My view of Sam Allardyce is heavily influenced by the most exciting match I’ve ever watched. Ipswich’s 5-3 (AET) defeat of Bolton in a play-off semi final in May 2000. A match memorable not only for Jim Magilton’s heroic hat-trick, but also the fact that Bolton managed to concede 3 penalties and receive 2 red cards (and still nearly win). Allardyce’s unbridled indignation at the manner of defeat appeared comically hypocritical given the brutal nature of his team’s tactics. Yet at the same time I grudgingly respected a team and manager that were so resolutely aggressive (and talented, with players such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Claus Jensen), qualities that saw them promoted the following season.
In the intervening period, after a long spell with Bolton – he’s managed Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland; winning nothing other than promotion for West Ham. Yet, sixteen years on, Allardyce seems set to become England manager. How can this be?
Big Sam is one of a select band of British managers that persevere with tactics that seem to defy modern football wisdom. Year after year his teams post low possession and pass completion numbers, in an era of tiki taka tactics where possession is king. The graph below shows the relationship between points and pass completion % for every Premier League finish since 2009/10.
Allardyce’s teams are highlighted in red. Since 2009 he’s only broken 50 points once – and his direct tactics are reflected by meagre pass completion, never getting near the league average of 77% (although it did improve for the later years at West Ham).
So what is it that impressed the FA at that big job interview? Actually I think he was able to present a compelling case.
Firstly, he wants the job. He really wants it. He’s been let down before, yet still comes back. At any job interview, genuine desire and enthusiasm goes a long way.
Secondly he always meets his objectives. At the clubs he’s managed the objective has been promotion or premier league survival – not to win anything. He’s ticked every box.
Then there’s the tactics. Industrial? Old fashioned? Look at that lonely point on the graph above, with 81 points at 70% pass completion. That’s Premier League winners Leicester City – proving that teams can win without keeping the ball.
Sam can point to consistency and pragmatism. This is sometimes unpopular, to fans demanding more excitement – perhaps explaining his short tenure at some clubs. But this isn’t as big an issue for international football, where important matches only happen once every 2 years at most. Also, pragmatism often works for international football – look at what Portugal achieved with a group of players at a collective level similar to England.
Allardyce can also point to his early adoption of analytics to improve performance. His tactics may seem old fashioned but his methods aren’t. A manager that knows what he wants to achieve with his tactics (whatever they are) and consistently applies them has to be a step forward for England. I’m looking forward to the arrival of the Allardyce era with optimism.
Incidentally, the other British managers in this select band of applying direct tactics, over many years, include fellow contender Steve Bruce, Tony Pulis and Mick McCarthy. It’s perhaps surprising that Pulis wasn’t considered (despite being Welsh). And even McCarthy, despite now operating at such an ultra frugal level, should perhaps have been in with a shout, given his international experience!