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Black Cats Analects: The Results Man

Big Sam has arrived! Expect the expected!

"… I play football to win.  I use the team in the right way, to win as many matches as we can.  Whatever anyone says, results [are] the only thing that matters …"

What kind of day must it have been when Sam Allardyce said that back in April 2014? To be booed by your own supporters after winning a match is a rare thing; but that’s what happened when West Ham United saw off Hull City at the Boleyn Ground.  Hammers fans were done with Allardyce.  His tactics that had created and sustained Premier League stability were not enough.

Now, it’s unlikely that Sam Allardyce will be met with such unceremonious anger on Wearside should he come anywhere close to achieving Premier League survival by April 2016.  Because right now, you feel that most Sunderland supporters share a similar mindset to their new Manager: the aesthetics are irrelevant – it’s about results, accepted in any form.

Fortunately, the form that Allardyce prefers to use as his blueprint for success may just be exactly what Sunderland needs.  That allegedly outdated, desperately ‘prehistoric’ method of play, that has been debated to the point of controversy in recent years, is in fact one of the few managerial approaches to football that supports the strengths of this Sunderland squad.

We all know that there is nothing glamorous about this ‘Allardyce Way’, but that’s the point.  If he truly has a ‘way’, then it is one grounded in realism: to play direct, with collective organisation; and to respect all the eye-catching technical flare enough to realise that it is a premium asset of a team, not the priority.  Allardyce has built a managerial career on this model.  He knows that the best players in the world don’t necessarily create the best team.

So then, how is it that Allardyce has been able to so easily unite individuals – from star players, to journeymen, to untouchable has-beens – and create a team? Well, it’s mostly been a sensible combination of his own genuine passion for the game, and the Manager’s own trust in football as a statistical science – something he has believed in longer than you might think.

Data correlation in sport is in abundance today.  It’s in betting, in video games, and inescapable in modern football.  Even our ill-fated Sporting Director, Lee Congerton, has been an advocate of stat-scouting for many years.  Yet, it was Sam Allardyce, after an eye-opening observation of American sport during his playing days; who helped pioneer the movement in Europe.  Using Prozone data, Allardyce has been calculating the statistical strengths of his players as far back as his 1999 managerial appointment at Bolton Wanderers.

Take his 14/15 Premier League season with West Ham United.  Using mostly a 4-1-2-1-2 formation, Allardyce deployed full-throttle attacking full-backs in Aaron Cresswell and Carl Jenkinson, who could burst forward and provide crosses regularly.  They would be supported defensively by aerially-superior centre backs such as James Tomkins, and by a defensive midfielder who could join the defence, as Alex Song would do.  Song would also provide long-ball threats from a deep-lying distributor role.  Up top, Stewart Downing would be the free-roaming playmaker of an attacking diamond midfield, whereas Enner Valencia – playing as a striker – would also drift out wide.  Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll – both uniquely excellent as athletic target men – would play as deep centre forwards, allowing the pacey midfielders and full-backs to run ahead of them.

The result of this was a West Ham team where the full-backs created 6 assists; James Tomkins had the best season of his career, the team conceded the 7th fewest goals in the league; 14 assists were provided by the midfielders, and 19 goals were scored by the 3 main strikers – one of whom was injured for the majority of the season.  Allardyce, just in using the strengths of the players he had at his disposal, moulded a team that were direct but also adaptive, interchangeable, and could contain from the front.  It was not revolutionary – just pragmatic.

His success with Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll deserves the most attention.  The latter’s goal ratio alongside Downing’s performances in the centre of the field were exactly the results that Liverpool were hoping for when they signed the duo years earlier.  In this case, Allardyce’s approach to statistical strengths paid off far greater than Liverpool’s ‘money-ball’ idealism.

But, back to what matters: can Sam Allardyce do all of the above at Sunderland? Well, by 4:45pm today, we’ll get an idea, but in the meantime, it’s fair to say that not only is it possible, but all the tools are there for Big Sam to make a real success out of this season.

First, there’s Steven Fletcher.  Yeah, that’s right.  The £13m striker currently rounds off the top ten for most aerial duals won by a player this season (23), and his 45% win rate for this stat is the 5th best of Premier League centre forwards.  Over half of his shot attempts have been headed efforts too; though this isn’t the speciality most perceive it to be.  Only 6 of his 45 headed efforts have hit the net since he joined Sunderland, and none of those occurred during his promising 12/13 season under Martin O’Neill.  That said, 8 of those goals in his inaugural year were converted from either a free-kick, cross or long-ball pass.  It’s safe to say Gus Poyet’s slow-stroll approach did nothing to help Fletcher’s reputation.

Does that mean the Scotsman should be first choice? Maybe.  Shot conversion doesn’t go in his favour.  His 33% for the season is nowhere near Jermain Defoe’s 54%, or even Jeremain Lens’ 43% conversion rate.  Lens’ 16 shots are also the most by any player at the club too.  Elsewhere, Ola Toivonen is everything a traditional target man should be, and has been winning on average 43% of headers since August 2013.  So even if Fletcher isn’t first choice, Allardyce surely has a lot to choose from.

