Despite Werder’s success that year – which included a mammoth 23-game unbeaten run in the league – after a goalless draw with north German rivals Hannover 96 in April of 2004, Ismaël spoke to the media post-game. Clearly disappointed with the result, he declared, “If you want to become a champion you have to score goals”.
Almost two decades on, these words are particularly pertinent as he undertakes his first season at West Brom.
Not only will there be pressure from some sections of the Hawthorn’s faithful to achieve an immediate Premier League return, but there is a stylistic pressure, nay expectation, to get this faltering Albion side scoring far more regularly. Given the vast array of footballing ideals that Ismaël shares with his former boss: their obsession with teamplay, their unwavering belief in selecting the right players for the system rather than the best players and their commitment to a feverish team press with an organised three-man defence, is it time for Bremen 2.0 in B71?
Not entirely, no. That being said, in my very amateur opinion, this iteration of Ismaël-ball will be closer to Schaaf’s Bremen than it will be to Barnsley. The similarities in the playing squads, especially in key roles, are there in abundance.
Townsend and Furlong are made for that Ernst-Davala wing back role, whether in a 3-3-2-2 or the 3-4-3 that Ismaël employed in Yorkshire last season. Neither are known for their defensive acumen, but their offensive play is far better than most second tier full backs and an Ernst-like season for Townsend would be very welcome.Embed from Getty Images
Bartley and Ismaël games are hardly worlds apart. O’Shea is versatile, mobile, and defensively sound à la Stalteri, and rumours of Trevor Chalobah signing for the Baggies are not surprising when you compare him to defensive midfield lynchpin Frank Baumann. Both are 6’3, both represent great ball-wining options in the centre of midfield or in defence.
It may seem farfetched, but I can also optimistically envisage Grant and Robinson linking up in a not too dissimilar fashion to Klasnić and Aílton, as part of a front three rather than a front two (maybe without the obscene goalscoring records though). Both are mobile, proven goal scorers at this level, and much like Klasnić at Werder before his breakout season, Grant has struggled to find his feet in the West Midlands. You never know.
The most intriguing like-for-like comparison that can be made between squad personnel is that between, new signing Alex Mowatt, a Brunt-esque set piece specialist with a cultured left peg, and Johan Micoud. Micoud was the silky, highly technical, dead ball expert with a cultured right peg who ran the show in Bremen’s midfield, who genuinely garnered Zidane comparisons by Bayern Munich manager Ottmar Hitzfeld during his time in Northern Germany. Whilst I am not actually indirectly likening Mowatt to Zidane, it speaks volumes that Ismaël prioritised Mowatt’s free signing, and has publicly stated that he is relying on him to disseminate his unusual philosophies to the squad on the pitch. With Pereira’s departure from the club becoming increasingly likely, it appears that Mowatt may be the new creative hub of a refurbished Albion midfield.Embed from Getty Images
Individuals aside, Ismaël has to now replicate Schaaf’s ultimate quality: fixing a broken team and revitalising stagnant careers. That is not an easy task given the demanding and cruel nature of Championship football, but a four-year contract represents the club’s ambitious long-term approach to reclaiming its spot in the Premier League.
Bremen wasn’t built in a day. Schaaf won the double in his fourth season, and it may take every year of Ismaël’s contract to achieve the club’s goal of promotion, but as long as the Albion hierarchy trust Ismaël, it’s a very realistic outcome.
A ball hasn’t been kicked yet. There’s only been one confirmed signing too. Yet it’s hard to deny that Ismaël’s face fits at the Hawthorns right now and he’s been making all the right noises regarding the academy, delivering exciting football and developing a culture of hard graft and togetherness.
The tactical and philosophical inspiration from Schaaf is clear wherever Ismaël’s managed before, but the Frenchman will be no pastiche of his one-time gaffer whilst he’s at West Brom. This is his project.
This is Ismaël’s West Brom 1.0.