05 Jun Undervalued and Unwanted – Englands Unjust Neglect of Sam Allardyce’s Brilliance
Success in football is usually measured by the number of medals and trophies you earn. Despite achieving club records and improving your team, unless you have the medals to back them up, you are not viewed as successful.
Take Mauricio Pochettino for example. His achievements at Espanyol, Southampton and Spurs cannot be ignored as he regularly over achieved with limited resources and improved each team he was at but ultimately, he has not won a major honour as a manager and as a result, is not spoken in the same bracket as Guardiola, Mourinho or Klopp. He is highly regarded though as while his track record at clubs speaks for itself, his high pressing, expansive style of play is well received by most footballing fans.
But it is hard nowadays to obtain medals – Since 2000, only 7 teams outside the top 6 in England have won a domestic cup (FA Cup and League Cup) and with the exception of Leicester City’s iconic title in 2016, the top 6 have dominated the league too. Pochettino reached two cup finals in his time at Spurs, almost won the title in 2016 and played an exciting brand of football so despite not winning any trophies, he is deemed by some to be a successful manager.
The same cannot be said though for Sam Allardyce. His picture at West Ham is always linked to “deciding what I want in the chipper”, he was sacked after 1 game as England manager after being set up by an English journalist and is viewed as a maligned figure in the English game. His teams are only associated with “hoof ball” and is viewed as an old school coach who is out of touch with the modern game and was deemed not good enough for Everton. But this out-dated view could not be further from the truth.
So why is Sam Allardyce a brilliant manager? Is it just a hipster mentality to go with an unpopular opinion or does the case to consider Allardyce amongst some of the best managers of the last 20 years in the Premier League hold water?
Data Correlation and Analysis
Despite the public perception of him being an old school manager, Allardyce was one of the most modern managers of his generation. He was one of the first managers to introduce ProZone to the Premier League and was a big believer in statistical analysis. He was instrumental in the development of the performance analysis at the club. Gavin Fleig, current lead of football performance for Manchester City, was the head of the club’s performance analysis team during their 2012 title win. Gavin initially began as a performance analyst at Bolton under Allardyce and was full of praise for Big Sam, highlighting the sheer volume of effort and time spent in to setting up a highly detailed performance analysis plan. Many players have backed this up, with many claiming it is why he was able to get the best out of every player and team he worked with – because he knew every strength and weakness of that player. He was one of the first to recognise the advantages of a software that revolutionised data correlation across English football but he was not one of the first out of dumb luck, he was one of the first because he sought it out.
Allardyce focused on four key performance indicators (KPIs) when setting out his methods for data collection and analysis at Bolton. These were known as the fantastic 4:
- Bolton had to stop the opposition from scoring in at least 16 of their 38 league games to avoid relegation
- If Bolton scored first, they had a 70% chance of winning
- Set-pieces accounted for almost 33% of all goals scored and in-swinging corners and free-kicks were more effective than out-swingers
- Bolton would have an 80% chance of avoiding defeat if they outran their opposition at speeds above 5.5m per second.
The most interesting statistic is if they scored first, they had a 70% chance of winning. In his 7 years at Bolton, they scored over 30% of their goals in the first 30 minutes of play, highlighting Allardyces emphasis on trying to score first. It was not a once off at Bolton; he recorded similar statistic at each of the clubs he has managed such as Blackburn where the percentage increased to 33%.
Transfer Market Strategy
His emphasis on statistical analysis was revolutionary for his time but his methods in the transfer window were also extraordinary. He did not believe in spending huge transfer fees on players it would take away money from other key areas in the club and had the potential to leave the club in a derelict state if the club was run poorly. He rarely spent big money on players and has only ever spent more than 20 million on a player once in is his entire career when he signed Cenk Tosun at Everton in 2018.
The risk of transfers in football can be significant and the reward can so often be seldom. Clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool could afford to spend £20 million on a player in the early 00’s and recoup a fraction of the price such was the stature of their financial backing. For example, in 2001, Manchester United paid £28.1 million pounds for Juan Sebastian Veron who was sold for less than half the price only 2 years later. To put that into context, Sam Allardyce’s net spend during his 9 seasons with Bolton was £28.6 million, just half a million more than what Manchester United spent on one player in 2001.
Allardyce was aware that if he was to keep Bolton in the Premier League, he had to invest in improving the quality of the squad.
