West Bromwich Albion recently responded to their current relegation battle by sacking Slaven Bilic and bringing in a man who is synonymous with great escapes from relegation – Sam Allardyce.
‘Big Sam’ is one of those figures in English football who is regarded as a ‘character’, a larger than life individual who is often viewed with a kind of fond indulgence, largely because he appears to represent something about the British game that perhaps we have lost in the modern era.
Allardyce is not a man for the social media age, he recalls a past era when players refuelled on lager during ‘bonding’ sessions and the farthest place overseas that anyone came from was Dublin. His bluff style and blunt manner help to reinforce this impression of a manager from a more rustic, rougher era of football.
But that would be to do Allardyce a disservice. He is an astute and shrewd manager who employs cutting edge analysis of statistics and performance, and has done for many years. His style of play is often derided, but he adopts functional strategies that serve to highlight the strengths of his players and work in specific situations.
And the most specific situation in which Allardyce seems to find himself time and time again is in a relegation battle. So it was little surprise when the Baggies came calling on the former Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United manager to dig them out of their current hole.
Allardyce is rightfully proud of his record of never having been relegated while in charge of a team. Looking at his current Albion team, that record might be under some threat, however. This is not a team replete with Premier League quality, with most of the players far more suited to the Championship than the English top flight.
Since Allardyce was appointed last month, Albion are yet to win in four games. His first game in charge was a 3-0 home local derby defeat to Aston Villa – a result that gave the new manager a pretty bleak picture of his new club.
More encouragement was provided by a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield, but any optimism from that result soon faded. Two home thrashings have followed, with the Baggies losing 5-0 to Leeds United and 4-0 to Arsenal. Albion have conceded 13 goals in Allardyce’s first four games in charge, and have scored just one – stats that give a pretty good indication of the team’s weakness.
After 17 games, WBA have just eight points, six behind Brighton & Hove Albion who are in 17th place. Only Sheffield United are in a worse position, with the Blades having just two points. After a trip to Blackpool this Saturday in the third round of the FA Cup, January could be a defining month for the Baggies’ chances of survival.
Next week, the Baggies travel to Wolverhampton Wanderers, themselves in the bottom half of the table, for a local derby before another potentially tricky trip to West Ham United. The Baggies then welcome Manchester City to The Hawthorns, before Fulham, another rival in the relegation battle, come calling. February begins with a trip to Bramall Lane to face fellow strugglers Sheffield United.
What Allardyce manages to achieve in the January transfer window will be crucial to the team’s chances of success. Known as a shrewd operator in the market, Allardyce has acknowledged that he will be supplementing his squad primarily with loan deals and short-term signings.
Under the rules, Albion can make one domestic loan addition and two from abroad. Significantly perhaps, Allardyce has admitted that he identified three targets who then had to be abandoned due to Brexit. Funds are tight at The Hawthorns, but Allardyce has admitted that his squad lacks sufficient quality right now, if not effort. One possible signing is Sheffield Wednesday player Josh Windass, with reports maintaining that a £400,000 deal is possible for the player.
If anyone can keep Albion up it’s Allardyce. He really has got his work cut out this time, though, and the bookies would seem to agree. If we look at the odds that Betfred are offering on Albion staying up it does not look especially encouraging.
Betfred have the Baggies priced at 9/4 to finish bottom of the Premier League this season, and they are at 1/7 to go down. If you think that they can stay up then the odds are 4/1 on them doing so. Given Allardyce’s ability to turn things round that latter price might just be worth a punt at Betfred.
The next month will be crucial, though. If Allardyce can extract enough effort from his team to take points off relegation rivals, and bring in one or two potentially inspiring signings, anything becomes possible. If he pulls this one off, the 66-year-old’s assertion that taking the job was “worth a shot” will be more than justified.
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