Sam Allardyce loves a clean sheet. He’s built a career on them. He made just twenty-four starting appearances as a Sunderland player in a team which struggled at the foot of the old Division One, and a quarter of those games featured a clean sheet.
Last season he harped on and on about his beloved ‘clean sheet’ as the means by which Sunderland would stay up. At one point it looked like the players weren’t listening or were incapable, until a run of four clean sheets in the last eight games secured safety.
The clean sheet – on average, during the past decade of Premier League football, will get you somewhere between 2.5 and 2.7 points per game for everyone you keep. It’s an efficient mechanism for gathering points in a football world where proven goal scorers are both scarce and expensive. Indeed, in the last fifteen Premier League years, over half of all wins have come as a result of a clean sheet.
In his Premier League career, spanning Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn and West Ham before Sunderland, Sam Allardyce has managed a side which kept a clean sheet in 28% of games played.
The front runners for next Sunderland manager, with Premier League experience, are David Moyes, Roberto Martinez, Nigel Pearson and Sean Dyche. Here’s how they stack up in the clean sheet, defensive stakes compared with Big Sam.
Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are the clean sheet kings of the Premier League, so they’re included for comparison, but they’ve done so with vast resources. Mourinho and Wenger both have career spends of over half a billion quid each. Tony Pulis is included in there because he’s quite exceptional at it too. It’s actually worth taking a closer look at Tony ‘The Miser’ for a second.
Indeed, Pulis is oft hailed as the master of the defensive shut-out and at Stoke he had a clean sheet ratio of 29% of games managed. He hasn’t changed at West Brom, not one bit, in fact he’s gotten better. Pulis has achieved a clean sheet ratio of 38% for the Baggies so far.
Back to the Sunderland managerial candidates. David Moyes spent twelve seasons at Everton, managing over four hundred and fifty Premier League games. In that time, his Everton team were remarkably consistent at achieving shut-outs. With Moyes in charge, Everton never achieved less than nine clean sheets in a season and his average return was twelve of them. Widely accepted as unsuccessful at Manchester United, he still achieved eleven clean sheets in his thirty four games in charge at Old Trafford.
It is worth noting Roberto Martinez in the table above. His possession-football philosophy enabled a decent defensive record from stints at Swansea, Wigan and Everton. He probably benefited from inheriting a David Moyes defensive unit, because his clean sheet record eroded slightly in each of the years he was with Everton but even last season, when all were saying his defensive record was rubbish, his side still managed ten clean sheets.
Sean Dyche, Nigel Pearson and Chris Coleman fare less well, mainly because they managed either relegation-threatened or relegation-achieved sides whose Premier League stints were relatively short. The last time Dyche was in the Premier League with Burnley, his side weren’t too bad defensively they just didn’t score enough goals. Burnley conceded less than Pearson’s Leicester in 2014/15.
As a comparator, let’s take a look at goals conceded for our men. The table below shows career managerial goals conceded for all major league and cup competitions. As you would expect, Wenger and Mourinho are the stand out performers with Tony Pulis as the ‘Joker’ of the pack – a stand out, statistically defensive monolith of a manager, especially considering the resources he has worked with.
Despite his reputation, Sam Allardyce’s teams aren’t desperately miserly ones. Dyche and Pearson’s stats above are aided by impressive defensive displays in the Championship. Again, Moyes is a stand-out because of his consistency at Everton. Roberto Martinez teams tend to concede relatively frequently.
Picking up Big Sam’s defensive blue print? Based on clean sheets and goals conceded, it’s got to be David Moyes, right? But, has the Premier League game shifted since Moyes was at his prime? It’s been three seasons since he left Everton and has the domestic game changed in that time?
Certainly, every team is tending to play a more defensively minded style. 4-5-1 is the order of the day and effectiveness tends to depend upon ability to break down a unit lined up like that. That’s why Leicester were so successful last season, they found a way of smashing the 4-5-1 on the counter attack – a solid back four, hitting teams on the break.
Has David Moyes the ability to morph himself into something more effective than he was at Manchester United in a team with significantly less resources in 2016/17? Can Roberto Martinez adapt his philosophy into something a bit more effective? Or, is Sam Allardyce staying? Who knows!