Over the years, promoted clubs have taken a varied approach in the transfer market. In 2018, Fulham spent £116 million on 15 players, Blackpool spent only £5 million recruiting 17 players in 2010 while Bournemouth spent just over £4 million on 7 players in 2014 with each club having different levels of success. Promoted clubs are now matching established clubs for transfer fees with the likes of Wolves, Fulham and Aston Villa all spending £20 million on more than one player on their return to the Premier League, surpassing the £100 million mark each while doing so. But the risk of significant financial investment must reap immediate rewards as many clubs have fallen victim to unsustainable financial policies leading to a substantial fall down the leagues. Leeds United, Portsmouth, Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland have all been relegated to League One having been able to spend vast amounts of money only seasons prior (Sunderland paid £14 million for Didier Ndong in 2016 and were in League One by the summer of 2018). Each of these clubs have also faced financial difficulty with Portsmouth and Leeds United both went into administration within 3 years after relegation.
Allardyce’s initial approach to the transfer market was to sign experienced players coming towards the end of their career and merge them with a solidified squad of players ranging in age. He felt that he could sign players towards the end of their careers cheap or even on a free as many clubs would be willing to offload them to bring through younger players. But he did not go for anyone over the age of 30; he aimed for top class professionals. Players with a reputation for being amongst the best players in their prime partnered with a professional attitude towards the game. He felt that if he could squeeze every last drop out of these players, their class mixed with the work rate of the team could see the club stay up and push their way up the league at minimal financial risk – And that is exactly what happened.
At Bolton, hardened professionals such as Gary Speed, Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo were signed along with the flamboyance of Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okacha. These players contributed greatly to Boltons early success with Djorkaeff scoring 20 goals in 75 games from midfield, having signed at the age of 34. The class and professionalism of these players rubbed off on the younger players in the squad allowing the likes of Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Gardner and Jussi Jääskeläinen to flourish.
This strategy continued with each club he went to. At Blackburn, Lars Jacobsen, Michel Salgado and Pascal Chimbonda were signed and young players such as Phil Jones and Steven N’Zonzi began to blossom while at West Ham, Kevin Nolan, Amdy Faye and Guy Demel were key signings for Allardyce which saw Mark Noble and Winston Reid progress.
His low-cost approach to the transfer market was a highly sustainable model which gave struggling clubs stability, a key component for clubs fighting relegation. Clubs knew that Allardyce could not only alleviate the pressure on the pitch but do just as equal a job off it and when looking back at his managerial career, it is certainly hard to argue against.
Club Stability & Post – Allardyce Era
When a manager leaves a club, their legacy is immediately defined by their record – honours, win percentages, etc. As well as this, they are immediately compared to the incoming manager and their immediate record is used an indicator to the previous managers ability. The most prominent example nowadays is Manchester United and the post Sir Alex Ferguson era.
When I look at Sam Allardyces career, it is hard to ignore how many clubs have plummeted when Allardyce left.
At Bolton, Sammy Lee was given the reigns in April 2007 when Allardyce left. He lasted up to October before being replaced by Gary Megson who was uninspiring in his two year spell. Within 10 years of Megsons sacking, the club would suffer 3 relegations, 1 promotion, go into administration, come within days of liquidation and are on the brink of relegation to League Two before Covid-19. To put this into perspective financially, Allardyce spent a total of £28 million in 9 seasons at the club. In the following 4 and a half seasons following Allardyce’s departure, the club spent 82 million on players – Nearly 3 times the amount between three managers in just half of the time Allardyce was there.
Allardyce’s only real blip as a club coach came in his next venture at Newcastle following his departure from Bolton but when you really dive into his tenure, you have to wonder did the Newcastle make the right call at the time. Allardyce had just taken Bolton from mid-table in The Championship (then Division One) to qualifying for Europe twice in his last three seasons so he had shown what he could do if given time. At the time of his sacking, Allardyce had won a third of his league games and had drawn a little over a quarter of his games. Had that form sustained for the duration of the season, Newcaste would have finished in 12th place with approximately 45 points. Instead, they brought in Kevin Keegan who steered them to 12th place but only on 43 points. Fast forward a year later and the club had sold David Rozenhal, Stephen Carr, James Milner, Abdoulaye Faye, Shay Given and Charles N’Zogbia and were relegated with a squad containing Damien Duff, Mark Viduka, Fabriccio Coloccini and Michael Owen looking forward to trips to Burton Albion and Barnsley. The sheer mutiny of the players in the 2008/09 season suggests a coach with strong man management skills and the ability to get the best out of every player would have been ideal, had to find a better man than Allardyce for that scenario. Bar one amazing season under Pardew which saw them finish 5th, the club suffered another relegation between two promotions and have been fighting relegation regularly since Allardyces departure.
