Wednesday 13 December 2017

Big Sam lightening the mood in bid to move on from dark summer

It is well documented that Allardyce is a more progressive manager than public perception. Photo: Andrew Couldridge
It is well documented that Allardyce is a more progressive manager than public perception. Photo: Andrew Couldridge

Jason Burt

Clarity. It could well be the buzzword of Sam Allardyce's first few weeks as England manager and it has certainly influenced the first team he has chosen as he begins the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup.

It is well documented that Allardyce is a more progressive manager than public perception, and one of the messages he broadcast last week, when his squad first assembled, was about "branding", a word that may be anathema to the average football fan.

There is even a slogan at the start of this campaign, 'The Journey Begins Here', and if it all sounds like some kind of concept dreamt up by a firm of management consultants then, actually, it is.

The Football Association, under the direction of Dave Reddin, its head of team strategy and performance services (quite a mouthful, that title), has been employing Lane4, a business set up by former Olympic gold medallist swimmer, Adrian Moorhouse.

Lane4 refers to the lane in swimming given to the fastest qualifier (it is therefore the lane most likely to produce champions) and Moorhouse's firm has been working with every level of the national side from under 21s down.

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What is interesting is that Allardyce has quickly bought into this and embraced their involvement. Indeed last week he offered up the insight that several times already he had met Moorhouse and "his team", which includes sports psychologist Jonathan Zneimer, who was seconded to work with the FA in January.

A lot of this is window-dressing, with Allardyce also talking about how he has made St George's Park - the unloved base of the England team - more friendly and accessible for the players. There are small touches but he also hopes it is about creating a more relaxed, inviting and clear environment. There are many reasons for Allardyce wanting to do this, and although there is a corporate gobbledegook sheen with much of it, his intentions are clear.

The "brittleness" of the England players was raised by FA chief executive Martin Glenn after the traumatic Euro 2016 exit and Allardyce is attempting to address that.

By making areas more sociable - and it is not just about darts competitions and playing golf - he wants to develop a sense of collective responsibility, of being a team.

Another sign was Allardyce giving the players Wednesday evening and Thursday day-time off last week. His reasoning is that when they are with their clubs they are not cocooned in a hotel 24/7, feeling caged, and he does not understand the custom of doing this for international duty. The players do not like St George's Park, finding it boring and stifling.

Allardyce wants to lighten the mood - "have fun", he says - and that is why he is planning to use comedians such as Bradley Walsh, Paddy McGuinness and John Bishop for quiz nights.

It provoked derision, but it is just an idea that contributes to a different mood, he hopes, while he will also work on building relationships with key players. He has retained Wayne Rooney as captain, but that does not mean he will slavishly retain the 30-year-old. Instead he has set Dele Alli, 10 years Rooney's junior, the task of dislodging him as England's 'No 10'. Immediately both players are on their toes.

Then there was the decision to name his team early. The players were told before training on Friday, more than 48 hours before they were due to face Slovakia, and Allardyce's reasoning, again, was clear: he is a coach who wants to work with his starting XI for at least two training sessions, to develop team shape and tactics, so there is no point keeping the players guessing.

Once they know, the team is likely to be leaked out anyway, so it takes the stress out of fearing there is a 'mole in the camp'. Instead there is no drama around who he is picking, and the team is made public.

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Whether that lasts, with fitness, form and results influencing the campaign, remains to be seen.

But, again, it is about attempting clarity and clear intentions and taking away some of the doubt and uncertainty that may have infected the team's confidence, making them more brittle.

Then there is the line-up and the formation itself. Immediately Allardyce appears to have reverted to a 4-2-3-1 approach, moving away from the 4-3-3 that his predecessor Roy Hodgson wanted to use, but could not make work, and the 4-4-2 midfield diamond he often reverted to.

Playing 4-2-3-1 means that the players are using a formation that is the most common in the Premier League and, therefore, they are not going to be playing out of position or moved around to accommodate others.

The team itself contains no new names and is designed not to lose. There are eight of the 11 who started against Iceland, nine who played in the first Euro 2016 group game against Russia. All 11 were in Hodgson's squad.

That already suggests that Allardyce believes either: a, there is no one else out there, or: b, the fault lay in the way the players played, the system they used and the way they were managed. Or a combination of both those things.

It is early days. The journey is about to start. Whether it ends well remains to be seen, but Allardyce is at least attempting to clear the path.

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