Another summer tournament has gone as quickly as it came, and, to the surprise of a grand total of 2 people across the country, England crashed and burned in arguably the most excruciatingly horrific fashion imaginable
It’s 2016, you know how these things tend to play out; demands for a full enquiry into England’s current failures intensify in an attempt to salvage the future of the national team, a new manager must be put in charge of the first team, for the sake of national morale, and they must be English, regardless who else may be better suited for the role. England has danced along to this song almost every other year since the Sven-Göran Eriksson reign came to an inglorious end in Baden-Baden a decade previous. England are onto their fourth (permanent) manager since Sven led England to yet another Quarter-Final heartbreak, and have managed a grand total of 0 knock-out wins since, and have tasked Sam Allardyce with rectifying this. While I, nor many I know, may not agree with the appointment, I feel we need to get behind Big Sam as he aims to end (what will be) 52 years of hurt. And here’s how I think he can go about achieving that.
It doesn’t take a footballing genius to realise where Uncle Roy faltered during the Euro 2016 finals: he picked 5 natural centre forwards, of which plundered 88 goals in all competitions between them, and combined them to the tune of 3 goals between them total. These players include Wunderkid-turned-Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, Premier League title winner and second only to Harry Kane in the Golden Boot stakes Jamie Vardy, “England’s most natural finisher” Daniel Sturridge, England all time top goalscorer (albeit deployed as a centre midfielder) Wayne Rooney, and Marcus “better than Kun Agüero” Rashford. Whichever way you paint it, Roy was blessed with some of the deadliest goalscoring options in the tournament, and failed to create a cohesive attacking unit. Allardyce’s first task, in my books, it to create this balance. Hodgson decided against partnering the Premier League’s top two centre forwards at all, opting for a system that allowed for one out and out striker (4-3-3), despite all of qualifying using a diamond 4-4-2. Allardyce would be wise to utilise a system that takes advantage of the finest striking options England has to offer. Let’s not forget, Jermaine Defoe struck 15 goals as he steered Sunderland to safety (under Allardyce’s command, nonetheless), and Andy Carroll, when he is fit, has proven himself a handful for many defences, though it must be added he’s failed to hit double figures for a season in all but one of his 8 Premier League seasons as bonafide starter.
Now I am in no way suggesting that England are perfect across the board, but the clearest issue in France this summer, as far as I was concerned, was our failure to kill off teams, while having the ball for an average of 59% per game. And that’s worrying. Allardyce must prioritise production over personality in order to progress this England side.
For all England’s attacking options, defensively there’s a lot to be desired, specifically in the centre. Allardyce would be wise to install John Stones in the heart of his back line, given the immense promise of the young man. Stones is a perfect example of the modern defender; deceptively quick, confident on the ball, and a wonderful passer. Under Martinez at Everton, Stones showed flashes of the player he could yet become. He is not a powerful brute of a centre half, he is as elegant you’re likely to find a centre back, and it’s no wonder the giants of club football have shown more than a passing interest. For England to enact it’s so called DNA, players such as Stones, who wish to play the ball from the back over hoofing the ball forward will become more important, and absolutely essential to ball retention. This isn’t a new idea of course: before his inglorious dismissal, Glenn Hoddle had talked up, among other, more spiritual practices, the idea of Rio Ferdinand carrying the ball from the back in the middle. It’s amazing that, almost 16 years later, we’re now only getting round to entertaining this notion once more. Allardyce must show faith in John Stones to grow into his role.
Aside from this, England need bolstering. While this isn’t something Allardyce can control himself (it’s not like he can put a cheeky bid in for Varane), he has to find alternative options. England carried 3 recognised centre halves in France, and opted to deploy Eric Dier as a deputy in the case injury. Simply put; this isn’t good enough. France, for arguments sake, were in a position to select 4 central defenders, in spite of long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and the aforementioned Raphaël Varane. Granted, I personally cannot think of any names who could be added to the three Hodgson took. Outside of the tried and tested Jagielka, who else could have been selected? Wes Brown? Allardyce will hope his old friend/foe/flame Jose Mourinho will oversee the continued rise of man-mountain Chris Smalling, and maybe even revive the career of Phil Jones, who was many people’s choice for the England captaincy post-John Terry (something I’ll never understand). A new generation of English centre-halves is required, and Allardyce would be wise to oversee the coming of age for the future of England.
Above all else, England fans want to feel like their boys are able to match the best, and this is something Allardyce, to his credit, is something of a specialist in. There’s something about Allardyce-ball that the bigger players in Premier League football can’t handle. Simply off the top of my head, I recall Sunderland’s 2-1 win over Manchester United last season, a 3-1 win over current, albeit lame, Premier League title holders Cheslea, both from last season. His West Ham side recorded a famous point at Stamford Bridge in 2014 playing 19th Century football. Simply put; Allardyce can get results over sides that should walk away with all three points. And although it isn’t pretty most of the time, I am absolutely certain this quality was what made him the first choice for the role. In a competitive match, the last time I remember England punching above their station was, likely, the Euro 2012 Quarter Final, in which we conned a penalty shoot-out against eventual finalists Italy. Those sorts of results endear the side to the nation; they give you hope that, with time, those draws will become victories. Although Hodgson wasn’t able to coax the improvement from the side, Allardyce, with his frank, upfront style of man-management, may well be the man to eek out an extra 10% from his squad in their pursuit of playing alongside the big boys, not as underdogs, but as equals.
Whether Big Sam is the man to put together a campaign that makes the nation believe again (I mean it’s been over 20 years since we’ve had one of them) remains the be seen. One thing is for sure; he’ll have the backing of every man, woman, and child in the country (until we lose), and his qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup gives him plenty of opportunity to get the country onside. A pair of tricky fixtures against Hodgson’s worst nightmare in Slovakia, as well as the small task of taking on the Old Enemy, Sam will have the chance to endear himself to the nation, and make us proud again. For the man who suggested he would be a success at an Inter Milan or a Real Madrid in 2010, the opportunity to prove himself right. Let’s hope he can do just that.