Just when you want to criticise Sam Allardyce for poor substitutions, tactical indecision and a lack of bravery in his team selection, we win 3-0, our substitutes impress and all seems right with the world again. For a brief moment, that winning feeling overwhelms the still harrowing reality of our predicament. As should be the case with both victories and defeats, however, the previous game is placed into context and the next round of fixtures looms large.
In my opinion, Sam Allardyce’s indecision and unwillingness to make positive changes has cost us several times this season. A good manager must recognise warning signs before it's too late, but I don’t think he’s been bold or decisive enough during games. Overall, I think he’s an excellent manager and he has done very well considering the position we were in when he took over. However, his substitutions and tactical changes have baffled me at times and contributed to several poor results.
In our recent defeat against Leicester, we started the second half brightly. There were a few positive runs and shots on goal, but after five or ten minutes Drinkwater and Kante's energy and tenacity was becoming too much for our midfield to handle. M’Vila and Cattermole wanted rid of the ball as soon as they got it, as Leicester players descended upon them and regained possession almost immediately. This made Leicester’s goal almost nauseatingly predictable. Allardyce, immersed in conversation with Robbie Stockdale on the touchline, appeared to be considering all manner of possibilities. But only when Vardy scored did he make the changes.
Even when the changes came, they were ones that did not seek to rectify the obvious areas in which we were beginning to struggle. It would be a bold manager to take M'Vila and Cattermole off and bring on Rodwell and Larsson, particularly when it's 0-0 and the crisis has not yet forced your hand. Had we lost the game only after making such changes, there would be many who would criticise him as a gung-ho manager who should have taken one point instead of greedily pursuing three. But as is so often the case in life, fortune favours the bold. Look no further than Leicester City this season.
As their games progress, Leicester often take off Mahrez and Albrighton. However, they almost always replace them with Ulloa, a striker, and Gray, a talented teenage attacker. They've been doing it all season and it's one of the reasons they are where they are. Even when they are winning, they are not looking to make the obvious defensive changes. They know that even an attacking change can help you see out a game you are winning. Conversely, the best way to get back in to a game is not always to simply put on more strikers.
Against Leicester, Cattemole and M'Vila should have been sacrificed in an attempt to regain control of the midfield. Had we done so, not only would we have sought to negate Leicester’s midfield, on which their approach largely depends, but we would have provided a foundation for our attacking players to create and source a few more chances. Instead, we threw N’Doye on the right wing, replacing only M’Vila in midfield.
When the team against Norwich was announced, there were no changes to the midfield. I would have made two - Rodwell and Larsson in for M’Vila and Cattermole. Rodwell, while guilty of missing some excellent chances, has at least been getting into goalscoring positions. I feel a good run of form is just around the corner for him and he just needs that confidence boost in front of goal to kickstart it. However, he was not even on the bench. A strange decision in my view.
M’Vila has been excellent for us this season, but he in particular has looked tired and has given the ball away too much in recent weeks, while Cattermole has been accommodated in an advanced role that does not flatter him. I believed some fresh legs and more natural attacking impetus could have served us well in this game. To say I was not feeling optimistic would be an understatement.
Having weathered a few storms and lived dangerously at times we found ourselves 1-0 up at half time. Then Allardyce did what I have wanted him to do so often this season. He identified a weakness in our team and made the change before it had cost us, not after. On came Watmore in place of Wahbi Khazri, who not only struggled to deal with Andre Wisdom’s attacking forays, but also produced another rather unimpressive display. Watmore immediately made Wisdom far more cautious in his attacking play, while adding pace and intensity into our attacks, a change clearly intended to help extend our lead, not merely protect it.
We seemed to grow in stature as the game went on, with players putting their bodies on the line, more last ditch tackles being made and some excellent breakaways, culminating in some frustratingly wasteful passing and finishing. With every tackle and block, however, the players seemed to gain more belief and passion which was fantastic to see. Cattermole was the driving force behind this, but all the players rallied behind him and showed a fight and quality that was a joy to behold. Our defence was imperious and our attackers looked dangerous.
Allardyce has been wrong many times this season, but on Saturday he got it spot on, as did most of the players who he trusted to deliver for him. Just as I have criticised him and them when they have not delivered, it is only right I commend their successes. The job of survival is not done and Big Sam will have to repeat these sorts of managerial performances and decisions if we are to take the lead and see out games in what remains of the season.
It’s going to be tense, but now the right man is also showing the right approach needed to finish the job.