Valérien Ismaël feels West Brom’s backing as he battles the doubters
Aside from Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion are the only team in the top four tiers with an unbeaten league record at home this season. They also have the best defensive record in the Championship and are third in the table, five points off the summit, but not all supporters are feeling the festive cheer there. On Friday, Valérien Ismaël will return to Barnsley – whose fans developed an unconditional love for him during a remarkable run to the play-offs – for the first time as an opposition manager and knows his popularity at Oakwell could plummet if he picks up three points. “It [would] mean I did my job,” Ismaël smiles.
Barnsley know what to expect. “Yes,” comes the instant reply from the defender Mads Andersen, a key cog under Ismaël as Barnsley finished fifth last season. “High press, direct play, set pieces – we are ready for it.” Ismaël has implemented that style, which transformed Barnsley from relegation candidates to unlikely promotion contenders, at Albion and a minority of fans remain unconvinced. The Under-23s, second in Premier League 2 Division Two, have adopted the same 3-4-3 formation and philosophy. “The people needed to learn about my methods and our way to play and it is still a process but I think now, after six months, we have learned a lot and we have progressed a lot,” Ismaël says. “We know more about ourselves and the players believe more and more in our way.”
Victory at Barnsley would represent a third in a row at a time when others are wobbling. The leaders, Fulham, have drawn four on the bounce and second-placed Bournemouth are winless in five. West Brom started with four wins from five games but a run of one victory in six, which began with October’s comprehensive defeat at Fulham, alarmed some supporters. “I was surprised that it started very, very well and after it was clear that we needed to develop the squad,” Ismaël says. “We want to be strong out of possession, in possession and at set pieces – they are the three pillars – and at the minute we improve massively in all areas. Now it is all about taking the next step.”
Albion gave Ismaël a four-year contract after paying £2m in compensation to Barnsley and are adamant this is a long-term project. Some Albion supporters worry Ismaël’s style is better suited to the underdog, given how Barnsley bloodied noses last season. West Brom intend to return to the Premier League at the first attempt. “At West Brom, you’re expected to win every game,” says Alex Mowatt, who followed Ismaël to Albion from Barnsley. “They [fans] get frustrated if you’re not winning, but rightly so because we’re expected to be at the top of the table, or in and around there.”
Ismaël felt the backing of the Albion hierarchy upon taking charge. “The club told me clearly before I signed that this is the way the club wants to go, a clear plan, a clear way to play and [to] create a pathway for the young players,” he says. “It was a massive topic that the club was really unhappy that a lot of very good young players left the club for [clubs such as] Aston Villa and Leeds and never got the chance to play for West Brom. It was one of the main topics and it takes time. It’s clear the expectations are high.”
The big news at Albion this week was Wednesday’s arrival of their lesser-spotted Chinese owner, Guochuan Lai, at the training ground, for his first face-to-face meeting with Ismaël. The entrepreneur has not attended a game at the Hawthorns for three years, leaving day-to-day running of the club to the chief executive Xu Ke – known as Ken – and chairman Li Piyue. Lai also met players and senior staff. He discussed the January transfer window and made clear his satisfaction at the emergence of young players, with the 19-year-old Taylor Gardner-Hickman impressing in recent weeks. There are also high hopes for the striker Reyes Cleary, 17, and midfielder Rico Richards, 18. “If everything goes in the right direction like we spoke, then we’re in a good place,” Ismaël says. “He [Lai] is completely committed.”
Conor Townsend has excelled at wing-back and last week the winger Adam Reach filled in at centre-back because of illness and injury. There is no absence of steel or spirit but Ismaël knows Albion must be more ruthless, with Matt Phillips among those asked to play as a striker in the absence of a talismanic No 9; Jordan Hugill has struggled on loan from Norwich and Kenneth Zohore, an £8m signing under Slaven Bilic, has not started a league game for almost two years. Ismaël is thought to be keen on reuniting with the Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, a revelation during a four-month loan at Barnsley last season.
At Oakwell, Ismaël saw the fans only once – when 4,000 attended their play-off against Swansea. He will no doubt get a similar reaction – before kick-off at least – on Friday. West Brom hope to record their first victory there since 1947, while second-bottom Barnsley are desperate for lift-off under another new head coach, Poya Asbaghi. “It was a successful story to show that when everyone is on the same page, everything is possible,” Ismaël says. “I’m grateful I got the chance to manage in English football. It was a win-win situation for everyone.”