticise but, despite recent below par results, I do not see a benefit to sacking Valérien Ismaël at this stage of the season. Moreover, while events could easily make me look stupid very quickly, I do not think that particular nuclear button will be pushed any time soon.
In this opinion piece, which turned out to be longer than I had originally anticipated, I seek to explain why I believe that Big Val is not about to be sacked and, moreover, why I think he shouldn’t be.
Long term appointment
My principal reason for believing that Big Val’s job is not under pressure just yet is that it would go completely against the rationale behind the decision to appoint him. While I don’t necessary credit the club hierarchy with a huge amount of football know-how, no one in their right mind would pay £2m to secure a head coach from his previous club, hand him a four year contract and then sack him less than four months into a new season with the club in the top four.
Furthermore, the club’s CEO, Xu Ke (aka Ken), made one of the very few pronouncements of his tenure at the time saying “I am confident that by working together we will be able to achieve our goal of returning to the Premier League, but success is earned by building on strong foundations, and our plans must now look further into the future. For too long we have focused only on what is immediately in front of us. This means we have often neglected our long-term aspirations.” That suggests to me that Ken is planning on giving Ismaël more time than one transfer window and twenty games.
Obviously, he isn’t calling all the shots and Guoachan Lai, assuming he remains the majority shareholder, could step in as he did when blocking the appointment of Chris Wilder thereby triggering Luke Dowling’s departure, and if the rumours of unrest in the dressing room prove to be true, such an intervention may be more likely, but I personally feel that is unlikely. Financially, it would be a massive hit and it would also be admitting to a big mistake, something rare in Chinese culture as it is considered a show of weakness.
Having said that, the workings in the board room of the club are so veiled in secrecy that it is almost impossible to second guess what they might do. It’s not clear how they came to appoint Big Val in the first place, whether they had any advice from knowledgeable football people – despite his success with Barnsley, it was a bit left field for them to have come up with his name without some experienced help. So if someone helped in selecting him, perhaps that same person may be offering advice on what to do next.
It’s an evolution
Having outlined why I think Ismaël won’t be sacked, next onto why I don’t think he should be. The main reason is the same – I’m not blind to the drop in form and results, but it is too soon to consider getting rid of him, even without the financial implications. Even without Ken’s accompanying statement, it was obvious to me that his appointment was a long term play. The choice of a coach with a specific philosophy is necessarily a long term project and, while those that made the decision may not have realised it at the time, Val-ball was never going to suit all the players in the existing squad and, given that a complete overhaul would have been next to impossible both financially and practically in the short term, there was always going to be a gradual evolution of the playing staff which would necessarily take several transfer windows.
So how does that stack up against a desire to return to the Premier League at the earliest opportunity? On the face of it, it doesn’t unless the majority of the playing staff can adapt to the new philosophy. The early signs were promising but, as time has gone on, some key deficiencies have emerged, the most stark being the absence of a central striker attuned to play the way Val wants – the Frenchman had no doubt hoped that Ken Zohore would be able to do that, something that was quickly found to be beyond him.
Nonetheless, results up to the end of September had been good – let’s not forget that Albion were unbeaten in their first ten league games, a new club record – although there had been signs that the Baggies were struggling to break down defensive teams, although the 4-0 demolition of Cardiff City seemed to have alleviated those fears to a degree.
Since then, of course, results have dipped, some would say alarmingly. Albion took 22 points from their first ten games, a tally that saw them top the table. The next ten has seen them take just 12 points, a record that puts them 17th in the 10-game form table, and the chief reason has been the failure to score goals.
In an excellent statistical analysis in The Athletic early last week, Steve Madeley and Mark Carey highlighted how Albion’s numbers had changed over the season and the tenth game, the 4-0 win at Cardiff, looked to be something of a watershed. The difference between the rolling average of xG for and against was at its highest, while the rolling averages of pass completion percentage was at its lowest and the passes per defensive action (PPDA) number, a measure of pressing intensity was also at its best. All those statistics have returned from their extremes since then.
Average xG for is still consistently higher than the xG against, although Albion are not converting as well, while pass completion has increased markedly at the expense, to a degree, of the pressing intensity.
Statistics don’t show everything but these do match my own observations of how the tactics have altered. Early in the season, there was a definite approach to get the ball forward quickly and, while it was closer to percentage football than any football purist would like to see, it did have success although in the games against Derby, Millwall and Peterborough, it looked to be less effective as the opposition sat deep.
After those struggles, there looks to have been a conscious decision to pass the ball through midfield much more and, whether it was intentional or not, this did result in an overall drop in intensity. It was a less than subtle change in approach but, other than in the match against Bristol City, it hasn’t really had the desired effect. When we came up against teams that did not sit deep, such as Stoke City and Swansea City, the lack of pressing intensity played into the opposition’s hands and, coupled with some below par performances from individuals, the Baggies were second best and beaten.
For me, it is only in the last few matches that the intensity has started to come back, almost as if Ismaël has been looking to get back to his principles that had become diluted in recent weeks. At Blackpool, in particular, I felt Albion’s pressing was much better than it had been but they failed to capitalise on a number of decent situations when winning the ball back in the opposition half. I think that the tactics employed in the last few matches have been good, but that the players have ultimately made key mistakes in the final third either missing chances or failing to find the right final ball.
