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Big Sam and the Science of Football

01/08/2016 16:38 | Updated 01 August 2016
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As an academic, we are supposed to acknowledge our biases. Therefore, I should confess to being a Bolton Wanderers supporter of many years standing. This means that Big Sam's and my paths have crossed before, for that I will be eternally grateful. That was a number of years ago now but my analysis of him and what he might do for England is unashamedly positive.

They say it is the hope that kills you and England supporters for many years have hoped for a decent performance in a major championship. Not to win it but just to give an account that justifies the unquestionable talent available to the national team. As mentioned in a previous blog, if you take out the England hosted tournaments, it is really a legacy of chronic underachievement.

Many managers have come and gone. Former International players such as Hoddle and Keegan; failed. International managers of great reputation such as Erikson and Capello; failed. Career managers such as McClaren and Hodgson; failed. The use of the word "failed" is somewhat harsh if you look at qualifying for major events which, at times, has been spectacularly good but it is the World Cup and the Euros that a manager will be judged against. Enter stage left, the man from Dudley.

When Sam Allardyce became Bolton manager, few outside the town will have heard of him. He plied his trade as the typical "no nonsense centre half" who came up through the juniors at the club. He played most of his professional career with Bolton but, significantly, he also spent time in America where he became more aware of the methods used in American sport at the time when sport in America was already very big business.

In 1999, Bolton were what was described as a yo-yo club, one that goes up and down all the time. The budget of the club which was not nothing but was struggling to compete with clubs at the elite level. When Sam achieved promotion back to the Premier League, few gave the club a chance of staying up. What followed was an unprecedented period of success for the club. So how did he do it and what could this mean for England?

I am of the view is that Sam's career as a centre half means that he values a good defence as a priority. One might argue that in Euro2016, defensively, England were not tested and were found wanting on the occasions they were. Expect that to be a major priority. Sam likes a target man. It was Kevin Davies for many years and, more latterly, Andy Carroll at West Ham. Someone who can hold a ball up so that players can play off them, expect to see Harry Kane used in this way. Set plays are a great leveller in football and you can expect to see improved delivery into the box via corners, free kicks and long throw ins. The notion that his teams are purely long ball was a myth started by other managers who he beat and perpetuated by the predominantly London based media who did not enjoy seeing their darling teams from the capital getting beaten by a town club from the North of England. But of course, I would say that wouldn't I!

It is the off field science that is more interesting. Sam, in my experience wants physically fit, strong players who are not repeatedly injured and it was his use of sports science that set him apart in the early 2000s. When managing a club with limited resources, when better players get injured there are no replacements of comparable quality and when your better players are coming to the end of their careers, then injuries are more likely. A comprehensive backroom team worked hard to look after the players and techniques such as ice baths were introduced to aid recovery post match. The psychology of the player was also not lost on him and former players often comment on his ability to motivate.

Sam was one of the first managers to use pro-zone and, certainly when he managed Bolton, was one of a very limited number of managers who sat in the stands and was in radio contact with assistants at pitch side. It will be interesting to see whether he does this for England.

Limitations? One aspect that I have not alluded too is that, despite what many may say, behind the scenes he is a staunch disciplinarian. There is a Code that players are expected to abide by and failure to do will not be tolerated. The disciplinarian method was tried by Fabio Capello and simply seemed to rub the players up the wrong way. I also wonder how he will manage with players he is only with a short time in terms of working with his backroom team.

One suspects that his reception from some will be lukewarm and every goal England score from a corner or throw in will be greeted with some derision. Any good football played will simply be ignored. That will evaporate if the country actually performs on the major stage. Time will tell whether Sam can do this but he deserves his opportunity and who knows what he could achieve with the best players on offer.

Bolton is pleased for him. As for the rest, we will have to wait and see!

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