Sam Allardyce chortled. The man chosen to manage England – not that he knew it at the time – had just been asked what he thought about the Football Association’s latest brainwave, namely employing specialist “in possession” and “out of possession” coaches.
It was late April and Sunderland’s then manager remained embroiled in a relegation struggle. But he took time to debunk the idea with the sort of brutal commonsense logic that seems set to ignite assorted bonfires of the vanities among England’s squad. Not to mention among some of the more corporate, jargon-obsessed types at St George’s Park national football centre.
“I think it sounds like a way to justify giving coaches a job,” said Allardyce, laughing at the notion that someone had to choose between teaching “off ball” and “on ball” tactics. “I think it means you’re only qualified to drive an automatic and not a gear shift vehicle.
“I learned a lot about coaching in other sports when I was out in America [playing for Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1983] and they do that in American football. But it’s so static. It rarely runs for more than six seconds and it’s all stop-start. Our game is different; it’s all about a coach’s individual ability and intelligence levels.”
Arguably one of the best things the 61-year-old can bring to England – and the FA – is a brand of intelligence that permits him to devour reams of statistical player analysis and endless, dry, heavyweight, academic papers on sports science and psychology before swiftly filtering invaluable insights from irrelevancies. In other words, to see the wood for the trees.
Sufficiently open-minded to believe that near-daily transcendental meditation has changed his life and always ready to listen to alternative opinions, he is also no-nonsense enough not to be taken in by jargon or meaningless soundbites. No one should expect to hear him discussing “England’s DNA”.
In a purely practical sense Allardyce will be desperately disappointed if he cannot improve the national team’s defence. Back in April, he was asked what he would do if he were managing England’s John Stones.
“Teach him how to defend,” he said. “It would be a simple job for me. That’s my area of expertise. I can coach in all departments, especially team play, but when it comes to defending, you name it and I’ll tell you about it.
“It wouldn’t be too difficult to show Stones, a player of his intelligence, when and where to do things. You’re never going to stop a player of his ability coming out with the ball and passing it around, but don’t do it at the wrong time. Stones could be like Rio Ferdinand. People said he overplayed and kept getting caught out, but by the age of 25 or 26, Rio was one of the best centre-backs in the world, a defender who could play as well. I’d like to work with Stones.”
He is about to get his wish – and it seems England’s system of defensive coaching could be in for an overhaul too. “Coaches have lost sight of getting defenders to defend, especially full-backs,” lamented Allardyce. “Half of them have stopped telling them the basics. One of the best ways to score a goal is from a cross, so why have we stopped teaching full-backs to stop the cross coming in? They do this strange dance with their hands behind their backs, standing off him. I’m screaming: ‘Get close.’”
It will be no surprise if Allardyce manhandles certain England defenders on the training pitch as he strives to remind them of the basics of body shaping and positioning in specific situations.
If this accent on such fundamentals transformed Sunderland’s Patrick van Aanholt from a liability at left-back to one of the team’s stronger links last season, the big concern is whether England players – said to be underwhelmed about Allardyce’s coronation after hoping for a more glamorous appointment – will listen to a man who, albeit through sheer lack of opportunity, has never managed a leading Premier League side. The trouble is that his very real, usually relegation-averting achievements, are difficult to quantify.
Kevin Davies, the former Bolton centre-forward whose career was transformed by Allardyce’s management to the extent that he won an England cap, has no worries about his former mentor’s capacity for transposing his talents to the international sphere.
“People say Sam hasn’t managed at the very top level but motivation-wise, he’s fantastic, the best I ever worked with,” says Davies. “He knows how to get the best out of a player. He’s proved that with all the fading careers he’s got going again; people work hard for him. He’s just a good man-manager; he knows when to use the carrot and when to use the stick. He creates a good environment – players will enjoy joining up with England – but he’s also ruthless. Sam won’t stand any nonsense. If anyone is unsettling the squad they’ll be straight out of the door.”
That will not come as news to anyone at Sunderland who noted how Costel Pantilimon and Steven Fletcher, despite their on-pitch effectiveness, were moved on by Allardyce in January after he decided that the pair were not right for that particular dressing room’s chemistry.
Phil Brown has seen this modus operandi at first hand. “Sam gets the best out of individuals and his man-management skills are second to none,” says the Southend manager, who served as Allardyce’s assistant at Bolton. “People say that international management involves handling a different type of ego, a different type of mentality, but Sam is used to working with leading international players.
“At Bolton we had 13 top-level internationals with very big egos, including Youri Djorkaeff, a World Cup winner, Iván Campo, Fernando Hierro and Jay-Jay Okocha. They were all highly talented individuals who quickly bought into Sam’s video match analysis, his use of Prozone, yoga, tai chi, you name it. Sam also instilled great discipline at Bolton and, again, everyone bought into it.”
Even that notoriously difficult pair El Hadji Diouf and Nicolas Anelka turned from rebels to conformists under the tutelage of the Dudley-born Allardyce, who suffered from childhood dyslexia and went on to forge a decent career as a much-travelled centre-half.
Indeed Anelka prompted amazement by morphing from “Le sulk” to “Le smile” under a Bolton regime so strict that Allardyce’s players were fined for suffering cramp during games. Apparently Anelka confided that Big Sam’s ultra-ordered environment reminded him of Clairefontaine, the French national football school.
“People couldn’t believe the change in Nicolas,” said a Bolton source at the time. “Sam’s strict parameters probably played a big part. [Anelka] was always late for training at Manchester City but our players know that lateness is simply not an option. Deep down, they like being told what they can and cannot do.”
England’s squad should anticipate a flurry of emails containing attachments featuring instructive video clips. These typically highlight future opponents’ party pieces and potential vulnerabilities and deconstruct their own strengths and weaknesses.
Manchester United first-teamers may have been irritated when Louis van Gaal fired off similar missives at Old Trafford last season, but Sunderland’s squad reacted more positively. “There was a fear factor,” said Allardyce, who may well order psychological profiles of all England squad candidates. “Some players were intimidated by our big crowds and I felt that sending them ‘homework’ to their individual smartphones and laptops could help them cope with the enormous pressure they were feeling. If a player digests his own statistical information in his own time and without a coach standing over him, it can make things easier.”
Allardyce has long argued that, if only he had the necessary talents in every position, his invariably less than frilly teams would be somewhat easier on the eye. When his old Newcastle players complained that there was too great an accent on stopping the opponents and insufficient emphasis on what they should do with the ball, he retorted that he’d like them to pass like Arsenal but they weren’t good enough.
Even greater limitations applied to Sunderland last season, but they did not stop him dreaming about his ideal team, his nirvana. “It’s got to have flair,” he enthused. “A team fans can identify with, that excites them, gets people on the edge of their seats. A team they can love.”
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