I wrote earlier about building on Big Sam’s defensive foundations. One thing the big lad did achieve in his nine months in charge of Sunderland was to restore some order to a defence which had become a kamikaze nightmare. Allardyce taught defenders how to defend again and introduced us to the rock that is Lamine Kone. Far from a finished article, it’s certainly better than it was.
Following on from that base, how would any successor build upon the structure, backroom and style of football he had begun to build at Sunderland, a club which had been searching for an identity since the days of Quinn, Keane and Bruce.
That ‘identity’ was supposed to come from the ill-fated Director of Football position but had started to be restored by Allardyce. Big Sam suited Sunderland. However we might couch our city and our region, we remain a pretty no-nonsense sort; people and fans built on heavy industry, heavy weather and heavy times. The heavy-weight Big Sam suited Sunderland AFC.
Sunderland’s football of last season as an identify then? Sam’s heavy-football was beginning to have a refined edge but it was built upon the battlements of Kone and Kaboul and battering the ball upfield via the flanks. Possession was not nine tenths of the law up here, Sunderland were ranked fifteenth out of the twenty Premier League teams for possession last season and only Crystal Palace, Newcastle and Everton spent more time in their own half than Sunderland. Only Newcastle and Stoke spent less time in their opponents half during season 2015/16. And, of course – Sunderland were reliant on a long ball, only West Brom played fewer short passes than us last season.
David Moyes’ Everton side were never big on fine football either. In his final season at Goodison, only one other side in the league played less long balls and Everton tended to play a lot of football down the flanks.
Regardless, maybe we need to get away from this ‘philosophy’ jargon that surrounds football managers. What does a ‘good’ manager do anyway – do they play to the strengths of the players at their disposal, or define an identity, or a system, and buy players to build their team around it? Two juxtaposed strategies surely, maybe that was where we were going wrong before Allardyce, we didn’t know which one to pick. One thing is certain, whoever does come in is going to have go with the former – build on the team’s current strengths with a few tweaks. The budget for wholesale restructure and implementation of a new strategy doesn’t exist.
That’s how I would sell the position to any potential new manager by the way – it is a great gift to be bequeathed an Allardyce or Pulis side, so come on in and build on it. Look at Stoke under Mark Hughes and West Ham under Slaven Bilic. Stoke are not as miserly under Hughes as they were under Pulis. Hughes’ Stoke team average around 24% of their games with a clean sheet, under Pulis it was 28%. But, the Hughes version scores more goals, 20% more in fact. The same is true at West Ham, last season Slaven Bilic’s defensive record was comparable to Allardyce’s but his team scored more goals, around 0.7 more goals per game in fact.
That’s the brief for the new man then. The defence has been sorted, though a new right back is imperative, and just needs a proud father figure to watch over it, keep it on the right track and offer a touch of advice here and there.
So, building on a legacy, is Moyes the best man for that? Admittedly, Allardyce’s tenure has been relatively short-lived, nine months and therefore that legacy is hardly built on years of craft and structure; but it’s all we’ve got. The previous men – Poyet, Advocaat, Di Canio, Congerton and Di Fanti left us with nothing useful.
Moyes’ time at Manchester United was widely panned, but what is notable, is that at that time he was being directly compared in the media with supposed leading lights such as Brendan Rogers and Roberto Martinez. Martinez had attempted to build upon Moyes’ legacy at Everton and had transformed them into a more rounded side they said, and Everton finished in the top six. Some said Rogers ‘outcoached’ Moyes that season when comparing Liverpool with Manchester United. All shifting sands wasn’t it though. Martinez and Rogers are now widely discredited for their inability to build anything of note at the two Merseyside clubs.
History is kinder to Moyes since Martinez’s failure and departure from Goodison. Once David Moyes had established Everton, he created teams that were relatively solid and greater than the sum of their parts. It’s actually quite hard to remember who was in charge of Everton before Moyes (it was Walter Smith by the way) but he built a dynasty on slim resources. Everton had become a club which, in chairman Bill Kenwright’s words, "had lost some of our belief" before Moyes arrived. Sound familiar?
Now, what Moyes did do at Everton was establish a culture of fitness, making the most of player’s abilities and a meticulous scouting network. Imperative features for a club at Sunderland’s level who now start the summer transfer window a couple of weeks behind most others. The network is in place at Sunderland, Bracewell, Stockdale, Houston et al; whether they are deemed fit for purpose by Moyes, or an alternative successor remains to be seen. Moyes’ former trusted assistant, Steve Round, is currently in a part time coaching role at Derby County.
It’s largely pointless discussing David Moyes’ time at Manchester United as a direct indicator of how he might operate at Sunderland. That was a unique set of circumstances, a once in a lifetime shift in dynasty once Sir Alex Ferguson had retired. Real Sociedad, likewise, was an adventure too far for Moyes but he was credited with making that team more solid defensively, the one compliment he left Spain with.
My only reservation – he was driven at Everton in his early days. They said he was virtually incapable of a conversation about anything other than football. In the latter years he had mellowed somewhat. Would the driven-Moyes have accepted what happened at Manchester United? What Sunderland need now is a driven force. Is David Moyes that man?