Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Road To POMOtion

"It's not about results, it's about entertainment," says Sam Allardyce. Pause a moment to take that in. The man often portrayed as the ultimate no-frills manager announcing that, actually, he quite fancies frills and thrills. Except that's not exactly what he's saying. Because it is clear that, for Allardyce, entertainment has always meant getting good results and getting good results means entertainment. All else, writes Paul Doyle, is whimsy and piffle.

Results are certainly all Allardyce's employers wanted when they hired him last summer to replace Avram Grant following West Ham's relegation from the Premier League. Of the 36 teams to have been relegated from the top-flight since the turn of the century, only seven had gone straight back up. "Bouncing straight back is one of the most difficult tasks in football because the catastrophic fall-out of relegation devastates clubs," says Allardyce. "Normally it can't happen in just one season because of the difficulty of having to adjust."

After spending six straight seasons in the top flight that period of adjustment was always going to be considerable for the Hammers. Writing in Forbes magazine, Zach Slaton's statistical analysis shows West Ham were relegated in 2011 with the 10th ranked squad in terms of total valuation (cTTV = $243M/€191M/£154M) that translated to an mTTV of 1.08. Such a team valuation, he argues, should have been good enough to see them finish mid table and comfortably avoid relegation. Instead, Grant was unable to improve on the club’s 17th place finish in 2009/10, and the club finished rock bottom the following year.

Having an expensive side that had a number of players with substantial Premier League experience and aspirations to stay in the top flight meant the club was due for a bit of an overhaul once relegated. The overhaul inevitably extended to the front office, where Grant was sacked and replaced by Allardyce. Yet it’s the story of how Sam Allardyce became available to West Ham in the first place, argues Slaton, that makes this story of redemption even more intriguing.

It is no secret that Allardyce has been known as an overachieving manager for some time now. How he’s done it – via the use of analytics – means that he also holds a place in most quants’ hearts since his days at Bolton Wanderers. "It was his partnership with men like Gavin Fleig that ensured Bolton knew what it took to not only stay up in the Premier League, but also grossly overachieve versus what the expectations their wage and transfer bill would normally set," notes Slaton.

Fleig states that at Bolton Wanderers they identified what Allardyce used to call the 'fantastic four'. "There were four key areas which we knew that you look at it statistically, and that would define successful teams and unsuccessful teams in the league," he reveals. "But most importantly [the statistical model was] based around our game model. To apply a generic set of set of statistics and philosophies to every football team is very difficult. We had a very unique set of players, we worked on very low budgets, and the collective of all of our individuals as a team was far more than the collective of the individuals."

Those Bolton teams would go on to overachieve their predicted performance by nearly four table positions over their 5 plus years at the club. "Such overperformance translated to Allardyce-led teams earning 5 points more per season than their valuation suggested they should," Slaton calculates, which was "good enough to be ranked the 15th all-time best manager against the metric. The second edition of Soccernomics uses a slightly different method to arrive at a similar conclusion, as Allardyce ranks 20th out of the 699 managers in the last 40 years of the English game."

His final four years of his six year tenure at Bolton saw him improve team performance versus the m£XIR model each year, with his final year generating a 0.522 points per match overperformance (+19.84 points over a 38 match season). Allardyce’s half season at Newcastle United was tumultuous, with a poor run of form around Christmas sealing his fate. Even with that poor run of form he was still on track to earn 0.226 points per match more than his transfer expenditures suggested (+8.59 points per season).

