West Brom 0 Preston North End 2
Much of this season has left Albion fans frustrated, but Wednesday evening’s defeat to Preston resulted in a mix of anger and astonishment, anger from those who have been calling for Ismaël’s head and astonishment from those, like myself, who have been prepared to give him more time.
This wasn’t “more of the same” as I have seen many describe it, this was an abject performance and is probably the worst I have seen from a Baggies side in the second tier since Gary Megson was appointed, although perhaps one or two of the displays under Bryan Robson in 2006 might have come close. Albion were second best all over the park and looked more like relegation contenders than promotion candidates, while the visitors were well organised and executed a clear plan that earned them a deserved three points. Not many Championship sides would have failed to beat Albion given their performance, but Lilywhites boss Ryan Lowe could be one to watch in the coming years.
Regular readers of these pages will know that I have consistently urged fellow supporters to give Valérien Ismaël time to build the squad he needs, and I have always felt that it has been Albion’s problems in front of goal rather than the tactics that have been to blame for the run of disappointing results. I’m not about to change my mind on that, but this performance was something different. The players should have been buzzing from a 3-0 win at the weekend, even though the goals came late, but they failed to show any sort of confidence and got progressively poorer as the match went on.
All season, Albion have almost always created more chances than their opponents and had more efforts on goal – apparently they had eight attempts on goal on Wednesday although I’m struggling to remember more than two or three, and none of them were on target, while Preston’s tally was ten and three. Those statistics do not tell the true story that the visitors were by far the better side.
For me, that display was so much worse than anything we have seen before that questions have to be asked as to what had happened between Saturday and Wednesday evening? The obvious place to start is Sam Johnstone – Val said that his absence was down to an “internal issue” but the suggestion from Steve Madeley is that he was upset at only being included on the bench as Ismaël felt that Button deserved to continue in the team given his good performances in Johnstone’s absence. The England ‘keeper felt that other players had returned from suspension and gone straight back into the side (Mowatt being one and he was anonymous against Preston) and that he was being unfairly treated.
In some ways, I can understand Val’s position. If Johnstone is not prepared to sign a new contract and will leave in the summer, why should Albion give him the playing time he wants to help secure a spot in the World Cup squad? Button was signed in the summer in the expectation that Johnstone would leave, but Johnstone’s positive attitude after that move didn’t materialise persuaded Ismaël to play him, a decision that cannot be said to have been a mistake. However, I can understand the desire to give Button be given an extended run of games if he is to become Albion’s long term number one.
The concern, however, is both Johnstone’s reaction and whether the incident did have an impact on the squad as a whole. SJ is one of the senior players and is the only England international in the Championship – to leave him out is a big call and I’m sure plenty of his teammates would have been surprised, but if that did impact the performance, it points to a bigger problem.
Briefly discussing the game itself. Tactics had little impact such was the ineptitude of the players on the night, but the decision to take Matt Phillips off rather than Karlan Grant was baffling. Albion had showed a few signs of getting back into the game after half time, but that was largely down to Phillips having a decent attempt at holding the ball up – that is not in Robinson’s game. Robbo coming on was the right call and Diangana was the one player who did put in a decent performance, but the man to come off was Grant.
So what next? “Sack him” seems to be the popular call but I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Firstly, there has to be a clear direction from the hierarchy and that is something that has been lacking with the current ownership. The last statement from the chief executive was when Ismaël was appointed and the last obvious intervention was the decision to back him with the signing of Daryl Dike when Lai visited the UK over Christmas. Whether last night’s performance and the increasing supporter unrest is enough for them to change tack is not clear, nor is whether the mysterious Ron Gourlay has an opinion or, indeed, enough influence to guide his inexperienced superiors.
Secondly, if they are minded to make a decision, what would it cost? A four-year contract does not necessarily guarantee Ismaël four years’ money as contracts often have break clauses, but it is not going to be cheap. Can the club afford it?
Finally, who would they replace him with? In my opinion, the ideal man was in Albion’s grasp in the summer, but Lai vetoed the appointment of Chris Wilder and he has now transformed an ordinary Middlesbrough team into a promotion rival. There are no obvious candidates and mid-season appointments are notoriously difficult.
With Albion’s current ownership, what happens next is difficult to predict. I doubt that Ken or Lai have any sort of clue as to what to do – it could go either way but I would be surprised if any decision is made ahead of Saturday’s game at Millwall.
Personally, I don’t necessarily think it is too late for Ismaël just yet, but Saturday’s match could be pivotal. If there is a positive reaction, performance and result, it could well earn him more time. I have seen signs that Val’s tactics can work in most games this season, even those when the results have been poor, but there was none of that against Preston and that worries me. Sacking managers as frequently has Albion have done in recent years is a recipe for disaster, particularly given the swap from one style of football to another that has resulted in. I welcomed Ken’s statement in the summer that the club was looking to move away from short termism and that is why I have been keen to give Ismaël some slack in the knowledge that it takes time to implement a new philosophy. This performance was a sign of something being seriously wrong, and a repeat on Saturday would be very damaging to the Frenchman’s chances of staying in a job.
However, whatever happens in the next few days, sacking Ismaël will not solve all the problems the club is facing and there is the risk it could make things worse. There are no easy answers.