One of the main criticisms of Ismaël has been his inflexibility. I would counter that he has tweaked the approach by playing more passing football, but I accept that he is wedded to his 3-4-3 formation. However, it is not an inflexible formation and I think there have been multiple in-game variations. We’ve seen the left-sided centre back get forward, particularly when Townsend has played there, and the front three are often interchanging, switching wings and playing deeper.
The call for someone to play in the number ten role is moot, in my opinion, as the front three are given enough flexibility to to occupy that position when needed. While one of them may play centrally more often than not, it is not a fixed role, at least not with the personnel currently available. The other two generally move around, switch from one side to another and come deeper. They may not always do the right thing, but the point I am making is that I do not believe it to be a formation issue.
Having said that, the formation does not suit Grady Diangana because he is best employed very wide. Grady is at his best with chalk on his boots, able to attack an isolated full back – he is too easily crowded out when receiving the ball more centrally. The issue with Ismaël’s formation is that the width is provided by the wing backs, and he doesn’t have the defensive ability to perform that role, so he inevitably plays more centrally and struggles. I was calling for Grady to get more game time earlier in the season but, now that he has, I understand why he was being used sparingly. He is trying to adapt, and I have seen signs of him becoming stronger on the ball, but he is not there yet.
Next to the call to play a back four rather than a back three. Under Slaven Bilić, Albion played a back four with attacking full backs but, more often than not, it was only one of the full backs that attacked at any one time – there were always three defensive players. Ismaël is effectively doing the same thing and, were he to switch to a back four, the ultimate difference would be to restrict one of the wing backs and bring in a different midfielder at the expense of a central defender. The centre backs offer both aerial protection and an aerial attacking threat on set pieces, and I do not accept that a switch to a back four is inherently a more attacking line up.
A final word on tactics is to address the accusation that Val-ball is essentially “underdog football”. In some circumstances, it undoubtedly is, but given our desire to play in the Premier League, is that a bad thing? Despite a late season wobble, Albion were promoted under Bilić playing passing attacking football but, after being promoted, it was clear that the Croat’s brand of football was not going to keep them up without a massive investment in better players. It was the same under Tony Mowbray in the 2008/09 season. I would much prefer to see Albion play passing football but the reality of the club’s current situation is that a more pragmatic approach is required. It was only the introduction of a more pragmatic style under Roy Hodgson that Albion were able to bridge the gap and become an “established” Premier League team, that and some excellent work in the transfer market.
When I look at what Ismaël is trying to put in place, I see a system that could adapt better to the demands of the top flight, albeit there would need to be personnel changes to make it work. As we found out against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup, the high line is the most dangerous element of the system that would need to be tweaked, but the general principle of high intensity and high pressing is a solid base to start from.
The other point to note is that you don’t need world beaters to implement a disciplined approach such as Val-ball – you need the right type of players, and Albion don’t have enough of those even at this level, but such players should be within the grasp of a club such as ours. Much as it pains me to say so, we have to look at the likes of Burnley as a model if we want to stay in the Premier League for more than a season or two.
While there are no guarantees, I think that Ismaël’s philosophy has more chance of success in the top flight than a pure passing style for a club of Albion’s resources. It would still be a tough ask, but a firm footballing philosophy built on solid foundations seems like a better approach than lurching from one head coach to another with completely different styles as the club has done in recent years.
Dressing room unrest
Moving away from tactics and onto the rumours of dressing room unrest. Rumours are just that at the moment, and if the dressing room was happy when the team was on a run of four without a win, I would be concerned.
The one fact we can reference is that Robert Snodgrass has not been involved in the last three games having started the previous four. Val has refused to comment on why and one journalist has reported that Snodgrass has been told he can leave. With both Molumby and Livermore suspended for the trip to Coventry on Saturday, I guess we will get some further insight when the team is announced.
Other than that, however, there have been some loose suggestions that some players are upset but I certainly don’t see a lack of effort on the field that would point to a problem, so until such time as I do, I will treat the rumours as just rumours.
In summary, I believe that the Valérien Ismaël project is a work in progress but the tactical set up of the team is not as inflexible and one dimensional as some commentators and fans believe. Hugill is not good enough, but there’s not much we can do about that until January, but had Robinson, Grant and Phillips performed better in recent weeks, we would not be on a run of four winless games and the current “crisis talk” would be much muted.
There will always be some fans who will not like what Ismaël is trying to do, and it’s unlikely they would be happy if we were five points clear at the top, but for the majority, an upturn in results will be enough. Obviously, if that doesn’t happen soon, the discontent will grow and the club may feel forced to act, or they may not if they still believe in their project.
At this stage, I don’t think the team is far away from turning their current run around, and the confidence of one victory will inevitably grow. I also believe Val deserves the January window, with appropriate support, to bring in one or two more players not least a striker worthy of the name.
Ismaël may well still get sacked, and some will rejoice, but it would leave the club significantly poorer and no further forward than they were when Bilić was appointed. We’d all like new owners but that situation is not going to change anytime soon; in the meantime, the club needs a medium-to-long term plan and a vestige of stability. Ismaël is at the heart of what could be a successful plan if given time – is it really time to abandon that?