Cracks starting to appear in Baggies' unbeaten start - Interview
Thursday, 23rd Sep 2021 11:59 by Clive Whittingham
West Brom one of the few unbeaten sides left in the country as we near the end of September, but Valerian Ismael's infamous style of play is starting to attract familiar criticisms as opponents figure out the Baggies' cheat sheet. Matt Graham is our Hawthorns contributor.
What went wrong last season?
Where do I start? In short, everything. I’m very happy to see the back of the 2020/21 campaign, which was abysmal in so many ways, encompassing the absentee ownership and lack of investment, terrible recruitment, major squad deficiencies, poor management (appointing Sam Allardyce, is a case in point), and terrible football. It started even before promotion as the team limped across the Championship finish line after project restart, and the form never really picked-up again. Things didn’t get much better, as the recruitment team, led by the now departed Luke Dowling, did a random trolley dash of players that did little to plug the huge problems in the squad, and instead stocked up on £30m (thankfully in yearly instalments) of left-sided attackers in Karlan Grant, Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson, none of whom really lit up the Premier League. The team looked off the pace from the very start, and leaks about how unfit the squad were, began to ring true within early season matches and meant the team couldn’t compete. The main problem was the inability to defend, which saw the Albion concede 76 goals in 38 games, and it would have been a lot more if it hadn’t been for the heroics of Sam Johnstone. The sacking of Bilic, after one win in 13 wasn’t much of a surprise, but replacing him with Allardyce and the media circus that comes with him, actually saw the Albion get considerably worse, before a late upsurge in the spring. Relegation was thoroughly deserved, in a season which had very few highlights, apart from beating Wolves, and absolutely walloping Chelsea.
A fairly shambolic search for a manager this summer, why were people reticent to take this one on?
I think the absentee ownership of the club by our Chinese owner Guochuan Lai certainly is a big factor. It is well known he wants to sell, but is seeking to recoup his near £200m purchase, and while waiting for a suitable offer, has refused to invest in the club. Essentially our transfers and playing budget need to be self-sustaining, and even with parachute payments, it isn’t that attractive a proposition given that a rebuild is needed and promotion within the next two years is a must. For example, Allardyce had made noises about wanting to stay if Albion matched ‘his ambition’ with investment, and when it became quite obvious that a huge budget wouldn’t be forthcoming, he resigned as manager. When looking to install a new manager, with their own ideas, it had to involve working largely with what the club has rather than signing lots of new players, which in all likelihood wasn’t an ideal proposition for many. Furthermore, despite Lai’s distant approach to the club, he pulled the plug on Chris Wilder, who the board had identified as the preferred candidate, because when leaving Sheffield United, Wilder had publicly criticised the Blades owners, and this was deemed an unacceptable slight. Therefore, working with such an owner might not be that appealing for many managers. From the outside looking in, I can see why some might regard the Albion project as a basket case.
West Brom league results so far…
How’s the season started?
Looking from the outside in, West Brom have had a fantastic start to the season. The side are currently sitting third in the Championship, we remain one of only five unbeaten teams in English football, and we have in bursts played some excellent high-pressing football, as Valerien Ismael’s philosophy is adopted by the squad. The 4-0 swashbuckling performance against Sheffield United seemed to be the moment that ‘Val-ball’ had arrived at The Hawthorns, and the Albion would steamroller the division.
In reality, the stats mask what appear to be some potentially major problems for the season ahead. After Arsenal gubbed our under-23 side in the League Cup, followed by the disruptive international break which saw key defender Dara O’Shea injured, the early season momentum quickly ground to a halt. The side has since struggled against Peterborough, Millwall, Derby County, and PNE. Not only were the results poor (one win, three draws), but the performances have been awful. It has become quickly apparent that Championship managers have sussed out the Albion’s preferred style of play, and set-up in systems that nullify the high-press / high-line deployed by Ismael. If West Brom are to be genuine promotion contenders, then we need to be beating some of the so-called weaker sides in the division, and also have the flexibility and adaptability in our play to break down sides that are happy to sit back for a draw. There have been questions raised about whether Ismael has a Plan-B.
That said, I’m delighted about the current league position, and some of the performances have been very good, but there are a number of warning sides that make the outlook slightly less optimistic.
What have you made of the manager’s oft-debated style of football?
When ‘Val-Ball’ works it is high intensity, attacking football that is exhilarating to watch, typified by the Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield United games. The style means that opposition teams are closed down quickly in their own half, the ball is recycled rapidly into attacking areas of the pitch, and because the team plays on the front foot, goalscoring opportunities are created. There is also a certain level of shithousery about the philosophy because it clearly pisses off opposition fans and managers, which makes it a lot of fun, because it isn’t your side on the receiving end of it. Essentially, it is like watching a Tony Pullis team on speed.
