The news that had been expected for a number of days was finally confirmed on Wednesday afternoon with the club statement that Valérien Ismaël had left the club along with his assistant, Adam Murray. While some fans will be celebrating, it is disappointing for the club that he has not been successful. So where did it all go wrong?
It was a bold appointment by the board and, by paying £2m compensation and handing him a four year contract, it was a brave one. In hindsight, it looks a little foolish, but I think the reasoning was sound. The club needed (and still needs) to get away from the short-term lurch from one head coach to another, and they obviously felt that Ismaël was a man with a sound football philosophy and a vision to grow the club in a sustainable manner. I’ve seen plenty of fans and pundits dismiss his coaching background in recent weeks, but his achievements at LASK and Barnsley should not be under-estimated.
The problems started within a few weeks of his appointment, specifically with the failure to sign Daryl Dike, or another centre forward with similar attributes. Val-ball, as it has become known, relies on a strong centre forward with the ability to hold the ball up and bring the other attacking players into the move. Even in the short time we have seen him play, Dike is infinitely better at that than any of Albion’s other forward players – the compromise solution that was signed, Jordan Hugill, never showed that he could perform that role.
Nonetheless, the early signs were promising as Albion won five of their first six matches with the 4-0 win over Sheffield United particularly impressive – it was Val-ball at its best with high intensity and a high press, winning the ball deep in opposition territory. However, in the fifth victory over Peterborough United, there were signs that Val-ball could be countered successfully and it took an injury time winner from Semi Ajayi to secure the points.
The frustration amongst the fan base first started as Albion failed to beat either Millwall or Derby County at the Hawthorns as both sides sat deep and refused to be pressed. Val-ball appeared to have no answer although the second half in the Derby game was much better. While Val’s tactical inflexibility is a common criticism, he did change it and from that point on, Albion played less directly and much more through midfield. They created a host of chances against Derby but failed to take them, and that became the story of the next couple of months.
Albion continued to outscore their opponents on xG but failed to capitalise on the chances they created as the lack of a clinical striker became more and more obvious. A new club record unbeaten start to the season of 10 games was set with a 4-0 win at Cardiff City and there was hope that a corner had been turned, but a first defeat at Stoke City in the next game put paid to such hopes.
A rigid adherence to 3-4-3 and predictable like-for-like substitutions on the hour mark frustrated fans, but while Albion remained in touch with the automatic promotion race, and the chances continued to come, there was a hope that things could be turned around. The signing of Daryl Dike for £7m in January was a huge statement of intent from the board, if four months late, but instead of turning around, things have gone from bad to worse for Ismaël since then.
Ill discipline, stonewall penalties not awarded and then the injury to Dike all conspired against Val, but his spat with Sam Johnstone seemed to be something of a turning point. The 3-0 win over Peterborough should have turned things the other way but Val’s decision to bench the Championship’s only England international looks to have been a key factor behind the dreadful display against Preston that was only marginally improved upon at Millwall. The fans’ anger was clear, although nothing excuses the despicable actions of some in the away end at the Den, and Ismaël’s exit looked to be inevitable.
Personally, I think Val’s persistence with a 3-4-3 formation was more semantics than anything else. It is an inherently flexible set up where the front three can move around and either of the wide centre-backs can support attacks, but it was an easy stick to beat him with. It’s failure was more down to a lack of the right players to make it work more than anything else, something that having Dike from the start would have helped, but then perhaps he should have been prepared to accept that and make appropriate changes to his approach. However, the Frenchman has such belief in his philosophy that he couldn’t bring himself to do that.
Nonetheless, I believe that things could have been turned around as late as last week. Such was the difference in attitude of the players between the Peterborough and Preston games that the Johnstone incident must have been pivotal. I said at the time that I understood why Ismaël decided to bench him – he’s not prepared to sign a new contract but needs to keep playing to stay in the England squad, and Button had done well – but it was a decision he didn’t need to make, and if he didn’t appreciate how that would go down in the dressing room, that is perhaps even more damning. Obviously, had that decision been preceded by a set of positive results, it would have still been unpopular but less damaging – with players beginning to doubt whether his philosophy would work, it seems to have been the tipping point.
The players should not be absolved from blame of course. Many have performed well below their best for much of the season and the lack of effort in the last two games is scandalous but, rightly or wrongly, once the belief in the head coach has gone, it is almost impossible to recover.
Ismaël has taken a huge amount of criticism from Albion fans this season, much of it unwarranted in my opinion. He’s not a “clown” has some have labelled him, but for a whole host of reasons, many outside of his control, he has failed at the Hawthorns. He is, apparently, a genuinely nice man and is undoubtedly an intelligent and talented football coach. This was, perhaps, his first job with real expectation and his first experience of working with players who are, or at least believe they are, good enough to play in the world’s richest football league. Perhaps he needs to adjust his style to account for those differences, and I’m sure he will learn from this experience and enjoy success elsewhere in the future.
The club he leaves behind is in the midst of a major reorganisation following his departure with the Chairman and Chief Executive responsible for his appointment having also been removed from their roles, just as Goodman and Williams took the can for the Pardew debacle four years ago. The coming days and weeks will be interesting – the Chinese like it interesting, according to the proverb.