With Premier League survival hopes receiving a powerful shot in the arm with the stunning win over Chelsea, Sam Allardyce’s side go into Monday’s game against Southampton with renewed heart. The odds are still stacked heavily against Albion preserving their status in the division, which means there is likely to be a decision pending on the future of the manager – one that will taken by the club or the man himself.
Allardyce came into a difficult situation. Essentially, the squad was not strong enough for the demands of the Premier League. Slaven Bilic was unfortunate to lose his job, but the board felt they needed to act to give the club any hope of survival.
There were those close to the manager who suggested he would be better off staying clear of the job, but the pandemic played a part in Allardyce’s interest being piqued. Speaking with him shortly after his appointment, he revealed that the isolation of lockdowns and limitations on daily life shone on a light on just how much he was missing the day-to-day involvement of management.
After Allardyce walked through the door in mid-December it got worse before it got better. As a communicator, he is very direct when he needs to be. Initially, many of the squad were jolted by a style which left them in no doubt about the sub-par levels they were performing at. But over time there was a more collective buy-in to the way Allardyce simplified both the strategy on the pitch and the instructions he delivered to the players.
There is certainly a clarity about the methods Allardyce employs. In a typical week, much of the early coaching is done by trusted lieutenants Sammy Lee and Robbie Stockdale. The manager is happier to take a step back, remaining on the training pitches and offering advice and encouragement, but letting his coaches direct the sessions. Allardyce then comes to the fore on Thursday and Friday when the shape work, particularly the defensive organisation, with the starting XI takes place.
Allardyce leans heavily on statistics, with particular emphasis on the importance of passes into particular areas of the pitch and running distances. He believes that if balls are played consistently into the right areas of the pitch and that tallies with the team hitting their required running distances, then they will get results. The squad members are clear about what their roles and responsibilities are and, as a result, they have produced some solid performances in recent weeks.
The players have been comfortable with the 4-3-3 formation Allardyce has settled on, although they adapted brilliantly when the manager changed the system to a three-man central defence at Stamford Bridge last Saturday.
The disappointment for supporters is that, with so many individual performances to hang their hats on against Chelsea, it has all come too late. If Albion pull of a very unlikely escape, then Allardyce will stay. But the more likely scenario is relegation, and decision time for both manager and club.
Allardyce took a long time to win over the Albion support following a calamitous set of results after his initial appointment. And there are plenty of fans who are not converted to the idea of a lengthy spell in charge for the 66-year old. But there are also many who recognise that Allardyce would be the best option when it came to mounting a promotion challenge next season.
The problem when it comes to plotting a path forward is that Allardyce would need considerable backing if he was to stay on next season in the Championship. The two biggest assets are Sam Johnstone and Matheus Pereira, who would be expected to move on in the event of relegation, with West Ham and Spurs both interested in securing the services of Albion’s keeper.
Another issue is the loan signings. Mbaye Diagne, Conor Gallagher, Okay Yokuslu and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are the sort of players Allardyce would want to keep but none will remain if the team is relegated.
Last week, Allardyce was asked about the likelihood of him remaining at the club for a season in the Championship. He revealed that serious talks needed to take place with technical director Luke Dowling and chief executive Xu Ke.
“How much money do they think they need to save?” he pondered. “How many key players do they think they would have to let go? What budget would be available from then on? I wouldn’t want to mess about. I’d want to get straight back. But we all need to be going in the same direction to do that.”
Allardyce admits he has enjoyed the support of the board so far, and his players are starting to respond too. But there is a feeling among some at the Birmingham Road training base that he does not have the appetite for a 46-game Championship season at this stage in life, given the rebuild necessary in the event of relegation.
Perhaps both club and manager need each other more than they care to admit. Albion’s reputation has not been enhanced in their behind-closed-doors season back at the top, and Allardyce will not want to leave the game with a relegation as the most recent entry on his CV.
With games still to be played, Albion and Allardyce are still hoping for the ideal outcome – a second season in the Premier League – but with that looking unlikely, there is so much uncertainty concerning Albion’s future direction.