It was under this premise that Big Sam was hired to manage Blackburn Rovers in 2009, as Blackburn were facing the need to get more out of a declining wage and transfer spend. Slaton states Allardyce coaxed a 10th place finish and a League Cup semi-final appearance out of a squad that was predicted to finish in the bottom third of the table based upon TTV expectations and had been relegation fodder the season prior. What was a promising start to his Blackburn tenure quickly turned into a nightmare for him and Blackburn’s fans with the purchase of the team by Venky’s Limited in the summer of 2010. Sitting thirteenth in the table in mid-December 2010 – right where they were expected to be based upon their TTV – the club sacked Allardyce after only a year-and-a-half in charge. News of the firing sent shockwaves throughout the Premier League managerial ranks, with Alex Fergusson emphatically stating: "I’ve never heard of such a stupid decision in all my life. I don’t know what they’re doing up there, but deary me. It confounds common sense. Absolutely ridiculous."

It was just the first of many decisions by the Venky’s ownership team that seemed to indicate they understood very little about the business in which their club participated. By the end of the 2010/11 season the club had continued to sink to 15th, and continued poor performance this season meant the club was relegated after 11 straight seasons in the top flight. The ironic cruelty of West Ham’s promotion with Sam Allardyce at the helm cannot be understated, thinks Slaton. "Blackburn’s loss was West Ham’s gain, and after only a single season out of the top flight they’ll be back for more in the 2012/13 Premier League campaign. Meanwhile, both of Allardyce’s former clubs with which he spent at least one full season, Bolton and Blackburn, were relegated at the same time that West Ham was promoted."

The last time West Ham went down, in 2003, it took them two campaigns to return but the club's co-owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, could ill-afford to wait that long this time so they took the (ultimately successful) expensive gamble on getting back at the first attempt. West Ham may have shed 14 players from that 10th ranked squad following relegation, with the likes of Demba Ba, Matthew Upson and Scott Parker leaving, but they also recruited almost as many and Sullivan recently put their trading loss for this past season at £17m – and, given the scale of the debts that he and his business partner inherited when they took over the club in 2010, failure to secure promotion would have severely endangered West Ham's future.

It is one of many reasons why Allardyce could never understand the boos he and his team had to endure at several points during the season. Yes, West Ham had disappointed by drawing too many matches at home to slip them out of the automatic promotion places but, reasons the manager, they still reached where they needed to go thanks mainly to outstanding away form – their league victories on the road surpassing a club record that had stood since 1958. "We have created a winning environment at this club for the first time in donkey's years," says Allardyce. "Last time West Ham got up [in 2005] they had to do it by scraping into sixth spot and then going through the play-offs. So I don't know why people listen to the small minority who are discontent with this season."

The Middlesbrough manager, Tony Mowbray, suggested after his side's recent draw at Upton Park that triggered another outburst of booing from the locals, that the discontent was down to the West Ham fans having ideas above their station and "thinking it is an insult to be in the Championship". Another factor, however, is West Ham fans' traditional fondness for the sort of slick and exciting football with which Allardyce is not commonly associated. The 57-year-old does not believe West Ham are associated with it either. "When did they play like that?" he asks. "I don't remember it. Is outpassing teams and losing matches entertaining?"

He has a point. But so do his detractors. At times during the season West Ham had been gruelling to watch. They defended well with Rob Green enjoying a fine season, had largely resolved the long-standing full-back problems (until the playoff final) and the blossoming centre-back partnership of James Tomkins (once he reverted to defence from the holding midfield berth that he filled with distinction) and latterly Winston Reid has been a joy to watch. In contrast, notes Doyle, it is going forward where West Ham have laboured. The much-vaunted Ravel Morrison was entrusted with just nine minutes of action since his January arrival from Manchester United, Ricardo Vaz TĂȘ has, in fairness, injected a dash of trickery but the team's preferred method of attack remained long diagonal passes into the fabled 'Position of Maximum Opportunity'. In a sense, this campaign has been about automatic Pomo-tion.

It is not an approach that appears to suit the side's forwards. Carlton Cole is big and strong yet looked nowhere near the force that he had threatened to become under Gianfranco Zola for most of the season. John Carew was a flop. Sam Baldock and Nicky Maynard looked lost. Midfielder Kevin Nolan, though on the wane, can still read knock-downs and was the club's second top scorer in the league with 13 goals. There is a feeling that the crudeness of the team's build-ups reduces the chances of finishing with finesse. West Ham hit more shots off target in the Championship this season than anyone bar Burnley. Invariably, Allardyce concludes the blame does not therefore lie with the build-up, but with the strikers.

