Sam Allardyce. Big Sam. He’s a route one man, a master of direct football. Hitting it long to Andy Carroll/Kevin Davies/Generic Targetman to knock down for Kevin Nolan is Big Sam’s plan A, B and C. This is Allardyce’s reputation, that of a tactical Luddite who will keep your club up so long as you give him Kevin Nolan and don’t mind a season of dire football. It’s not entirely unearned either. He may not like to admit it, but Allardyce is partial to a long ball, and prides himself on putting out a disciplined side. However, his perceived love of extreme physicality has seen him criticised, and his preference for a direct, disciplined system has seen Allardyce perhaps underestimated tactically, dismissed as a throwback to outdated methods, or as José Mourinho labelled him, a purveyor of “football from the 19th century”.
It is true that Allardyce’s sides have often been predictable, and at times an eye sore, but the level of criticism is grossly exaggerated. Last season, whilst Andy Carroll was West Ham’s only recognised striker and out injured, Allardyce switched to a strikerless formation with Ravel Morrison operating as a false nine. This formation was far removed from the stereotypical Allardyce system, and reaped some of West Ham’s best results of the season, including a dominant victory over rivals Tottenham. That as soon as Carroll was fit, Allardyce reverted to type and dropped, before eventually loaning out the aforementioned flourishing Morrison is where the criticism gain some traction. Results petered out, performances were underwhelming, and the fans grew impatient.
West Ham are a difficult prospect to manage; laden with a rich history, winning isn’t enough for the fans, it needs to be done with style, and preferably with young, home grown players. Allardyce then was not fulfilling expectations. Repeatedly undermined by the owners, it was made apparent that Big Sam was not the man Gold and Sullivan wanted in charge. Despite this, the owners seemed reluctant to cough up the compensation required to sack Big Sam, instead happy to allow him to run down his contract. In the summer meanwhile, West Ham set about buying the flair, attacking players more fitting with the club’s ethos, handing an ultimatum to Allardyce, the owners were obviously preparing for life after Big Sam.
What happened next was somewhat unexpected. With Andy Carroll seemingly eternally crocked, Allardyce was forced to work with these new players, who have almost all hit the ground running. Employing two powerful wide forwards, and a newly centrally positioned Downing, Allardyce hasn’t just adapted tactically, but thrived. Sakho and Enner Valencia have formed a deadly partnership as West Ham have played the sort of slick, attacking football that flies in the face of popular opinion of what an Allardyce team looks like. The performances have been impressive, the results even more so; wins over Liverpool and Manchester City see West Ham currently occupying a Champions League place.
West Ham are obviously highly unlikely to sustain current form, and that is when the real test will kick in. When results aren’t going his way, will Allardyce adapt again, stick by this new philosophy, or will he revert to type? Carroll’s return to fitness will propose a similar dilemma. Keep his side playing good football and Allardyce could end up extending his stay with a side set for a new stadium and European ambitions, revert back to route one and Big Sam may find himself out of a job and with a reputation as a small club footballing dinosaur.