Part of he beauty of football is the speed with which fortune can turn. It is a sport that is unique in often being decided on 1, 2 or at most 3 key moments. With most games having less than 3 goals in them, if you can limit the opposition to scoring 1 or under alongside becoming more clinical in front of goal you can pick up a large number of points without necessarily playing well for the majority of the game. Essentially it is a game whereby the team that plays best doesn’t always win. This is the basis that Sam Allardyce, like Moyes before him has made his living out of football. It is the same strategy that saw Leicester win the league while not having the majority of possession for almost every game they played in. It allows for quick turnarounds and sides who 3 weeks ago were being hammered by 4 and 5 goals against Atalanta and Southampton to become one that has conceded 1 goal in 5 games.
This is not to underestimate the work that Sam Allardyce has done. Few outside of the club, who had witnessed first hand Everton’s abject surrender at Southampton can underplay the immediacy of impact he has had and the level of improvement that has taken place in a short space of time. I have to hold my hands up and say, thus far I have not only been completely wrong about Sam Allardyce, but also have to accept he has turned the team around with a level of immediacy I didn’t think was possible. I had seen his starts at Crystal Palace and Sunderland (at Palace he had 1 point from 5 games and just 4 from 8) and was extremely worried that the defensive rigidity he would eventually deliver us may take 8 weeks too long given the fixture congestion. A similar run to that he experienced at his previous two teams would likely have seen Everton rooted to the bottom of the table and facing enormous scrutiny. This was heightened by the feeling that David Unsworth and Joe Royle had been unable to illicit a significant upturn in both results and defensive organization.
When Allardyce’s name was first mentioned it seemed to be a 70/30 split against him, and when he came in it was closer to 50/50. I suspect after what has been a very promising start those numbers may well be upwards of 75% in his favour now. While I had little doubt Allardyce would sort us out defensively, as indicated above I am amazed he has been able to do so in such a short space of time. Undoubtedly his first challenge was to stop conceding 1 goal in a game and the second challenge was to avoid conceding 2 if you conceded 1. I have no doubt that message has been passed to the players, that each goal you concede loses significance. A clean sheet is gold dust in the premier league, particularly in a side that has players in it who while not prolific have the ability to score a goal out of nothing.
While I can and perhaps should write a whole piece about the brilliance of his initial management of games I will try to simplify what has impressed me. He has got Ashley Williams looking like the defender we wanted to sign. He has been magnificent since Allardyce arrived and looks completely at home sitting deeper and focusing on smashing balls away from our goal. Both Holgate and Kenny have kicked on massively and seem to be massively helped by the focus of the entire team to be hard to beat. In front of them, Gana now looks the player we championed as being as good as Kante for the first half of last season. He has also found a way to accommodate both Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson as an attacking threat without sacrificing the team’s shape. I think Sigurdsson’s performance at Anfield from a defensive standpoint was fantastic, his was incredibly disciplined in doubling up on Salah and it is telling the one time he was unable to get back into shape quickly enough was the time he scored. While up front Dominic Calvert Lewin is doing a fantastic impression of Marcus Bent and providing a very effective foil for the rest of the team.
In truth I think the side I starting to resemble the team we sensed and hoped it would be in the summer. Unlike Allardyce’s previous teams, this one has had 150 million pounds spent on it in the summer and over 200 million over the last 15 months. While a number of players may be underperforming, they have not become bad players overnight. In almost starting again we are seeing many of the players are benefitting of the fresh start that has been allowed and will be mightily relieved the nightmarish beginning to the season can be put behind us. Allardyce (unlike Koeman before him) is used to working with poorer players and invariably for clubs in England at a time when lavish transfer budgets were not a luxury the post TV deal inflation have allowed. He is used to having to improve performance primarily by supporting and working with the playing staff he had, rather than looking for external solutions from other clubs. He has the added benefit of having a group of players who are quite receptive to his ideas and showing a speed of improvement which provides genuine grounds for optimism.