"The simple facts are we have created the chances and delivered what we've needed to deliver but the one thing we haven't done often enough is put the ball in the back of the net," he says. "The achilles heel is the goalscorers and that's why we've drawn so many because you can't always ask your defenders to keep clean sheets." Allardyce, of course, is fond of statistics. Using them, he could tell you that West Ham lost the least amount of games - eight - in the Championship this season. That they scored the third most goals. That 13 wins away from home represents West Ham’s best record on their travels in their entire history. That 86 points would normally have been enough to go up automatically.

Except it wasn't this season. Southampton got 88. So they had do it via the playoffs. It is the route they took under Alan Pardew in 2005, when Bobby Zamora’s winner against Preston North End in the final erased the disappointment of defeat to Crystal Palace a year earlier. Then there was a palpable sense of relief and elation, recalls Jacob Steinberg. Under Pardew, West Ham had never seriously challenged for the title and, indeed, only scraped into the top six thanks to a remorseless late charge to haul themselves into the top six. This time, with the no-nonsense Allardyce in charge, they were meant to do it the easy way. Straight back up as champions, no questions asked.

The Championship season is a notorious slog however and West Ham did not always cope well with the weight of expectation. That they would finish in a play-off position at least was never in any doubt, but it ought to have been so much more. Four defeats and eight draws - a statistic Allardyce does not care for so much - at home put paid to that. Away from East London, teams were forced to come out and play. To attack. West Ham are a scalp. That suits the Allardycian style. Soak up the pressure and then take a grip on proceedings. But visitors to Upton Park took a more cautious approach.

Ask West Ham to take the initiative and they have frequently come up short. Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Doncaster and Watford, among others, all came for a point and got one, West Ham unable to pick the lock. Blackpool and Brighton both came to play; both were torn to shreds, beaten 4-0 and 6-0 respectively. A lesson learned. Otherwise entertainment has not been high on the agenda and accusations of long-ball football abound. Allardyce bristles at that, calling the fans "deluded" and criticism of him "bollocks". Out come the statistics. Look how many passes we completed. Look at the chances we created. Look at the number of shots on goal.

To a certain degree, he is right. The long-ball tag is one that follows him around unfairly at times. The problem is more a creativity dearth and a lack of width in the face of stubborn defending. Apart from Vaz Te, West Ham can be one-paced and predictable in midfield, with no one else comfortable at running with the ball and taking on defenders. If West Ham do not necessarily set out to hoof it, thinks Steinberg, they are too hasty to resort to rudimentary tactics when Plan A has failed. Lost leads and lax moments in defence have been a hindrance, and Allardyce was supposed to solve the unprofessional habits that have come to define West Ham. Yet win promotion and the complexion is inexorably altered. "There has been much to admire in this West Ham side, not least their resilience," admits Steinberg, before noting they went unbeaten for three games in February despite having a man sent off in each of them.

In that respect, this West Ham team are very much in the image of their manager. "I have to make sure this sinks in, because this is a memory for life," Allardyce said, after Ricardo Vaz Te had snatched victory in the death throes of that nerve-shredding Wembley match. "It’s an outstanding achievement." Perhaps his greatest ever he thinks. Allardyce, who guided Bolton to promotion via the play-offs at the Millennium Stadium in 2001, said: "It's probably bettered that because it's West Ham United, with the size of the club and the pressure, and because it's at Wembley. It's the first time I have come here and won - not that I've been here very often. It's been an outstanding, thrilling season compared to where we came from."

