Is this it for Sam Allardyce?
Or can he work the magic one more time?
It’s the first act of a heist movie.
Our hero, one of the world’s greatest thieves at stealing Premier League survival, has all but retired. He’s on some remote island counting his millions, when an old friend appears at the door. How about one last job? This would be one of the biggest and hardest heists he’s ever had to pull off. His head says no, but in his heart, he knows he misses the thrill. He can’t resist the adrenaline rush of being out there again, so he takes it.
But can he really pull this off? Does he still have what it takes? Is he in over his head?
This is where Sam Allardyce finds himself at West Brom. But first, let’s journey back.
A note on stats: I went with Understat this time rather than Football Reference. The data is obviously less reliable, but it goes back a few years further, so we can better make historical comparisons.
When Allardyce first got himself into the Premier League with Bolton, he seemed decidedly old school on the surface. Long ball football, hard work, charismatic personality. He could’ve easily fit in twenty years earlier. But while the ends were traditional, the means were anything but. Allardyce spent time in the United States and became obsessed with the ways in which American sports, particularly the NFL, used all sorts of advanced methods, with much greater attention to detail and statistical analysis, sports science, the works, than anything seen in England.
His Bolton side were obsessive in terms of analysis and preparation. He employed a much larger backroom staff than was the norm, which included people who would go on to have very impressive careers in the game. They didn’t leave a stone unturned in terms of planning for what each game could throw at them. In the transfer market, Allardyce liked to pick up experienced players for low fees who knew what they were doing. The results spoke for themselves, as plucky Bolton became an established top flight side that even qualified for what’s now the Europa League.
It got him a move up the food chain and St. James’ Park beckoned. There are a lot of arguments as to why — from an overly negative style to issues in the dressing room to simply Mike Ashley — but it’s ultimately a brief era best forgotten. He next turned up at Blackburn Rovers in his now customary survival job role, and did exactly what he was hired for.
“He had clipped up everything we had done from the first few months of the season and he showed us goals and why we’d conceded them,” Blackburn left back Stephen Warnock said of Allardyce’s level of detail. “It might not always have been about the error that led to the goal straight away. Sometimes, it was in the pattern of play that led up to it and it put us under pressure. He threw that around the room. ‘Do you get it? Do you understand it?’ The players were like, ‘Yeah, it makes complete sense’”.
Allardyce got Blackburn back to being a solid midtable club, albeit one that could be tough to watch. But new owners decided they didn’t like him, and off he went once more, this time to West Ham. This was always going to be an awkward fit with the Hammers’ fabled traditions of attacking football. But the results were generally good. He got them promoted straight back up to the Premier League followed by 10th and 13th placed finishes, surely about par for West Ham. Everyone was nonetheless anxious about the usual Big Sam blend of long balls and defending in your own box. To be fair, here, there is ceiling on that kind of style, and for West Ham to progress beyond midtable, they would have to move away from it. He did try to change it. A more fluid attack with Stewart Downing as a number ten behind more mobile strikers paid some dividends in the first half of the season, before it all spiraled downwards and he was out the door.
The next call was Sunderland, and this might be the last job of his we’d call “wholly successful”. Sunderland were terrible, and everyone knew that someone, anyone, who could keep them up would be doing brilliant things. Allardyce was absolutely perfect for this. What helped was that he didn’t quite have the players to revert to the usual style. 5’7 Jermain Defoe led the line, and that gives the team a pretty different style to a side with Kevin Davies or Andy Carroll. He did exactly what was needed to keep Sunderland up, but then the big job came calling. The one he wanted more than any other.
England came and went in a blink of an eye. Whether you think he was wrongly dismissed or not, it’s hard to say he didn’t behave in a way that ran the risk when in such a high profile position. This was his big claim to show he’d adapt to a different style of football with better players, and now we’ll never know. Whatever he had planned, he ended up going right back to the usual routine with Crystal Palace launching it to Christian Benteke.
And it was... not great?
Palace were not that bad under Alan Pardew. Things went up and down, as is Handsome Pards’ wont. But their numbers were basically ok. Their expected goal difference of -5.24 was 12th best when Pardew got the sack in December 2016, and their expected points would’ve had them sitting in the same spot in the table. Allardyce mostly just maintained performances at that level with results running lower. Look, he did his job, but they would’ve likely been fine under Pardew, while playing more entertaining stuff.