With this in mind the January window may not play out exactly how people want or expect it too. I happen to think Allardyce’s perhaps more conservative approach to recruitment will suit the club well. I have argued in previous posts, the high turnover of players we’ve seen under Koeman will rarely lead to success unless there is a period of stability. Under Koeman and Walsh, for the most part I don’t believe us to have signed bad players. We have bought good players, or players that are either a bit younger and need time or lads from foreign countries who need time to bed in and more stability around the football club to get the best out of them. I genuinely hope both Klaassen and Sandro for example are kept in the club, given opportunities and if they are moved on in January this is only on a loan basis. Both feel like failures of the previous manager to try and bed too many players in at once, and I sense with a more rigid playing structure could offer us valuable options.
While I would like to see Sandro and Klaassen given more time, much of the January window is going to be based upon trimming the squad. Allardyce is right that 32 players is simply too high and not workable. I sense any hoped of another 5 or 6 players are not entirely realistic and also will not massively help improve performance. We could really do with a Centre Forward and a left back but the rest will depend as much on who we can move out as who we can get in. It is my belief Everton would not now miss Mirallas, Martina or Besic and a case can be made that Schneiderlin and McCarthy could be moved on if the right offer were to come in and Nzonzi could be convinced to come. While I would like to keep Barkley almost everything suggests he too will be leaving the club. Such movement in the window could see anywhere from 4-8 players leaving the club with maybe 2-3 to come back hopefully allowing the squad to number the mid to high 20’s. I would also look to bring back Brendan Galloway who has bombed at his last 2 loans and can’t be learning much as left back cover and also look to register Luke Garbutt. Both would offer the much needed cover at Centre and Left Back before we could bring players in. I sense this might be the route Allardyce looks to go. The signings will be very telling as to what future direction the club would look set to travel.
The big question will be what happens in the summer, and much of it will depend on other targets availability. That being said, for Allardyce there must be some regret that in his previous 2 jobs, having got them performing to the level of a top half team he was unable/unwilling to kick on the following season. While he may have lamented the quality of the playing staff and resources available to him, neither will be a problem for him at Everton and I suspect he will be desperate to have a summer to try and kick on and seriously challenge the top 6 teams in the league. It will undoubtedly require astute recruitment and in the case of Walsh a more joined up approach that closes more business than what we saw under the previous management. The close relationship that Walsh and Allardyce enjoy hints there is more than a decent possibility this could occur. If it doesn’t, there can be few excuses Walsh will have left for failing to prepare the team adequately for the season ahead.
The big blot on the Allardyce copy book is undoubtedly his inability to transfer his enviable work at less affluent clubs into one with a bigger ambition. At Bolton his record was fantastic and he did a very solid job at Blackburn. The turnaround he engineered at Crystal Palace and Sunderland was for me some of his most impressive work. However at Newcastle he spent money very badly, overpaying for British players who failed to deliver. At West Ham, while at one point he had them playing an attacking brand of football based around Sakho, Valencia and Morrisson the criticism was he would always revert to the Carroll/Nolan axis and the side would subsequently fall down the league. The big question will be, at his third big (and his biggest) club can he transfer the positive work he has done at some of the lesser lights.
This question will remain unanswered until the summer, but it is great credit to Allardyce that it is not legitimately being asked and a reflection of the upturn in form he has overseen. We are currently 1 point worse off than where we were at this stage last season, where we both went on a terrific run of form but also saw an underwhelming end to the season whereby we undoubtedly could have accrued even more than the 61 points we ended up with. The potential for Allardyce, who has got the team solid defensively, with the possibility or reintegrating Coleman, Bolasie, Keane and possibly Mori, McCarthy and Barkley alongside a couple of astute buys from Steve Walsh in January means this season remains retrievable. Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool continue to teeter at different moments and a second half of the season whereby they are partially focused upon European competition can only help Everton who have diplomatically knocked themselves out t avoid this distraction (I say as a joke!).