Yet, when it doesn’t work it is absolutely garbage to watch. West Brom have on paper one of the best squads in the division, but at times they’ve played like a Sunday league side. Everything seems frantic and rushed. The aim to get the ball forward as quickly as possible means that the defence are often hoofing it (termed vertical football by Ismael) aimlessly, and with no target man to play off, the ball goes nowhere. As a consequence, we are relying on long throws from Furlong and Townsend to get the ball into the box, to look for headers and knock downs. The team could do with a bit of composure, picking passes, and retaining possession, rather than trying to gain territory up the pitch at every opportunity. It also doesn’t help that we do not possess a striker able to finish off the chances we do create, exemplified by the Derby County game where we threw the kitchen sink at them and failed to convert anything. At times this season West Brom have been frustrating to watch.
While I personally think eight games into a season is far too soon to be passing judgment on a new style of play being learnt by the squad, and time is required to bed in a new philosophy, the last four games have been low on quality. There are already mutterings of discontent among the fanbase, with supporters booing the team’s performances in the last two games, and online commentators have been highly vocal in their criticisms of the team.
The transfer window was ok. Nothing more. The Albion chairman promised a competitive budget, which would be bolstered further by the sale of Matheus Pereira, who was sold for roughly £17m to Al Hilal, yet the signings have been restricted to free transfers and loans. A team should not ultimately be judged on its net spend, despite what supporters’ online might demand, because we have sunk large amounts into our wage bill instead. The unintentional retention of Sam Johnstone, and new deals for several key members of the squad were probably as important as any new players. However, there is a sense that it has all been a little cheap and we haven’t strengthened in the ways needed for Ismael to implement his ideas fully, particularly in midfield and up front.
The two standouts from the summer signings were Matt Clarke and Alex Mowatt. Clarke in the opening games looked imperious, but unfortunately was injured and has since missed the last few games, which has coincided with a much less confident looking defensive unit. Mowatt in the centre of midfield was outstanding in the opening four games, with his high-energy press driving the team forward, and his excellent performances were capped-off by his superb goal against Blackburn Rovers. However, the rest of the acquisitions either haven’t had a chance yet (Jayson Molumby) or have not had an immediate impact (Adam Reach and Jordan Hugill). Hopefully with more game time, the latter three players will have a more positive role on team performances, and ultimately results.
Ins >>> Alex Mowatt, 26, CM, Barnsley, Free >>> Adam Reach, 28, LM, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Kean Bryan, 24, CB, Unattached, Free >>> Matt Clarke, 24, CB, Brighton, Loan >>> Jordan Hugill, 29, CF, Norwich, Loan >>> Jayson Molumby, 22, CM, Brighton, Loan
Outs >>> Matheus Pereira, 25, RW, Hilal (Saudi Arabia), £16m >>> Rakeem Harper, 21, CM, Ipswich, £500k >>> Sam Field, 23, CM, QPR, Undisclosed >>> Charlie Austin, 32, CF, QPR, Free >>> Kieran Gibbs, 31, LB, Inter Miami, Free >>> Lee Peltier 34, RB, Boro, Free >>> Hal Robson Kanu, 32, CF, Released >>> Ahmed Hegazy, 30, CB, Ittihad, Loan >>> Kamil Grosicki, 33, RW, Pogon Szczecin, Free >>> Andy Lonergan, 37, GK, Everton, Free >>> Branislav Ivanovic, 37, CB, Released >>> Kyle Edwards, 23, LM, Ipswich, Free >>> Romaine Sawyers, 29, CM, Stoke, Loan
Stand out players and weak links?
This season the standouts have been Alex Mowatt, and the former QPR duo of Matty Philips and Darnell Furlong. Mowatt and Phillips have been extremely good and have chipped in with several key goals already. Furlong has looked very good at rightwing back, and his long throws into the box have proved a potent attacking weapon, and one which has caused chaos for defenders and controversy for some opponents - Peterborough didn’t let him have a towel, so he used a supporters hoody instead.
The weak link is clearly the forward line, because none of Grant, Robinson, Hugill or Diangana have really lit up the Championship so far. Despite all four of these players having excellent strike-rates at this level, they haven’t really adapted to the system nor taken the chances that have fallen their way. Furthermore, the defence has looked creaky since the injuries to O’Shea and Clarke, prompting a reshuffle of player and the high-line looking dangerously unsuited for the personnel available and teams that play on the counterattack; Semi Ajayi has been uncharacteristically poor in recent games.
I still think that the Albion will finish in the playoffs, but I doubt it will be as easy or an enjoyable a ride as most of the support base anticipated. If we can replicate the early season form and implement a more flexible and ruthless approach in the coming games, then I think we will be absolutely fine. However, there are obvious deficiencies in the squad, and our inability to breakdown teams that seek to frustrate our style is one that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later. Not discounting the criticisms of the last few performances, the season has started well, and there are enough encouraging signs to indicate West Brom should be challenging for the promotion spots by the end of the season.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @SAhistoryMatt
Pictures – Action Images
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