Everton might have then been his least popular job. The Goodison Park faithful see their club in a similar light to Newcastle and West Ham supporters, especially after a summer of huge investment was supposed to get them into Champions League contention. Everton’s board seemed to believe they were certainly not above a relegation scrap, but were I among those decision makers, I’d have been advocating otherwise. Everton were, like Palace before them, a midtable side undershooting their metrics. But after Allardyce turned up? Oof. I’ll let StatsBomb’s Thom Lawrence describe what happened at the time:
“It would be easy to list things that were bad about Allardyce's tenure, and we're going to, but one thing strikes me as unfair: while the shot differential did collapse, the style of football was really no different to anything seen under Koeman for the previous 12 months. Everton have been the longest of long-ball teams in Europe for a long time - both Koeman and Allardyce (and indeed Unsworth in his brief stint between them) were producing the longest average passes to enter the final third in the Premier League last season. Let's not pretend Allardyce was somehow polluting Everton's previously liquid football.
Outside of that though, wow. From the day he joined:
Everton were 17th in expected goal difference in the league.
Nobody shot fewer times.
Only two teams passed into the box less.
Only three teams achieved less xG from set pieces but none of them spent £45 million on Gylfi Sigurðsson.”
Allardyce seemed to think he was back at Bolton when the resources suited something much more expansive. Look, again, he did his job and got his big bonus. But there was nothing to think he was really adding much value here against what they seem to call “replacement level” in America.
So this is the context in which he came into West Brom. It’s been five years since he’s done a proper up-against-it survival job. For context, the season he kept Sunderland up was the year Leicester won the league, before Britain voted to leave the European Union and America elected Donald Trump. He won nine games after his arrival to save the club, and they were against the following opponents:
Steve McClaren’s Newcastle, Pardew’s Crystal Palace, Mark Hughes’ Stoke, Rémi Garde’s Aston Villa, Alan Curtis’ Swansea, Louis van Gaal’s Man Utd, Alex Neil’s Norwich, Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea (phoning it in after the Mourinho implosion), and Roberto Martínez’ Everton.
Of those names, only three are currently employed in managerial roles: Neil at Preston, Hiddink for the national team of Curacao, and Martínez with Belgium. Of the lot, Martínez is the sole coach you could imagine a Premier League club hiring today, and even then, his name wouldn’t be met with excitement. These were people with, for the most part, limited or outdated ideas about football, for whom Allardyce’s mid-2000s methods with Bolton were still fairly advanced.
So, if we’ve established Allardyce is working in a very different environment, what even is he today?
A lot of it’s what you’d expect. Since his first game on the 20th December, West Brom rank last in the league for passes made within 20 yards of the opposition’s goal. They’re also the least aggressive pressing side, allowing the opponents to make more passes before they try to win the ball back than any other team. West Brom sit deep and don’t play much intricate football in the final third. But you knew that.
What’s more concerning is they’re worst in the league for xG conceded since Allardyce turned up. And thus, unsurprisingly, worst for goals conceded. Worst for stopping opponents making passes within 20 yards of their own goal. It’s clear when you watch them that this team gets players behind the ball, but has no real way of exerting pressure to stop dropping deeper and deeper. The bodies are there, but it’s often unclear what they’re supposed to be doing so deep. Sean Dyche’s Burnley, the closest modern equivalent to Allardyce’s Bolton, sit deep but they’re always aggressive when the moment calls for it. They’re always making life difficult. West Brom are just kind of there.
The draw against Manchester United yesterday showed a lot of improvement, but probably spoke to United’s deficiencies more than anything. Solskjaer’s side didn’t really have much of an attacking structure and rely almost purely on individuals to break down lesser sides, which becomes a bigger issue when Paul Pogba is unavailable. Nonetheless, West Brom did a good job of making the game unwatchable for long periods.
It probably won’t be enough. The bookies have West Brom with around a 96% chance of going down. The real challenge for Allardyce, at least in terms of his reputation, is showing that his methods can still work in slightly less impossible situations. If the Baggies put a decent run together and go down anyway, the world will look around and say “it’s not Sam’s fault”. That’s the scenario where he gets another Premier League job, but it requires a genuine uptick.
If not, it might be time for Big Sam to just stay on his desert island and count his millions.