The Hawthorn in Sam’s Side

With many questioning Sam Allardyce’s appointment as West Bromwich Albion manager in December, few were surprised to see the Baggies’ struggles continue into the new year. Calum Muldoon looks into why West Brom are continuing to languish in the Premier League, as the prospect of relegation creeps ever closer.

Sam Allardyce’s start to life in the Midlands has not went smoothly – amassing only one point from four league games, conceding 13 goals in the process and being dumped out of the FA Cup by Blackpool has done nothing to remove the negativity from The Hawthorns.

In mid-December, rumours were circling of a return to management for a notorious figure in the Premier League. Following the dismissal of Slaven Bilic, West Bromwich Albion put confirmed suspicions as they appointed Sam Allardyce as their new head coach and with said appointment, a collective groan was let out by the Baggies fan base. Complaints were not due to the uncertainty that Allardyce would doom the club and lead them to Championship football – Big Sam has a fairly consistent record when it comes to keeping teams in the top flight. The worries came as West Brom would almost certainly be without any attacking football whatsoever during Allardyce’s reign.

It’s what he’s become infamous for – swooping in and turning the misfortunes of struggling teams into a narrow escape from relegation, using defensive tactics to garner wins against other weak teams and the occasional draw from games involving the top sides in the league. However, as we approach the halfway stage of the season, West Brom’s hopes of survival remain slim, even under Big Sam’s wing. Following the disappointing start to Allardyce’s tenure as West Brom manager, you must wonder what the board saw in the 66-year-old and what could he do to change the club’s bleak fate.

Allardyce was first appointed as Baggies boss on December 16th 2020 on an 18-month deal after his predecessor, Slaven Bilic, only managed one win from 13 league games. Many viewed the dismissal as harsh, especially as just hours before, the former West Ham boss secured a hard-fought point against Manchester City in a 1-1 draw. Allardyce was appointed the following day – but why him?

Well, his aforementioned success with struggling sides makes him look like the ideal candidate for the job – in fact, Allardyce has managed to rescue every single team he’s arrived at midway through the season. With Branislav Ivanovic joining the club in the summer, it seemed as though Allardyce would be able to use the former Chelsea defender’s Premier League experience to shape the back line into a well-oiled goal-stopping machine. His storied history with advancing the Premier League’s use of technology and science to maximise player development would have also been seen as a major benefit, with a number of West Brom’s younger players underperforming thus far. Allardyce was one of the first managers to take sports science into account while preparing his game plan. By letting him take control of this side of training, the team could see fitness levels rise, which could allow his defence to keep up with the quickest attackers the Premier League has to offer. While his style of play can be boring to watch, it has yielded positive results for his past rescue missions. However, while his tactical approach can have its benefits, his first few weeks in charge have been plagued with issues.

Since his introduction to Premier League management in 2001, Allardyce has been anything but the most successful English manager that football has ever seen. Boasting a mere 39% win-rate, it is obvious that his defensive strategies have cost his side(s) more points than he’d have hoped for. His frustrating and often negative strategies have repeatedly been lambasted by some of English football’s top managers, with Spurs boss Jose Mourinho once comparing Allardyce’s style of play to football “from the 19th century.” Allardyce has gone on record to defend his tactics before, attacking the Premier League’s Big Six in his 2015 autobiography, arguing that “when they hit a 50-yard ball, it was a cultural pass; when we did it, it was a hopeful hoof.” This is a fair comment to make but any team who has employed a long ball strategy during the game has done so out of desperation – it is not their default strategy and is in no way a creative or entertaining game plan. By launching the ball from box to box, you completely bypass the midfield, leaving some highly creative players in your team with very little to do throughout the game. It can also lead to earlier fatigue in the back line, which in turn can increase the number of errors, thus awarding the opposing team more chances. If they score from said chances and your team is hesitant to attack, going behind at all could well and truly damn your chances of picking up any points. But has Allardyce adapted? Have his strategies alleviated West Brom of any problems? Not necessarily.

The Baggies have picked up a solitary point since Allardyce’s arrival – granted, this point came away at Anfield against the current champions, Liverpool, but some catastrophic results against Aston Villa, Leeds and Arsenal have left fans equally as frustrated as they were under Bilic’s management. Their worst result came against Leeds, where they were thrashed 5-0 at The Hawthorns. Some sloppy passing led to a bizarre 25-yard own goal from Romaine Sawyers which opened the floodgates, leaving the dazed West Brom defenders at the mercy of a ruthless Leeds frontline. It is shocking to see a manager who loves to bolster his defence concede five goals, so it makes you wonder, is the problem larger than their style of play? It could well be.

West Brom were thoroughly embarrassed by Leeds, with an own goal from Romaine Sawyers opening the floodgates and allowing a lethal Leeds frontline to score four more past a lacklustre Baggies defence.

Sam Allardyce has blamed the poor shape of West Brom on his inability to sign the players he wants on Brexit (even though he has been open about the fact that he voted for it in the 2016 referendum). While Robert Snodgrass has come in to make the West Brom counterattack more efficient, it could be argued that West Brom’s season has been unsalvageable, even before they even considered sacking Bilic. The club sit in 19th, six points from safety and their only win this season came against Sheffield Utd, who have not won a game in the Premier League since July 2020. Their goal difference of -28 is actually worse than the Blades’ by seven goals. Not only that, but the club also added salt to their fans’ wounds after the new year by crashing out of the FA Cup to League One underdogs Blackpool on penalties. This recent defeat leaves fans in a difficult position – if Big Sam cannot save them, who can?

While there are still 21 games to go for Allardyce’s men, there appears to be a feeling of dread looming around the Hawthorns. With no sign of change coming, it feels like West Brom are slowly cruising along towards the cruel drop into the Championship. What could anyone do if even the master of survival cannot make a dent in the problems crippling West Brom’s season? It only feels like a matter of time before the Baggies’ fate is sealed and Sam Allardyce picks up the first relegation of his lengthy career. It could be argued that if the club invest in some creative midfielders and involve them in the counterattack, it could make a narrow escape more likely. This highlights how important this transfer window is for West Brom and Sam Allardyce. If the owners do not step up and give Allardyce the sufficient funds, the club and its fans can kiss a second consecutive season in the Premier League goodbye.

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