Valérien Ismaël: What he needs to do before the start of the Championship season
Valerien Ismael the manager of Barnsley reacts during the Sky Bet Championship match between Huddersfield Town and Barnsley at John Smith's Stadium on April 21, 2021 in Huddersfield, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Although pre-season is yet to begin for West Bromwich Albion, you would imagine Valérien Ismaël has already started preparing for the first game of the Championship season against AFC Bournemouth.

Leaving Barnsley in favour of a move to Albion, Ismaël is the long-awaited replacement for Sam Allardyce, who departed the club over a month ago after suffering his first relegation from the Premier League.

Of course, the main aim for the new head coach is to gain promotion and seal an immediate return to the top division, but it is not as simple as that.

A new season always brings new challenges, especially for a side heading into an upcoming season in a different league to which they endured the last. A squad overhaul, whether he wants it or not, is likely, and there are plenty of jobs to be done before playing a competitive match is the primary focus.

  • Sorting out the future of Matheus Pereira and Sam Johnstone

With West Brom back in the Championship after relegation from the Premier League, Ismaël’s first job is to amass a squad ready to challenge for promotion back to the top division of English football.

However, as for every team that drops down a tier in the domestic pyramid, those from the league above will be interested in the key talents that have proven their quality, despite the team struggling overall. 

Although it is unclear how much of a say the Frenchman will have on both incomings and outgoings, the two names linked to the exit door have been Matheus Pereira and Sam Johnstone.

According to Birmingham Live, Brazilian Pereira is of interest to both Aston Villa and Leeds United, with his 11 goals and six assists last term likely to see him leave the Hawthorns in favour of a Premier League club. Despite this, no formal offers have been made, and, likely, Pereira will still be at the club when Ismaël arrives.

Johnstone is in a similar situation. Despite conceding 74 goals this season in a team finishing in the relegation zone, his shot-stopping ability has not been overlooked by potential suitors – with his profile increased through his inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad.

According to Birmingham Live, West Ham United and Leeds are interested in the England international but is unknown whether Johnstone would move away from the club without a guaranteed starting spot at his future club.

With the Hammers’ obtaining Europa League football after finishing 6th in the 2020/21 Premier League season, it is unlikely that David Moyes will be looking to replace Lukasz Fabianski in the short term. However, with the Polish ‘keeper now 36-years-old, the signing of Johnstone could look more in the long term.

The same does not apply to Leeds. With Illan Meslier just 21-years-old and coming off the back of 11 clean sheets in the Whites’ first season in the Premier League since 2004, Marcelo Bielsa will not be looking for a new number one.

With one year left on his West Brom deal, it is unknown if he will leave the club in what is to be their last chance to sell him for a reasonable fee if the 28-year-old decides against signing a new deal or keep him for their Championship campaign.

One thing is for certain, the future of both players needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later. If either departs, the decision needs to be made quickly (ideally before the start of pre-season), so that replacements can be found, can settle in, and that outgoing transfers are not a worry come transfer deadline day.

  • Losing their loan players

West Brom also had a host of loan players that will be returning to their parent club for pre-season – and are unlikely to come back to the Hawthorns due to their drop in divisions. Most importantly for Ismaël will be restructuring the midfield. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Okay Yokuşlu were brought in on loan from Arsenal and Celta Vigo respectively by Allardyce in January, playing in a combined 31 matches.

Connor Gallagher was also brought in from Chelsea but was loaned in by Slaven Bilic at the start of the season. The 21-year-old’s debut season in the Premier League was a success on a personal level. Missing just eight league games across the campaign, his performances were enough to warrant West Brom’s Young Player of the Season.

Both Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers were both ranked in the top five more minutes played in the Championship for West Brom, but both lost their place during the season due to the poor run of form the team was on. Proven in the Championship and an integral part of their return to the Premier League, the new head coach will have to decide if he wants to put faith in the midfielders he has or dip into the transfer market to reshape the centre of the side.

The attacking department bears similar issues. With Mbaye Diagne’s returning to Galatasaray, and Hal Robson-Kanu and Charlie Austin both leaving the club when their contract expires, only one out-and-out striker remains at the club. Whilst it’s almost guaranteed the former VfL Wolfsburg manager will have to decide if he wants a new starting striker to play with or instead of Karlan Grant – or bring them in as a backup to the former Huddersfield Town man.

Grant suffered a disappointing campaign, scoring once in 21 Premier League games. However, his pedigree in the Championship shows that he has more than enough to play a key role in the West Brom side.

In the 2019/20 season for Huddersfield, the 23-year-old scored 19 goals (11 more than anyone else in the Terriers’ ranks), as well as collecting four assists. Steering his side away from the relegation zone by three points, playing with players of higher quality and better service could see Grant outscore his previous tally in the division.

From a West Brom standpoint, past success in the loan market connotes the idea that they will look for the short-term moves once again in the Championship. Two stars of the 2019/20 promotion squad in Grady Diangana and Pereira both had a taste of the Midlands before signing permanently before the start of the Premier League campaign, with Callum Robinson also making the same move.

  • Contracts

A more understated task will also be to simply fill out the squad ready for an unforgiving 46 match Championship season. As well as the previously mentioned Robson-Kanu and Austin, Kieran Gibbs, Branislav Ivanovic, Kamil Grosicki, Andrew Lonergan, Kyle Edwards and Lee Peltier will all leave the club, with a range of youth prospects also heading out of the Hawthorns. With a host of departures, a few players with an ability play but also be satisfied as a cover option for West Brom in the Championship will be required.

The summer of 2022 seems far away for everyone, but especially Ismaël, who has not even met his players let alone managed a game for Albion. However, the former Barnsley man will cast half an eye on those whose contract run out next summer.

As well as Johnstone, key members of the squad such as Robert Snodgrass, Matt Phillips, Kyle Bartley, Livermore and Sawyers all see their contacts at the club end next year.

As a result, the 45-year-old manager must decide quickly in pre-season who he wants to remain at the club for the Championship season and ask the West Brom hierarchy to extend their stay at the Hawthorns, as well as cash in on those who are unwilling to sign a new deal or are not part of his plans. With the West Brom finances likely to be restricted once again, any funds that can be made available for Ismaël will go a long way in developing a squad ready to challenge for promotion.

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