THE FIRST time the majority of match-going Barnsley fans see Valerien Ismael in the flesh could be the night he sinks their club further into a dire situation that was unthinkable when he had them on the brink of the Premier League.
Seven months ago today, Ismael’s Reds took on Swansea City in the play-offs in front of about 4,000 fans, with Covid restrictions partially lifted, having finished fifth against all odds behind-closed-doors in one of the club’s most incredible campaigns. He returns tonight as manager of third-placed West Bromwich Albion, in a game that can be attended by anyone with a Covid pass and the stomach to keep watching a Barnsley side that has collected two wins from 22 games this season and is eight points from safety.
Much like the Ishmaelites in ancient history, his former players at Oakwell have been wandering in the wilderness since they lost in the play-offs and he left. A loss tonight would leave them with the fewest points at the halfway stage of a season since Queen Victoria was on the throne.
Ismael’s departure – along with several staff and captain Alex Mowatt – was a big blow, but it does not fully explain this drastic drop-off.
What happened next are the bigger reasons.
None of Ismael, Mowatt or Daryl Dike were replaced well – with the appointment of Markus Schopp particularly disastrous – while the Reds abandoned the direct but successful style of play, saw an exodus of staff to the Hawthorns and elsewhere, made seven summer signings who have had minimal impact, and key players dipped well below last season’s standards.
One of the newest reasons is that the latest head coach has not made the sort of instant impact Ismael made when he took over a winless side in October last year. Poya Asbaghi is the first new manager or head coach not to win any of his first four games since Paul Hart in 2004.
While he inherited a very difficult situation and appeared to be making progress, the crucial loss at Preston North End on Saturday means he has collected a paltry two points from four games.
His next four are against sides in the current top eight so, if they do not cause an upset, the gap to safety is likely to be in double figures by January – leaving them needing the greatest of all their recent great escapes.
The concession of a 78th-minute set piece goal – from which the marking was appalling – at Preston, sums up the season in which they have made regular mistakes at the back and have not been able to see games through.
Tonight Asbaghi is up against arguably the club’s best and most successful manager of the last two decades. Ismael collected 23 wins in 39 Championship matches, which is as many as Barnsley have managed in more than two and a half seasons – 126 games – at that level either side of his tenure since 2017.
Although he has adopted more of a passing approach now he has one of the most expensively assembled squads in the Championship at his disposal, Ismael is still a disciple of his ‘vertical football’. Albion have the third lowest pass completion rate in the Championship and are in the top three for winning headers, while Darnell Furlong’s long throws have been one of their main weapons.
The Baggies were relegated from the Premier League last season and immediately installed as one of the favourites to return.
They are three points behind the automatic promotion places and five off the lead.
Joe Masi, from the Express and Star, said: “They started brilliantly but it’s fair to say Ismael’s high-intensity, high-pressing style of play then got found out somewhat.
“In a nutshell, teams realised Albion couldn’t press them if they sat deep in a low block and let them have the ball. Ismael had said in pre-season he wanted the Baggies to be an ‘out-of-possession’ team – which they were early doors.
“But suddenly they were finding they had 65/70 per cent possession in games.
“Having transitioned to Ismael’s style over the summer, Albion suddenly had to transition again.
“There were some grumblings from fans.
“There were quite a few games where Albion dominated the ball – but they didn’t create many clear-cut chances. Albion really should have won games against Millwall, Derby, Preston, Middlesbrough, Blackpool and Forest this season – but they drew them all. Now, though, they are looking a lot more dangerous again.
“And I think fans that were critical of Ismael are now starting to see they were a little too hasty. I believe his popularity is growing and will continue to grow. Gradually, the Frenchman is turning Albion into the ‘complete’ team he wants and they are able to press one week and dominate possession the next. The style he had at Barnsley is still very much his Plan A.”
They were unbeaten in their first ten games but then managed just five wins in 15 matches.
They are now unbeaten in four, conceding once in that run, and have won their last two including a 1-0 victory at home to Barnsley’s relegation rivals Reading on Saturday despite missing four players – all defenders – due to Covid, meaning midfielder Jake Livermore and forward Adam Reach played as centre-backs.
