After appointing Valerien Ismael in the summer, a massive statement to the Championship after Ismael’s whirlwind success with Barnsley, everything was looking rosy at West Brom.
Fast forward to February of this year after the Frenchman’s exit, West Brom’s season down at The Hawthorns has been nothing short of a catastrophe.
Negative performances under Ismael could be forgiven when the results followed, but when the results unravelled, The Baggies were in free-fall.
With only two wins in their last 15, Steve Bruce managing his first win as Baggies boss recently against Hull, a change in manager was the preferred option for the West Brom hierarchy.
After being labelled as a yo-yo club for so long, going back and forth from the top flight to the Championship before establishing themselves as a top tier team for a number of years, West Brom’s season to date will see them remain in the second tier unless a dramatic turnaround in form occurs.
With West Brom’s form continuing to go downhill under Steve Bruce’s short spell in charge, it might well get even worse for a fanbase disillusioned at the fall from grace The Baggies have suffered in such a short space of time.
Going back to pre-season before this disastrous campaign got underway, the appointment of Valerien Ismael got fans excited again after West Brom slipped back down to the second tier after relegation.
Under Sam Allardyce, the football wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination and his perceived reputation of stabilising sinking ships didn’t occur at The Hawthorns – Big Sam managing a measly four wins from 26, The Baggies relegated back to the Championship after a dismal showing in the top flight.
Therefore, when West Brom went out and managed to capture a manager fresh off Championship success, the disgruntled West Brom contingent saw huge potential for their 2021-22 campaign in the second tier.
Ismael’s stock had increased after an excellent first season in English football, the Frenchman joining Barnsley and securing a 5th placed spot for the South Yorkshire side at the helm.
Flirting between the second tier and League One in their recent history, Ismael had galvanised Barnsley away from that and turned them into a team on the cusp of a rare Premier League stay.
His tactical style also lended itself to becoming the new Baggies head coach, a manager who engages in the dark arts – his Barnsley side tough to break down during his year at Oakwell, putting intense pressure on any opposition player straight away and using fouls and stoppages as a way to get into the heads of the opposing side.
For a side like West Brom who are notoriously long-ball in nature – the reputation of Tony Pulis still looming large – it felt like a perfect fit for Ismael and the club when the appointment was announced.
But, the driving factor being the success Ismael experienced at Barnsley was the underdog nature of that success story – nobody expected Barnsley to make a surge to the playoffs, no expectation that Ismael would deliver that as Tykes boss.
So, when Ismael was then appointed to a job where all eyes were on him to deliver promotion straight back to the top flight, was the pressure too much for him to handle?
In hindsight, was it a gamble to go for a boss who had delivered a lightning-in-the-bottle moment for Barnsley and very little else in English football?
His West Brom managerial stint, however, did start swimmingly. Early promise saw Valerien Ismael’s men flirt with the top two, an opening day draw at fellow promotion hopefuls AFC Bournemouth a captivating watch with robust centre-back Dara O’Shea scoring the first goal of the new Ismael era.
Lining up in a 3-4-3 formation, West Brom seemingly had the perfect blend of tough, no-nonsense types matched with the likes of Grady Diangana and Callum Robinson up top who could dazzle opposition defenders.
Other standouts from their early season rise to the higher reaches of the division include a 4-0 demolition of Sheffield United, Alex Mowatt and co easily brushing aside a lacklustre Blades side even with only 34% of the ball on the night.
Valerien Ismael’s tactics were playing out at their ruthless best, overwhelming the opposition by delivering a sucker punch when West Brom were in the ascendancy.
Even when the goals weren’t flowing in, Ismael’s men found a way to win contests – Semi Ajayi scrambling home a late winner away at Peterborough in late August, Ismael bombing down the touchline to celebrate a last gasp win.
But, unlike his tenure at Barnsley, the element of unpredictability had been lost and his Baggies side were eventually found out.
Despite a great opening to the campaign, the wheels came off at an alarming rate. At Barnsley, the underdog status worked in Ismael’s favour – all of his players believed in his message, all determined to be workhorses under the Frenchman.
With The Baggies, however, his ideas were beginning to be found out by far more exciting sides who would then leapfrog West Brom in the process.
A disappointing 3-0 loss away at Fulham saw the wheels well and truly come off, The Hawthorns becoming a drab environment with a lack of wins and a lack of goals becoming commonplace.
December saw Ismael return to Oakwell, Barnsley in grave danger of going down to League One. Far from going there and seeking vengeance as a former boss, Ismael’s side played out a disappointing 0-0 draw with Jordan Hugill garnering a lot of abuse from Baggies fans for being toothless in front of goal.
West Brom would lose their attacking edge towards the end of Ismael’s reign, his prior managerial spell at Barnsley didn’t see the goals flood in but wins made the blunt attacking style tolerable.
Two spineless defeats to Preston and Millwall would see the powers that be at The Hawthorns take action, Ismael’s men undone by a plucky Preston North End side managed by an exciting Ryan Lowe whilst the Millwall away game saw Ismael come unstuck against a side playing a similar style of physical football he favours.
After putting all their eggs into one basket with the appointment of Ismael, the reality of his sacking made the failure of the season inescapable.
Instead of attempting a daring appointment off the back of Ismael’s departure, West Brom opted for a serial Championship promotion expert in Steve Bruce.
However, in recent jobs, Steve Bruce’s reputation has begun to wane.
After leaving Newcastle with an entire fanbase on his back, he wasn’t walking into a harmonious environment by taking the West Brom job – Baggies fans disillusioned with the season, angered at those in charge for playing it safe by appointing Steve Bruce.
His appointment hasn’t worked either, Steve Bruce unable to arrest the slide that began under Valerien Ismael.
Defeats to Luton, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough showed why all three are above West Brom in the league standings – all three sides were able to come out on top despite not dominating, West Brom having the better of the chances but unable to pick up three points.
With two wins since taking charge, the misery of his Newcastle days have extended into his new surroundings. Marooned in mid-table mediocrity at the time of writing, everyone connected with West Brom will be counting down the days until this nightmare of a season is put out of its misery.
A season that began with so much hope and optimism when Ismael was first unveiled, the opposite is now the case with West Brom miles away from the promotion challengers near the top of the Championship.
By: Kelan Sarson / @SarsonKelan
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Rob Newell – CameraSport