By Mihail Vladimirov.
The final game of this calendar year pits together two teams that are on a different path at the moment. Allardyce’s Sunderland are battling tooth and nail to avoid relegation for yet another year. Meanwhile, after the latest set of results, Klopp’s Liverpool will go 7th and could get straight into a Top 4 battle if they win here.
What’s interesting too is that the two teams don’t have contrasting recent form and are also diametrical opposites – in that both Allardyce and Klopp took over at the same time and have managed their respective teams for 10 league games. The Black Cats’ record is clearly worse, with three wins and seven defeats, compared to the Reds’ four wins, three draws and only three defeats. But the peculiar thing – and where the sort of diametric opposites comes in – is that both sides have posted some stats that are in contrast to what their managers are supposedly all about.
In their last four games, even taking into account the teams they’ve been playing against (Watford at home and away to Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City), Sunderland have been dreadful defensively with their attacking play impressing (despite scoring only three goals); all totally un-Allardyce-like. The team conceded 11 goals but a whopping 14 big chances. Going forward, they might have scored only three times, but the creation of seven big chances is a testament to their surprising attacking proficiency.
In contrast, for a team managed by Klopp, Liverpool have been surprisingly blunt going forward over the last four games. The team scored three goals against WBA and Leicester and failed to score against Newcastle and Watford. What’s more, the Reds created only four big chances. At the other end, Klopp’s side fared much better, something Allardyce’s side couldn’t do, conceding seven goals and only five big chances.
In short, the Allardyce team attacks better than the team managed by Klopp, while the German’s side defends better than the one led by the Englishman. Yet another of the quirks of the quirky current season.
For a manager who, due to his overall management style and tactical preferences, is the type to impact a team immediately, it’s intriguing why Allardyce has struggled to improve Sunderland’s defence and use it as a solid base from which to launch yet another inspired fightback against the relegation danger. In his –defence – the defenders he inherited and the constant injuries and/or suspensions to his defensive-midfielders clearly weren’t helpful, but more was expected from such an experienced manager on the defensive front.
Sunderland being poor defensively is something that precedes Allardyce, but the reality is that the Black Cat are currently dreadful at the back. The basic stats like goals conceded, big chances allowed etc is only scratching at the surface of how poorly the team has been performing in terms of stopping the opposition’s attacks. The extent of the team’s defensive issues is far beyond what the statistical metrics portrait.
Different managers tried different solutions, but in the end all of them failed. After his first two games, Allardyce decided to go down the Van Gaal route and try to deal with the lack of defensive solidity by simply increasing the numbers of defenders on the pitch. As the Dutchman did with Holland prior to and during the last World Cup, Allardyce employed various three-at-the-back formations. But the matter actually got only worse as the team started to ship in goals even more regularly, prompting the manager to quickly abandon the formation in game and use subs to totally reshuffle his team.
In his ten games, Allardyce has shown tactical flexibility previously rarely associated with him. He used five different formations – 4-2-3-1, 3-1-4-2, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-3, 5-4-1 – in a bid to halt his team’s slide into the darkness of the bottom three places. But apart from partially improving his team’s attacking capacity, the team continued to look totally ordinary and out of sorts. Players have been used in different positions, starting XIs have also included some peculiar decisions – full-back Billy Jones as third centre-back, winger Adam Johnson as central midfielder, forward Borini as wing-back and destroyer M’Vila as most advanced midfielder. It can’t be said Allardyce hasn’t been proactive in searching for different solutions. But unfortunately for him and the Sunderland fans, it was to no avail.
A problem each Sunderland manager’s faced in recent years is that the squad available to him is a total mishmash of types of players, with no dependable players across all positions. This is no different for Allardyce, as, bar a few players, the squad at his disposal now lacks players with even mid-table quality.
How could Sunderland line up?
In his last three games – Watford, Chelsea, Man City – Allardyce changed the initial formation (5-4-1, 3-1-4-2 and 4-1-2-3 featuring three centre-forwards up front and Johnson in midfield, respectively) to a 4-2-3-1 on during the first half after his team has already shipped in goals and looked totally incapable of competing with the opposition. The result was that although Sunderland lost all of these games, the changes issued by Allardyce at least gave his team a serious go at mounting a fightback.
This means for this game the manager might finally decide that a return to his initial choice of formation – the 4-2-3-1 – might be the way to go. With Kaboul injured and O’Shea highly doubtful, Allardyce would be left with only two fit senior centre-backs – Coates and the 36-old Brown. Meaning three at the back would again need Jones to fill in at centre-back, an experiment which emphatically failed in previous games.
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