Cedric Kipre, Semi Ajayi, Matt Clarke and Conor Townsend have all isolated and returned to training yesterday, so could potentially play tonight.
All four of West Brom’s league losses this season have come away from home. They were in consecutive away games in October and November before a 0-0 draw at Blackpool then a 2-1 win at near neighbours Coventry City.
They have the best defensive record in the Championship with 17 goals conceded.
Although Ismael has not spent any money on transfer fees, his squad still contains players brought in for £12million or more such as Grady Diangana and Karlan Grant, as well as an England goalkeeper in Sam Johnstone.
Ismael’s assistant Adam Murray will return to the club where he was under 18s coach and twice first team caretaker before playing a key role last season, particularly in set piece tactics and his close relationship with the players – both of which have been missed this season.
He was Barnsley’s boss at The Hawthorns in October 2019 when the Reds went 2-0 up through a Cauley Woodrow brace but Bambo Diaby netted an own goal and Mattheus Pereira levelled in the 2-2 draw. Sports scientist Jonny Northeast is credited, along with Ismael and the medical staff, with Barnsley’s impressive ability to deal with last season’s gruelling schedule, focusing on recovery over training but still picking up regular wins, and avoiding the injuries that plagued the start of this season. Analyst Jack Riley will also return and come up against a Reds staff that has almost completely changed with a new physio, goalkeeper coach and groundsman as well as chief executive and club secretary.
The Baggies have not won at Oakwell in 74 years since August 1947 with their 18 visits bringing nine draws and nine losses.
This will be the 70th meeting of the clubs.
The Reds have won 22, lost 23 and drawn 24.
Barnsley are unbeaten in the last five, drawing the most recent three after home wins in 2008 and 2009. The last meeting was a 1-1 draw at Oakwell on Boxing Day in 2019 when the Baggies were on their way to the Premier League but conceded in the 90th minute to Aapo Halme.
MICHAL HELIK V KARLAN GRANT
Grant is the Baggies’ top-scorer with nine goals this season, five more than anyone else.
He was a £15million signing from Huddersfield Town last year but struggled with two goals in his first 29 games as Albion dropped out of the top flight before refinding his form in front of goal in recent months.
He has a good record against Barnsley, netting twice against them in a 2-0 2018 League One win for first club Charlton Athletic then the following season he scored and assisted for Huddersfield Town in a 2-1 home win.
He is likely to play alongside Republic of Ireland international Callum Robinson, who has four goals and six assists this season, and possibly £12million signing Grady Diangana who was ill on Saturday but is back in training.
Helik is expected to play on the right of the back three and come up against Grant.
The Poland centre-back has not hit last season’s heights but has still been one of the Reds’ better players.
ROMAL PALMER V ALEX MOWATT
This was the central midfield pairing which powered Barnsley into the play-offs in the second half of last season.
Mowatt – who made 162 appearances for the Reds from 2017 until last May – is one of the outstanding Barnsley players of the last decade, helping them to promotion then producing two excellent seasons in the Championship.
While he has been a success at the Hawthorns, the Reds have not replaced his passing and set piece ability, his regular goals and assists from midfield and his experienced presence and leadership in the centre. His only previous game against the Reds was for Leeds in December 2013 when he was substituted at half-time in a 0-0 draw.
Palmer needed someone with more experience alongside him this season but has been paired with fellow youngsters Claudio Gomes and Josh Benson who have been inconsistent. Barnsley’s midfield has been weak and overwhelmed for much of this season and Mowatt will look to dominate on his return. He has been a regular in the West Brom midfield when not injured, scoring three goals.
CARLTON MORRIS V SAM JOHNSTONE
Albion’s goalkeeper has played for England three times this year and was in the squad for the Euros.
He has struggled against the Reds in the past, gifting Nick Proschwitz a goal when on loan from Manchester United to Doncaster Rovers in 2014 then playing in Barnsley’s 3-1 win at Aston Villa three years later. His back-up goalkeeper is David Button who played nine games on loan to Barnsley in 2012.
With captain and top-scorer Cauley Woodrow an injury doubt, the onus may be on Morris, who turned 26 yesterday, to provide goals.
Morris has one goal in five games since returning from a three-month injury last month but has been one of the Reds’ better players recently and adds more of a threat up front.