The long-term creative central role has generally been viewed as a spot reserved for Adam Johnson, and Allardyce’s work with Stewart Downing in this position will crank up speculation on that matter.  However, it may be a more likely placement for Jeremain Lens.  The Dutchman is a far more effective outlet in the centre, and has previous in this role from his time in the Eredivisie.  Also, on Lens, much of his style has been a sheer numbers game – he tries something repeatedly until it works.  See his crossing, for example: this season, Lens has attempted 38 crosses from out wide with only 13% accuracy.  Yet, when cutting inside, Lens has been far more effective.  A central role may be in his future.

There is, however, an alternative creative source at Sunderland: Yann M’Vila.  The Frenchman’s vision going forward is second to none and has created 12 chances this season; more than Alexis Sánchez, Raheem Sterling and Gylfi Sigurðsson.  That, for a defensive midfielder, is decent, and puts him in the joint top ten in the league.  His 343 passes so far for Sunderland is also the most at the club by a large sum.

That said; if M’Vila is to play the Alex Song role of a deep long-ball provider, then he can fulfil that role too.  His 24 accurate long passes are the most at the club, with 57% accuracy.  That is only betted by Lee Cattermole on 65%.  Ordinarily, that’d likely pin the former captain as a guaranteed starter, however most of Cattermole’s defensive stats have been poor this term.

M’Vila also ranks first for the most successful crosses at Sunderland too, with 7 of 22 attempts hitting the mark.  Adam Johnson otherwise leads the conversion rate for crossing with 3 of 5 being accurate.  However, it is Sebastian Larsson who remains the all-round best performer in this area.  The Swede was the most accurate crosser for Sunderland last season on 1.6 per game with 44% accuracy.  Last season, Allardyce coached Stewart Downing into collating the 2nd most accurate crosses in the league in a season when Larsson was 5th.  Under Allardyce now, the Swedish international could return to a wide midfield role again.

Historically, Larsson is the likely first choice for free-kicks too.  His accuracy for set-piece taking last season was 60%, with 40 of 66 attempts being successfully converted.  Adam Johnson’s 84% conversion from 13 attempts was even better.  Though Larsson remains on 100% from his 3 free-kicks so far this season, it is again M’Vila who leads the way; with 11 of his 13 set-piece plays being converted accurately.

Another pivotal strength in this squad is pace and this is epitomised in the full-backs.  Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin are especially gifted with genuine speed and that, when used properly, can be highly effective.  Despite his defensive lapses, van Aanholt still provided 5 assists last season for the club.  Under Allardyce’s defensive methods, he may finally be able to continue that form without worrying about the consequences of playing too high up the pitch; especially as the team has struggled horrendously against defending down the wings.

There may yet be hope for players struggling this season.  If Allardyce is still looking for players with strong aerial presence, then Younès Kaboul might still have a season to remember.  The Frenchman is listed joint 9th for aerial duals won (24) and is winning 63% of those battles.  Of defenders, that puts him 5th in the league.  He’s doing something right, apparently.  Likewise Jack Rodwell, who registered the 2nd most headed shots last season from set-piece play, has a very useful aerial asset that could potentially make him indispensable to the team.  Could this finally be the season that sees Rodwell find his place in the squad, perhaps even at the back?

What works most of all about the appointment of Big Sam is that it is undeniably, whether accidental or purposeful, the most logical.  With no disrespect meant; Allardyce is in a position this year to do what Gus Poyet probably should have done in October 2013.  Allardyce is not going to impose a new identity on Sunderland before getting to grips with the existing one.  This is a squad tied up in an unplayable mix of Poyet’s pass-and-stop paradigm and Martin O’Neill’s anti-football methodology.  Also, unlike his predecessor Dick Advocaat, Allardyce is clearly up for the challenge and didn’t need much convincing to take this impossible job on.  All the "back to basics" talk from Poyet and Advocaat is exactly what Allardyce will implement.

Even then, if Allardyce does bring in his tried-and-tested formula, it’s not as if Sunderland isn’t ready for it.  Statistically, the Black Cats should already be considered a long-ball team.  The club average 70 long-ball passes per game – the 5th highest in the Premier League.  Sunderland is also 6th highest for aerial duals won, on 19 per game.  The foundation of what Allardyce (likely) wants is already in effect – he won’t have to change much.

What we’ve seen is what we’re going to get from the new man in charge.  We already know what to expect, sure; but perhaps Allardyce himself already knows what to expect from Sunderland.  Over the last several seasons, Chairman Ellis Short has presided over managerial revolutions, good intentions for new identities, and emotionally-invested appointments; a shock to the system or a new look, all to an end of short-term results.  Now, our Chairman has made an appointment for results because of a Manager who believes only in just that.

Sam Allardyce has only one goal: get limited players to do what they can do well.  And if that turns out to be the great secret to Sunderland’s success this whole time, then there is no Manager better to do it.

Let’s see what kind of day it’s going to be today.