There were two distinct trains of thought on Sam Allardyce’s appointment as Everton manager, two paths that this never-ignored-but-rarely-adored man could choose to take.
Allardyce’s first option was to treat such an unexpected high-profile opportunity as a chance to do something new. His 2010 claim that he would be more suited to managing Real Madrid, Manchester United or Chelsea has become folklore, but Allardyce was defending his own pragmatism with a double dose of bravado. Give me expensive fireworks and I’ll put on a show, was the message.
It is unusual for the biggest club job of a manager’s career to come so close towards its end, but rarer still for that Indian summer to take that manager so far out of his comfort zone. At Everton, with a troupe of No. 10s but a team incapable of stopping the concession of goals, Allardyce had a ready-made task for his skills.
Everton have far more fireworks than Sunderland, Blackburn, Crystal Palace or even then-Championship West Ham; so give us the show you promised.
The second option was to do what Allardyce has always done: make a team defensively sound but often mildly unpleasant to watch. In 2013/14 at West Ham, Allardyce’s last full season in charge of a club, they had the second best defence outside the top eight. In 2014/15, they had the best defence outside the top half, and yet the club waited around five minutes after the final game of the league season to sack him.
For all that talk of possibilities, there was only one likely outcome. A flashing neon sign pointed Allardyce and Everton down one of those two potential paths. The old dog was happy with the old tricks of ‘fetch’ and ‘sit’, while the leopard decided against a move to pinstripes. Allardyce is not for changing.
“You have to have a big personality to walk into a football club and look at the players and say, ‘Look lads, listen to me. This is what you need to do, this is how you need to get out of the position that you’re in. It’s not rocket science, it’s simplifying and making things easier for you to make decisions that will help you win back your confidence, put results on the field and take us forward’.”
That was Allardyce’s explanation on December 14 for Everton’s rapid improvement in results, and it is difficult to argue that his simplification was not effective. Beating Huddersfield, Newcastle and Swansea (two of those at Goodison) in his first four league games may have merely represented par for Everton’s expected course, but a disorganised team had quickly been put back into line.
And yet three short weeks later, there was a smattering of boos around Goodison at full-time of Everton’s New Year’s Day game against Manchester United. Fans were unimpressed by what they had witnessed. It sounds ludicrously short-termist, but had Allardyce’s three-year West Ham cycle of appreciation followed by agitation really been condensed into a month?
As ever with Allardyce, this is an issue of style as well as substance. For if a run of 12 points from eight league games represents reasonable progress at least from Koeman’s 2017/18 performance, those who began this reign as Allardyce critics have hardly been dissuaded from their stance.
The game at Goodison on Monday followed the pattern of most games between the Premier League’s top six and the rest, the latter sitting back and hoping to either create chances from set-pieces or counter-attacks or dig in and earn a 0-0 draw. At Anfield in November, Allardyce managed to combine the two. This is the new norm between the elite and non-elite. It prompted Jamie Carragher to muse whether the Premier League was becoming a “joke league”.
This is not what Everton supporters are used to. They had won three and drawn one of their previous five home league games against United, and had taken the game to stellar opponents at Goodison. For all Koeman’s faults, the 4-0 victory over Manchester City last season was a result that will last long in the memory.
This wasn’t a one-off, either. In their four matches over the Christmas period, Everton have scored one goal and had just four shots on target. Their last shot on target at Goodison came in the 86th minute of the 3-1 win over Swansea on December 18.
Allardyce’s excuse is that he doesn’t have a decent striker, the same fate that befell his predecessor. “Our attacking powers are limited,” he said after the United defeat. “I knew that before I got here, that’s why I’ve focused on us going for clean sheets.” He’s also done that because it’s what he knows.
Allardyce’s argument is reasonable (although he does have Yannick Bolasie back) and the signing of Cenk Tosun should allay the issue, but this is a question of system as well as personnel. Before Allardyce, Everton had not failed to have a shot on target in a home league game since December 2011, then under David Moyes’ management. They’ve done it twice in the last nine days.
Everton’s recent return of two points from four games – including fixtures against West Brom and Bournemouth – is the lowest in the Premier League (bar West Ham, who have only played twice), but it is the meekness of their attacking ambition that has plenty at Goodison clucking ‘I told you so’. The still-new manager will plead that he is merely making Everton walk before they can run, and that this is a necessary short-term process towards longer-term redemption. Unfortunately for Allardyce, first impressions matter. So too do past reputations. He has making up to do on both.
As is customary, we have reached the inevitable Sam Allardyce dilemma, a question that the game in general is struggling to answer: In the age of football as entertainment, what is the ratio of importance between aesthetics and points?
The quasi-answer (or cop-out, depending on your stance) is that Allardyce’s preferred style means that patience in his results and goodwill in his project runs out quicker than for other managers. In some ways that is a flaw of his management, but the flip side is that it makes his continued faith in that style all the more admirable.
It is impossible to consider Allardyce a loser in this scenario. The worst that will happen is that he will slip back into his semi-retirement at his Spanish villa with another multi-million pound pay-off for short service. He can stay resolute that he is a victim of snobbery rather than his own obstinacy, and perhaps even be partly correct.
Everton supporters who were worried at the time of the appointment can accuse their club of lurching too far from the naivety of Koeman to the hard-headedness of Allardyce and are now unsure of where this goes next. The groans at Goodison over the last fortnight have reiterated that this is emphatically a marriage of inconvenience.