Malcolm Dawson writes…….Lars Knutsen might sound as if he was brought up on gravadlax and smorgasbord but with his East Boldon roots he is more of a corned beef and potato pie or stotty cake kind of guy. Having said that he now spends time working in the US but will soon be back in the UK to take in a few games and see extended family. Kudos to him for predicting Sam’s arrival at the club in his last column. Here is the latest of his occasional observations of what’s going on at the Stadium of Light in which he reflects on the impact that Big Sam Allardyce has brought to Wearside.
So where are we now as a football club?
Big Sam has been appointed to stabilise matters and has already given us a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. There is still a long way to go, and it has been tough for him in many ways; coming in, hitting the ground running and having to instantly assess the players at his disposal, make an impression with the media, and to settle into his new rôle.
I will say he already seems to have won the respect of everybody, aside from a couple of miserable, headline-seeking Daily Mail journalists. It is of course on the field where he will be judged, and winning two games in a row has changed the whole complexion of the season. Allardyce seems like a man who is now in the perfect job for him and his personality, in the right place at the right time.
I do feel a certain level of satisfaction having predicted Sam Allardyce being hired into the club. I quote from my last “The Lars Word” piece in June of this year:
“So we are now looking forward to 2015-16 in the hope that the “Advocaat effect” is extended into the new season and next year, with future transition to another experienced manager who can bring consistent success to the Stadium of Light. That choice will be absolutely crucial, and my vote would be for our former player Sam Allardyce, after his planned sabbatical. ”
The “Advocaat Effect” just did not materialise in the current season for a whole series of reasons, which I will not speculate about at this time. The Dutchman, who we will always be grateful to, stepped aside without requesting a payoff, and Ellis Short approached “the outstanding candidate”, who jumped at the chance of moving north.
Despite the intensity of performance seen in recent games, Allardyce’s first few weeks with the Black Cats has not been straightforward. The initial loss at West Brom. did not sit well, and although the win over Newcastle was a true high point, it was very necessary as our first win of the season.
At Everton, it became clear that Big Sam needed to work harder at cutting out individual errors. I would prefer not to dwell on that performance, and that dreadful spell of seven minutes when three goals were conceded. But oddly there were in some ways more signs of encouragement in that game than the tame and defensively naïve 4-2 defeat at Leicester on the opening day.
One positive from Everton was the impression made by Duncan Watmore. The team started well but Brown and Coates played like strangers, so the defence was not convincing, and to be honest, Everton were terrific.
However, it soon became clear that some lessons had been learnt. A robust performance at home to Southampton followed, which ended in a self-inflicted 1-0 home defeat through a penalty. Another individual error cost us against the classy south coast side.
It was in Allardyce’s fifth game in charge that we finally started looking like a true “Big Sam” side. We were fearless and actually quite dominant at Selhurst Park against what has become a resurgent Palace team. He emphasised after that game that clean sheets are the key to the club’s progress away from the relegation zone.
We cannot win games though without effective strikers, and looking at the Premiership scoring charts we have Fletcher and Defoe on four goals. That puts them both level with Raheem Sterling, Juan Mata and Christian Benteke. Then we have the wonderful emerging talent that is Duncan Watmore on three goals, despite his limited playing time this season. He is still on a par though with Martial, Costa and Berahino.
So what have we learned so far about Sam Allardyce?
1. He is passionate about the club.
His body language and obvious pride at recent performances shows that his heart is in the club. As a former Sunderland player he knows about the fanatical support that can sell out the away end at Selhurst Park on a weeknight, even after a terrible run of one win in in 14 games. Sam understands how the passion of the fans can drive the team forward.
2. He coaches players individually and gives all of them a chance to impress.
A number of players who were under performing such as Van Arnholt, Kaboul, Yedlin, Coates and Jones have now stepped up a level. Sam has given them all confidence by good man management and working to a thought-out defensive system.
3. He plays with the cards he has been dealt.
Sam had studied the record of the team in the 2014-15 season and knew that we had a strong defence, which ultimately kept us in the division. So that has been his initial focus, using the current players to provide a system. Cattermole is the perfect Allardyce type of player and as usual, when Catts plays well the team plays well as in the last two games. It is no coincidence that the team fell apart once he came off at Goodison Park.
4. There is no hangover from his time at Newcastle.
Buoyed by his relative success at West Ham, it appears that any post-traumatic stress after a brief tenure at St. James’ Park has evaporated. He is safely south of the Tyne and only needs to go there once a year, for this season at least. Next season is open to question after the Magpies’ 1-5 collapse at Palace last weekend, and Shearer may again have to stray onto Wearside and come to the Stadium of Light to see Premiership football.
5. He shows great attention to detail.
Unlike in many other games this season, the players obviously knew their rôles and exactly what was expected of them. To enter each match with a game plan is absolutely crucial. We could see from his face that he was in despair from the loss of the shape of the team at Goodison Park. Fabio Borini has compared new Black Cats boss Sam Allardyce to former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian striker has been impressed by the former West Ham manager’s attention to detail. “It’s something that you notice because the details always make the difference,” said the 24-year old, in quotes published by the Shields Gazette. “I found out with Ancelotti and the big managers that they were caring about every single thing from set plays to throw-ins…that’s what the manager has been doing here since day one.”
6. He is the Manager of our football club, and not the Head Coach.
This fact is illustrated in an extract from the recent Football Focus interview at the Academy of Light, with Alan Shearer:
Allardyce: “I’m not a head coach, I’m a manager, and that’s a good start. You know me, I have to manage the club.”
Shearer: “So if any player comes in to this football club it’s because you want him?”
Allardyce: “Yes that’s right, absolutely…“I say to the player, we’ll support you, we will give you as much as we possibly can to help you go on the field and perform to your level, but make sure you perform to your level because otherwise you’re going to be left out of the team no matter who you are.”
So it is prediction time again. And readers may feel that I am too euphoric after the dizzy heights of the two back to back wins, but I predict that Sunderland will be clear of relegation by the evening of the birthday of Queen Margrethe of Denmark, which is after the away game at Norwich on April 16th, 2016. That will guarantee a less “exciting” end to the season, and will take a monumental effort from everyone at our beloved football club, but I do reckon on recent evidence that we have it in us to achieve that.