For Allardyce, the accomplishment was also personal. While he has often been ridiculed for his inflated sense of self-worth — who recalls the touting for a job at Inter Milan and Real Madrid? — the 57 year-old, even in the immediate aftermath of that momentous win, was not shy of reminding critics of his record since taking over at Upton Park a little under 12 months ago. "Having had two sackings, at Newcastle and Blackburn, that were unjust to say the least, people seem to believe that I’m not as good as I was when I managed Bolton," he claimed. "But I’m still achieving great things. I don’t like seeing Bolton go down, Blackburn go down, or Newcastle go down — but they have all gone down since I managed them. There are times when people consider you to be at the top of your industry. For me, those were the heights to which I took Bolton: fifth in the Premier League, four seasons in succession in the top eight."

Big Sam maintains his job is about entertaining the fans, even if that means giving them what they need as oppose to what they want. "It’s everything to me, because I had been in the Premier League for 10 years, and I wanted to come and experience a successful season," he said. "It was difficult at the start to turn the club around, because of the relegation we experienced, but we did it. We came good right at the very end." The relief was magnified by Allardyce’s conviction that the Financial Fair Play regulations, due to come into force this summer, would have "decimated" his squad in the event of failure at the final hurdle. "We would have had to cut our wage bill by £10 million," he said. As it transpired, the thoughts of the season to come could be left for another day. "I’m looking forward to the celebrations first," he beamed, as he prepared to be drenched in champagne.

In the sober light of day, argues Slaton, Allardyce and West Ham still don’t come back to the Premier League without their fair share of critics. "Allardyce has been accused of taking bungs while building the successful Bolton sides of the early- to mid-naughts, a claim he denies," he notes. "His teams’ style of play also aren’t typically considered the most beautiful, with even some West Ham fans calling for him to spice things up as the team closed in on promotion. It’s certainly earned him some pushback from fellow managers who play very different styles of soccer." Nonetheless, no one can take away what Big Sam and the Hammers have been able to accomplish, and they have much to throw back in the critics’ faces who just one year ago wondered if the man and club would make it back to the top tier of English football. Now it’s up to Sam Allardyce’s team to deliver on what Slaton coins the most expensive side the Englishman has ever managed. "I just know what's good for the players at West Ham, I know what's good for West Ham as a football club, and I know how to win football matches," argues Allardyce, before insisting he "turns dreams into reality". More accurately, like Huxley's pragmatic dreamer, perhaps Big Sam's single greatest achievement at West Ham has been to inject a little reality into the fantasy.


Emlyn said...

Brilliant stuff. Glad Sam came but some of his decisions were....baffling. 4 cb against 1 forward.Just annoying. nevermind. We are in the big time again. Under Sam I to be a difficult team to beat even with the big step

kockney52 said...

I have never been an Allerdyce fan, mainly due to the fact he made playing Bolton so bloody difficult! I do think that we, the fans, delude ourselves about our entertaining style of football. I have not seen this played often in the last 15 years. We also seem to forget sometimes that the club is a business and the Icelanders totally screwed the finances. So if we have to play boring football and manage to stay in the top flight and slowly build up the team and maybe push up the table while the finances are strengthened then I'm happy with that. The alternative is West Ham disappearing as a club and I would rather be dead than for that to happen.

Matthew Wood said...

This is probably the most intelligent, researched, well thought out and well written article on football management I've ever read. I never knew Sam used statistics to such effect. It's fascinating stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hack again?!

Anonymous said...

Normally dislike any form of commenting, but when you read an excellent post at times you just have to get out of those lazy approaches. This is such a post!

Anonymous said...

What a good article - it objectively ties the stats to what's been happening at WHU and because I'm an opinionated supporter, I don't have that distance. I was advocating for Sam to take over from Grant in the January as I could see it was an accident waiting to happen. His being there when we were in the Championship has probably been better for us because if we hadn't been relegated I don't think as many fans would've bought Sam coming in. (Doesn't stop me wanting a creative midfielder though!)

Ian Ayris said...

Informative and well thought out. A truly outstanding piece of writing.


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