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Could Sam Allardyce, the anti-Bielsa, overcome philosophical barriers at Leeds?

Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

When Nicolas Anelka played for Sam Allardyce at Bolton the France striker described the training-ground environment as surprisingly reminiscent of Clairefontaine. Although Allardyce lacks the time necessary to transform Leeds’s weekday HQ near Wetherby into a mini mirror image of the French national football school, Javi Gracia’s old squad should expect the unexpected if – as scheduled – he takes training for the first time on Wednesday.

The 68-year-old has plenty of critics but a close examination of the former England coach’s often impressive body of work at, among other clubs, Bolton, Blackburn, Sunderland and Crystal Palace, indicates that Pep Guardiola was not exaggerating that much when he dubbed Allardyce “a genius”.

Admittedly Big Sam remains an acquired taste but even the arch purist Guardiola appreciates Allardyce’s role as a pioneer of elite football’s now routine use of data analysis, sports science and psychology.

Given the emergency nature of Allardyce’s anticipated four‑game appointment by Leeds, the application of psychology will prove most relevant when he and Guardiola are reunited at Manchester City on Saturday. “Sam’s man-management is second to none,” says his close friend and former Bolton sidekick Phil Brown. “He gets the very best out of players.”

The trip to the Etihad Stadium represents the first of a formidable-looking quartet of fixtures also involving a home date with Newcastle, a visit to West Ham and a final-day game against Tottenham at Elland Road. Staying up will surely involve Allardyce persuading Junior Firpo and co to leap through metaphorical hoops of flame.

Further spice is added by his status as a former manager of Newcastle and West Ham, coincidentally two of the postings where Allardyce’s pragmatic, sometimes ultra-direct, gameplans proved most unpopular with fans.

Although his tactics have always been far too nuanced to lend too much credence to José Mourinho’s claim that Allardyce played “19th-century football”, Leeds fans had never been overly taken by a man whose Bolton side sealed Leeds’s relegation to the Championship with a 4-1 win at the Reebok Stadium on 2 May 2004.

Who, back then, could have imagined that 19 years to the day after that nadir in West Yorkshire football history Allardyce would be lined up as Leeds’s third official manager of an intensely troubled season?

As he establishes the training ground “war room” which has proved the tactical nerve centre of his previous clubs, Allardyce may need to draw on all the calm engendered by the daily transcendental meditation sessions which helped him secure Sunderland’s Premier League position in 2016.

That triumph prefaced an ill-starred, 67-day, one-game tenure in charge of England. Despite Allardyce having broken no rules, his ill-advised entrapment in a well-documented newspaper sting proved thoroughly self-destructive.

It also emphasised the brasher, sometimes arrogant, side of a character which, as much as any tactics, helped him acquire as many enemies as admirers and, unforgivably, involved Allardyce mocking Roy Hodgson in front of undercover reporters, dubbing the then outgoing England manager “Woy”.

There is a certain irony that 75-year-old Hodgson’s success in steering Crystal Palace clear of relegation waters this spring may well have helped persuade Elland Road executives to hire a fellow veteran.

Those directors can at least rest assured that confidence will not be a managerial commodity in short supply. Leeds have been leaking goals at an alarming rate since Hodgson’s Palace put five past them last month so it is probably no bad thing that Allardyce regards rearguard repairs as his specialist subject. The only real stain on his impressive record of relegation avoidance arrived at West Brom in 2021.

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“Teaching players to defend is my area of expertise,” he said in April 2016. “I can coach in all departments, especially team play, but when it comes to defending you name it and I’ll tell you about it.”

Allardyce, who previously worked with Angus Kinnear, the Leeds chief executive, at West Ham, is believed to have lobbied for the Elland Road job before Gracia replaced Jesse Marsch in February.

Back then though Victor Orta, whose time as director of football ended on Tuesday, was still fixated on the pressing game introduced at Leeds by Marcelo Bielsa. With Orta having regarded Marsch as Bielsa’s ideological heir apparent, the philosophical chasm between that pair and Allardyce looked too much of a quantum leap.

Little more than two months later, though, the Leeds owner, Andrea Radrizzani, has sacked Orta and pinned his trust in Allardyce’s forte for set-piece choreography. The only problem is that there are almost certainly too few hours in the day in which a man who has recently alternated hosting a podcast “No Tippy Tappy Football” with holidaying in his beloved Dubai can properly perfect Leeds’s dead-ball drills.

Perhaps significantly, the spring of 2016 involved Allardyce sparring with his old enemy Rafael Benítez as Sunderland and Newcastle vied to survive. He once let it slip that, privately, he rated Benítez extremely highly but suspected the Spaniard had insufficient games to turn things around after Steve McClaren’s sacking.

He believed everything hinged on whether Benítez’s tactical mantra would kick in during the fourth or fifth game of his initial 10-match tenure. Allardyce was strangely adamant that a corner would be turned at one of those junctures and, sure enough, after Newcastle collected one point from Benítez’s opening four fixtures, they accrued 12 from the subsequent six.

For Benítez game No 5 proved a watershed but Allardyce must hit the ground running. Can a hugely polarising coach who, in so many ways, remains the antithesis of everything the still-revered Bielsa stood for, end up protecting the Argentinian’s West Yorkshire legacy? Might Big Sam conjure the unlikeliest of happy endings?

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