West Brom fourth, but winning few friends - Interview
Thursday, 13th Jan 2022 16:04 by Clive Whittingham
Beset with suspensions, aesthetically challenging, two wins from ten, but still fourth in the league and on course for an immediate return to the Premier League, Valerian Ismael's West Brom continue their tribute act to Harry Redknapp's QPR. Matt Graham is our regular Baggie.
How would you assess your season so far?
On the face of it, things aren’t going too badly. The club are fourth in the Championship, we’ve lost only five league games all season, we’re still unbeaten at home (in the league), have the joint best defensive record in the division, and are only six months into the implementation of Ismael’s radical new philosophy for the team structure. I would also factor in that the squad is still by and large the one that got us relegated in abject fashion last season, with some piss poor players in the line-up. I wouldn’t have expected much more than being in the playoff positions, and it is what I predicted at the start of the season.
But, and there is a huge but here, something isn’t quite right with all of this. The performances bar one or two have been dreadful, the quality of the play itself is quite painful to watch, the high-octane stuff served up by Ismael’s Barnsley has not been replicated yet, the inability to break down teams that sit in (eg Bristol City, Derby County, etc) has repeated itself all season, we can’t keep 11 players on the pitch (six reds in the last 12 games), and simply putting the ball in the net has been a major problem all season. Things at The Hawthorns are definitely not as rosy as they may seem from the outside looking in.
West Brom league results so far…
Only two wins from ten, albeit a lot of draws, how’s the mood? Natives restless?
The atmosphere at The Hawthorns is pretty bad right now, and the social media streams are even worse. Albion fans have watched some utter dross over the last 30 years with a succession of functional styles implemented by short-termist mangers (Pardew, Allardyce, Irvine, Pulis, etc), so they should be used to it all by now, but currently there seems to be much less appetite by the support base to endure the situation. The quality of the performances and the vertical style of play doesn’t help matters, and the widespread belief that Ismael is obstinate in his formation / tactics / plan has all raised heckles that the manager doesn’t do anything to change things when they’re not going well. The team is getting booed off the pitch at half-time and full-time on a regular basis which adds to the toxicity. Only 8,200 (of which there was a sizeable away support) turned up to the FA Cup match against Brighton and Hove Albion last week, which is a clear indication that the support base feels increasingly dissatisfied. I do think there are broader issues here that contribute to the poor atmosphere connected to the clubs ongoing uncertain ownership, the lack of investment in players, a belief by some that we ‘belong’ in the Premier League, and a desire for a more aesthetically pleasing style that harks back to the first six months of Bilic’s or the halcyon days of Mowbray. In short, the support is far from happy with the way the season has developed.
I've watched a lot of you thanks to Sky’s obsession with us both, and haven't been overly impressed. You remind me of our team under Redknapp, getting by simply because you've got enough good players to cover the cracks. Is there a sense that it's going downhill, or is this a blip and the team has a lot more to give?
Sky Sports love showing West Brom don’t they, which seems totally out of sync with the entertainment that the team has offered this season. I agree with your observation there, that on too many occasions, a moment of magic has been required from someone like Karlan Grant or Matty Phillips to get us out of a hole. Let’s say that things haven’t really improved over the first half of the season, and performances like the one at Derby County after Christmas, offered little evidence of a cohesive plan or much encouragement for the future. Unless a few more players are added to the squad, then I can’t see things changing too much in terms of the performances.
So, how's the feeling towards the manager?
Daryl Dike, the answer to all your problems?
Dike is a statement signing for West Brom. The club have paid £7m for him and got the deal done on day 1 of the transfer window, which is very un-Albion. If you look at Dike’s stats in 2021, he scored 23 goals for Barnsley and Orlando in the calendar year, which is an excellent record. Signing a striker to fill the obvious gap in our squad was critical, and it has been achieved early on to give him the best chance of making a difference. The key weakness for West Brom this season is scoring – the xG is the 2nd best in the division yet the conversion is among the worst. Therefore, for someone of Dike’s quality, he will not be short of chances in each game, and if he hits the ground running, then hopefully those draws which are mounting up will be converted into wins. Although a lot rests on Dike starting strongly, there are other problems which he cannot solve.
Winter Ins >>> Daryl Dike, 21, CF, Orlando, £7.7m
Winter Outs >>> N/A
Summer 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
Summer 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
Any other January rumours? What's needed?
The club has stated that any further signings will rely on outgoings, and therefore the rumour mill has been pretty quiet. The club are desperately hoping to offload Kenneth Zahore to anyone who will take him (although I can’t see it happening), because it is a signing that has been an unmitigated disaster for all parties. Even though we’re incredibly weak in midfield, Robert Snodgrass has been frozen out after a bust up with Ismael, and as one of the higher earners needs to be removed from the wage budget to free up funds. Lastly, there is a decent chance that Jordan Hugill’s loan from Norwich will be terminated now that Dike has signed. Hugill’s time at the Hawthorns has not gone to plan with some terrible performances and one goal in 20 appearances. There has also been some chat that with Johnstone’s contract up in the summer, we might let him leave if we can get some money, although it looks like there are no takers right now.
The club desperately need some creativity in midfield. If we can fill any other position, then it must be here. Playing with an axis of Livermore and Mowatt, in the centre, there is not a lot of guile from the midfield duo, so we really need a player who can cut through the lines or play incisive balls to the forwards. As a consequence, much of our creativity / chance creation relies on the wingbacks of Townsend and Furlong, which in turn means that most opportunities are through crosses into the box. The constant crosses, with little other chance creation, and with no one able to convert them has been a core source of frustration for fans.
Best players so far, and weak links?
Without the nine goals of Karlan Grant, the club would be in a much worse position that we are now. However, the interchangeable forward line of Grant, Robinson, Hugill, Phillips, and Diangana really hasn’t performed to the necessary level, and it is their failure to convert the numerous opportunities which means that there is such a sense of frustration. The signing of Dike for his goals and hold up play could be a big change in allowing these players to flourish.
After a good start to the season Furlong’s form has dropped alarmingly. The bright spot has been that academy player Taylor Gardner-Hickman has had a few opportunities to shine as wing-back and in midfield. In fact, Ismael’s willingness, unlike previous bosses, to use the youth players is really encouraging. In the last few months, we’ve also seen Tom Fellows and Zac Ashworth get some minutes too, which bodes well for the future.
A key weakness is the team’s indiscipline. There have now been six red cards in the last 12 games, which is a terrible stat. For example, the Albion were in total control of the FA Cup game last week until Kipre got two quick fire yellows, which changed the dynamic of the game. In the second half of the season this must improve, because not only does it impact individual games, but also the squad isn’t the biggest, and there are mounting suspensions for future games - Mowatt and Johnstone are both suspended for the QPR game.
Revised expectations for the season?
I still think that will make the play-offs (just), although it will not be as comfortable as I had expected at the start of the season.
The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @SAhistoryMatt
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