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Comment: West Brom refuse to play 'Val-ball' any longer

He arrived on a four-year deal and with a plan to restructure Albion from top to bottom.

Valerien Ismael who has left his position as head coach of West Brom.
Valerien Ismael who has left his position as head coach of West Brom.

But just seven months later, Valerien Ismael is gone with the club finding themselves in a position where they simply had to act.

The fans had turned. Based on recent performances, the players had turned as well.

And without that support, Ismael’s position had become untenable.

There are a number of factors that have led to this outcome – all of which will be explored in this piece.

But in fairness to Ismael, we have to start by saying he has been damn unlucky.

A manager who relies heavily on statistics, the Frenchman – like many in the modern game – is a fan of expected goals data, or xG as it is known. And why shouldn’t he be?

If you consistently create better chances than the opposition – more often than not you will win more games than you lose.

According to xG website Experimental 3-6-1, if Albion had scored the goals the data says they should have this season – they would currently be second in the table, a whopping 19 points better off.

On the one hand, it’s not Ismael’s fault Albion have missed so many chances this season.

But on another hand it is.

Ismael has played the same 3-4-3 formation in every minute of every game this season.

In press conferences, he insisted he would not deviate from it.

And that is despite the fact Albion have laboured to so many poor performances this season.

It was actually at the back end of August that we first saw Championship sides had worked out how to play against ‘Val-ball’

Ismael arrived saying he wanted the Baggies to be an out of possession team. And Peterborough were the first team to spot if you sit deep and let Albion have the ball, they’ll struggle to break you down.

That day Ismael’s side got away with it thanks to a late Semi Ajayi goal. But on countless other occasions, they didn’t.

Millwall, Derby, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest and Cardiff all came to The Hawthorns and managed to get a result by sitting deep and frustrating.

In very similar games, the Baggies just about managed to snatch wins against QPR, Blues and Hull.

The vast majority of those games would go down as convincing Albion’s wins when it comes to xG data.

But while football has to be about numbers these days, it also has to be about what you see with your eyes. And Ismael was too reliant on the data.

In games where Albion were struggling to score, would it have hurt to change from a 3-4-3 to a 3-4-1-2, a 3-4-2-1, or a 3-5-2?

It would only be a subtle tweak. It certainly wouldn’t be Ismael abandoning his principles.

He, though, felt it would.

That lack of tactical flexibility led to his team being too predictable and enraged a fan base who could see when changes were needed.

Ismael’s tactic is effectively plug and play – it almost doesn’t matter what players he has got at his disposal.

But in this writer’s opinion, it’s naive to think you can make any squad adapt to your way.

Jordan Hugill is a prime example this season.

Hugill had a woeful time at The Hawthorns, scoring just once in 20 appearances.

But he has had success in his career playing in a front two – with his partnership with Nahki Wells a prime example.

When Albion were struggling to score, it was surely worth trying Hugill in a two or taking off a centre-back and throwing on another attacking player. But Ismael never did.

Instead, for months they played in a system that suited Daryl Dike – and yet he didn’t arrive from Orlando until January 1.

And when he did, he broke down with an injury 50 minutes into his full debut.

It’s perhaps harsh to compare Ismael and Pep Guardiola.

But in the summer the Man City boss wanted to sign Harry Kane.

He didn’t get his man so adapted his side into a team that now looks at his best without a recognised centre-forward.

But Ismael refused to change his system despite not having the personnel for it. And that stubbornness has ultimately cost him his job.

Another reason behind his dismissal is some of the strange battles Ismael chose to pick. The boss fell out with Robert Snodgrass. But it was his disagreement with Sam Johnstone that, on paper, makes it seem like he lost the dressing room.

Having served a three-game ban, the England international expected to come back into the team for the game against Preston.

Instead, Ismael opted to stick with David Button – a man who understands his role as a number two.

Playing Johnstone – the division’s best goalkeeper – would have kept him happy and Button would have understood.

And yet Ismael chose to drop him. A fallout followed and it was one Ismael was never going to win.

Albion’s players love Johnstone and are immensely proud of how he has gone and made himself a regular in England’s squads.

And it’s likely players who were wavering on Ismael, were tipped over the edge by the way the boss treated the goalkeeper.

That lack of support was clear for all to see in the defeats against Preston and Millwall.

It looked as though the squad weren’t playing for their boss. And it showed with the results.

And from that point, there was no coming back – Ismael had to go.

Despite the criticism in this piece, this writer is adamant Ismael is on to something with his ‘Val-ball’ philosophy.

The xG stats show that he is.

The impressive jobs he did at LASK and Barnsley show that he is.

The Frenchman is an up and coming boss who will learn from this and come back better.

He is polite, professional and courteous. And this writer genuinely believes his next club will be lucky to have him.

His time at The Hawthorns will serve a huge learning curve.

But there can be no doubt Albion had to act before the season unravelled further and they fell out of the promotion race completely.

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