He then moved onto Blackburn Rovers and stabilised them after Paul Ince’s brief yet poor tenure. There, he secured a top half finish and got them to the league cup semi-finals in his only full season in charge. He had built a squad of solid players containing Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelsen, Brett Emerton and Pascal Chimbonda while David Dunn was flourishing in midfield for Allardyce, hitting double figures that season. Phil Jones and Steven N’Zonzi were beginning to prosper and things were looking up for the Lancashire club. After a mixed start to the 2010/11 season which saw them win, draw and lose 2 of the opening six games, they lost 3 out of the next four – all of which were one goal defeats to Stoke (away), Liverpool (away) and Chelsea (home). They won 4 of their next 6 matches with that infamous 7-1 defeat to Manchester United and a 4-2 defeat away to Spurs being the blips. But after a late defeat to Bolton, new owners Venkys sacked him in December 2010. Steve Kean replaced him and would win 11 of his 55 league games in charge. Within 6 and a half years, the club would be in League One.
When he took over West Ham, it seemed like a tough challenge. The manner of the club’s relegation the previous season and transfer policy had some fans apprehensive, but he got them back into the Premier League at the first attempt via the play offs. In his three seasons in charge of the Premier League, West Ham finished 10th, 13th and 12th respectively while also reaching the League Cup semi-final and qualifying for Europe via the UEFA Fair Play League. West Ham did not renew his contract and while Slaven Bilic enjoyed an incredible first season, he would struggle the following season and be sacked the season after. David Moyes took over, was let go and then re-hired after the sacking of Manuel Pellegrini. Only in Bilic’s first season have West Ham surpassed Allardyces 10th place finish.
When he took over Sunderland in 2015, he performed the great escape and relegated bitter rivals and his former club Newcastle in the process. While Sunderland wanted to keep Allardyce and knew the benefits of keeping him, it was a case of bigger fish to fry for Sam rather than him being let go for the pursuit of better football as England came calling. Nevertheless, consecutive relegations followed, and the club are now in their 2nd season in League One.
Like Sunderland, Crystal Palace did not want Allardyce to leave when he took over in November 2016 but at the end of the season, he revealed that his decision to leave was purely personal. He revealed during an interview with talkSPORT that he made the decision as he wanted to spend more time with his family. Palace’s next manger, Frank De Boer, lasted 9 games and saw his team fail to score a single goal although Roy Hodgson has steadied the ship since his appointment.
Finally, when he took the reigns at Everton in November 2017, he took them from 16th to 8th and saw them lose only two home games out of 14 in all competitions with both of them being against Manchester City and Manchester United who finished 1st and 2nd in the league respectively. Despite this, Everton fans felt they could do better and wanted a more attacking style of play. Marco Silva would take over and enjoy a decent first season but would be sacked halfway through the current season with Carlo Ancelotti taking over.
Having looked at the record of all the clubs Allardyce has left, 4 of the 7 were relegated at least once with three of them being relegated to League One. Three of those relegated clubs have faced financial scrutiny with Bolton ending up in administration. Of the three clubs who were not relegated, Palace sacked their next manager after 9 games while Everton and West Ham sacked their manager within two years despite having an enjoyable first season. Was Bilic and Silva’s successful first season down to their own accord or was it off the back of Sam Allardyce’s work? Both brought more attacking prowess to the sides but after the first season, they were poor defensively, something which Allardyce teams rarely are consistently.
While I referred to his transfer policy earlier in the article, his ability to find players unheard of to the football world and turn them into Premier League quality is worth noting. Players such as Steven Finnian, Stelios Giannakopoulos, Steven N’Zonzi, Luka Milojevic and Jose Enrique would only have been known to a fraction of the English footballing fanbase, but all became household names within seasons of Allardyce’s discovery. Despite Allardyce’s record at Newcastle, his signings would prove to be significant to the club. Jose Enrique would go on to be a crucial player for the club, Habib Beye won player of the year in his debut season in 2007/2008 while Abdoulaye Faye proved to be an astute signing despite only lasting one season.
It is fair to say Allardyce is a maligned figure in English football. His infamous “tipi-tapy b*****ks” quote only strengthens the belief that he is an old school, hoof ball manager. But dive into his history, read the interviews with the likes of Gavin Fleig, Sammy Lee, Kevin Nolan and even Ivan Campo and you will understand for their adoration of Allardyce’s intelligence, tactical preparation and professionalism is completely justified. Football has progressed significantly in the past 20 years, especially regarding sports science and data analysis but while many coaches are adapting the ideology to make it part of their plan, it was always a key part of Big Sam’s. His revolutionary methods regarding data analysis and correlation, unique yet effective transfer methods and organisation saw Bolton go from Division One obscurity to cup finals and European ventures, all on a net spend of £2.8 million. It saw Sunderland pull off the great escape and turned Blackburn into a solid Premier League side. He performed miracle after miracle but does not receive the praise or even acknowledgement it deserves. I can only think how many clubs regret not keeping hold of Big Sam. But as the old saying goes, you do not know what you had it until it’s gone.