“Playing the right way” is a commentary that has become more and more prevalent among the media and fans in recent years. Style is everything to many, and merely playing for results is considered by some a crisis of morality. The desire of many elites to put personal preferences as far as playing style and aesthetics on the football pitch ahead of results and practical tactical play has become an alarming trend from where I sit over the past five years.
“Big” Sam Allardyce is, at least based on reputation, the antithesis of everything those obsessed with style professes. While getting results at Bolton and Blackburn, Allardyce was critiqued as a “cave man” and adherent to “long ball tactics.” But in reality, neither description is fair.
Allardyce’s Bolton teams did employ long ball as a tactic but also played with the ball on the ground, and relatively short passes on occasion, utilizing the tactical acumen of some of the players that had been acquired from continental teams, many on free or cut-rate priced transfers. Despite his reputation, the Bolton sides Allardyce led became more and more cosmopolitan during his tenure, often featuring as many as six or seven non-British starters by the end of his tenure.
At Blackburn, Allardyce inherited a squad that was misfiring and steered them to safety one season, and a top half finish the next. But when the Venky’s takeover of the club took place, the new owners’ cluelessness about English football and obsession with style led to an untimely and unwise sacking. Rovers subsequently barely survived one season, were relegated the next and barely avoided relegation to League One this year.
When Allardyce was appointed manager by relegated West Ham United in the summer of 2011, many in the media mocked the selection. The Hammers were a side that have, more than most in England, been focused and obsessed with style since the swinging 1960s, when the club formed the nucleus of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team.
During a sometimes difficult 2011-12 season in the Championship, many West Ham supporters flooded TalkSport and BBC 5 Live with calls complaining about the style of play even while results kept the club on track for promotion. A late dip in form combined with a surging Reading forced West Ham into the promotion playoffs where they were fortunate to get past Blackpool in the final.
But this season as the two automatically promoted sides struggled to avoid relegation, West Ham were never seriously threatened. Allardyce combined defensive toughness in key away fixtures with a mix of long ball and free flowing football at Upton Park to achieve positive results.