James Dutton looks at Sam Allardyce’s return to form and the struggle of other Premier League managers to adapt…
“There are two types of coaches. There’s coaches like me who weigh up the opposition and ask the team to adjust. Fergie was similar. Jose is similar. Then there’s Arsène, who won’t adjust. There’s Brendan, who looks like he won’t adjust. There’s Manuel Pellegrini, who looks like he won’t adjust, even in the Champions League.
“Their philosophy is different to ours. Ours is more about who are we playing against. Their philosophy is more, ‘We always play this way’, and they won’t change, they carry doing on the same thing. That’s why you can beat them.”
Sam Allardyce, October 2014
Sam Allardyce is no stranger to talking up his own abilities; in a fairer world where ‘good football men’ are rewarded for their determination, passion and persistence he would be the man sending Cristiano Ronaldo out every week to break record after record in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Instead he’s leading the Andy Carroll renaissance and has propelled West Ham United to third place in the league amidst their best ever start to a Premier League season. His comments above, from before the 2-1 win over Manchester City, felt especially brazen coming only nine months after a 9-0 aggregate thrashing in the Capital One Cup semi-final at the hands of Pellegrini’s champions-elect.
But he was proved right in victory, and his words have not yet come back to bite him. Instead the events of the past six weeks have reinforced precisely the message he conveyed then. The win over City preceded a lull in results and performances, draws at Stoke and against Aston Villa, before defeat at Everton.
Yet three wins in eight days have swung the mood right back around, and the nature of their clinical disposal of Swansea on Sunday has seen optimism for the season ahead peak. From the dire position Allardyci found himself in the depths of last mid-winter, he’s entering this one with his credit at its highest since leaving Bolton Wanderers over seven years ago.
The boos that greeted an uninspiring but no less important 2-1 win over Hull City in March have been replaced by ole’s this season. The reported mandate from the top imploring Allardyce to keep the ball on the floor and return the attacking days of old to Upton Park has been heeded; no mean feat for a 60 year-old whose best days in the game looked far behind him earlier this year, whose ability to keep up with the modern game and adapt his methods looked questionable.
Allardyce’s rejuvenation this autumn has been down to the skill that he believes sets him apart from the rest and alongside the best; the ability to compromise. West Ham have not become an all-singing all-dancing, vibrant and attacking outfit, but concessions have been made toward that end.
The reinvention of Stewart Downing at the tip of a midfield diamond alongside the purchases of Mauro Zarate and Morgan Amalfitano point to a new-found offensive freedom – not to mention new forwards Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho. But they have been supplemented by the added steel of Cheikhou Kouyate, a bonafide Allardyce player, and the intelligent capture of Alex Song a season-long loan from Barcelona.
It harks back to those halcyon days at the Reebok Stadium a decade ago when Bolton continually punched above their weight. When glamorous foreign signings forged seamless partnerships with run-of-the-mill domestic talent. When Big Sam attracted admirers and detractors in equal measure. Having gone stale at Upton Park in recent years he has reclaimed that zest. He has compromised.
Despite the new abundance of attacking riches, it’s the signing of Song that has really transformed Allardyce’s West Ham; a clever and resourceful player, whose limitations were often accentuated by the glamorous qualities of his team-mates at Arsenal and Barcelona, but whose ability flatters a club of West Ham’s stature. His signing encapsulates Allardyce’s ability to compromise, and the lack of foresight from his contemporaries.
Song was touted around the market over the summer. Count the number of top-four Premier League challengers in dire need of a combative, authoritative but technically and tactically astute defensive midfielder. Arsene Wenger was reticent to re-sign Cesc Fabregas in the summer, citing his vast array of central attacking players, but how he could have done with re-signing Song.
Brendan Rodgers has shown little-to-no inclination in signing a defensive midfielder in his two years at Liverpool, but how vulnerable the Reds looked earlier this season before belatedly re-integrating Lucas Leiva. Rodgers has compromised his attacking lust in recent weeks to solidify the chaotic defence. In the space of barely six months Liverpool have gone from intoxicating to watch to excruciating. The signature of Alex Song would have helped shorten this elongated process.
It comes with the territory of the job that the best football managers are unyieldingly self-confident in their ability and decision-making. Take Louis van Gaal’s utilisation of Marouane Fellaini this season – back in the role that he made his own at Everton, but which David Moyes’ paranoid inertia prevented him from replicating at Manchester United.
To some it can create blind-spots, to others it creates opportunities. The compromises that van Gaal and Allardyce have made over the course of the first 15 games of the season have underpinned their respective strong starts. Rodgers has begun the process, but lamentably late, whilst Wenger continues unabated – hubristic flaws that have stopped them addressing their real weaknesses.