Sam Allardyce – West Bromwich Albion – Tactical Analysis

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At the time of Sam Allardyce’s arrival at West Bromwich Albion, the Baggies looked dead and buried with no hope of survival. Four months on from that, Allardyce’s side still look as though they have no hope at all of survival. Allardyce’s perfect record of staying alive in the league without ever suffering relegation appears to be over, unless he somehow gets himself sacked before the end of the season and saves his record for another year. But although the Baggies look destined to drop down into the EFL Championship, Allardyce has changed West Brom’s fortunes to an extent, with some decent performances against the likes of Wolves, Manchester United and Brighton. His rigid 4-1-4-1 system and the recent additions of the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Okay Yokuslu and Mbaye Diagne have inspired a better spell of form, with some sense of stability as the final third of the season approaches. Had these players started at the club at the beginning of the season, it’s very likely that Big Sam’s team would be far closer to Fulham right now than they are. So with that, here is a Tactical Analysis of Sam Allardyce’s West Bromwich Albion since his arrival in December 2020.

system of play: 4-1-4-1

Sam Allardyce has adapted Slavan Bilic’s flat 4-5-1 / 5-4-1 system to incorporate a rigid 4-1-4-1 with a clearly defined defensive midfielder sitting in behind two more advanced ones. That rock-solid defensive midfielder has been one of the club’s latest additions – Okay Yokuslu, who arrived from Celta Vigo in January. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has also been an interesting addition following his loan move from Arsenal, and has regularly partnered Chelsea loanee Conor Gallagher in central midfield since the new year. With these three players at the heart of it, West Bromwich have a midfield unit more than capable of surviving in the Premier League. The main problem for the Baggies is that they didn’t start with these players in their system, and now look destined to go down when in different circumstances they might have stayed up.

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Other than the aforementioned midfield triangle, West Brom have a few other players who may be capable of staying in the Premier League next season even if Allardyce’s men were to succumb to relegation. One of those is the former Manchester United goalkeeper Sam Johnstone who has performed fairly well in front of a shaky back-line without much gusto and experience. Darnell Furlong, Dara O’Shea, Kyle Bartley, Conor Townsend and Semi Ajayi are the players with the most appearances in Allardyce’s back-four, with Bartley being the only one to have any substantial top flight experience. Further toward the front, silky smooth winger Matheus Pereira has proved to be a capable set-piece deliverer and key to the way Allardyce’s side attack. Grady Diangana has been less impactful, with Robert Snodgrass earning more time in Allardyce’s system instead following his January move from West Ham United. After his impressive season in the Championship, Romaine Sawyers has also been a regular under both managers, operating in a few different positions and remaining one of the side’s most capable passers.

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Callum Robinson was one of the side’s only threats under Slavan Bilic, but has since been replaced by Mbaye Diagne, another January addition. Finally, Karlan Grant has struggled to fit in and score goals in the Premier League yet again, with only one in his seventeen appearances. Jake Livermore and Kieran Gibbs have also faded out of the side, despite their experience at this level. So although West Brom have a few players ready for this level, it is evident that they simply don’t have a squad good enough to survive in the league, and were probably doomed from the very start. Although we don’t want to be overly critical on West Brom, a lot of this analysis may come across as though we are picking apart Allardyce’s struggles to turn a very bad side into a good one. Unfortunately, there was very little Allardyce could have done to fix Albion’s issues and we instead wish to highlight what those specific issues have been, and when possible, a few of their strengths in recent months.

aerial presence

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One of the only major strong suits about West Brom’s play this season has been their typical Sam Allardyce aerial presence. With their increasing long-ball approach under Allardyce, the Baggies have posed more and more of a goal threat. They’ve scored six goals from set-pieces in total this season, compared to only ten from open play. As of late, the emphasis has been more and more about set-pieces and crossing. One of the positives about Mbaye Diagne is that he is decent in the air and can play that role much more than Robinson and Grant, who operate more as mobile number nines who have the pace and power to get in behind an opposition defense. Diagne poses a genuine threat in the air, even troubling Manchester United in that regard with a solid performance against one of the league’s best sides. But although he’s won 4.6 duels in the air per game, he’s also lost 7.4! This suggests how much the Baggies look to play it long into their forward man as early as possible, and simultaneously how difficult he has found it to truly compete with some of the league’s top centre-backs. That poor ratio of just 31% of his aerial duels won, can’t compare to many of the league’s top forwards. Positively for Diagne, that ratio is still better than Grant, Robinson and Hal Robson-Kanu, who have an even worse ratio. Luckily at the back they have been slightly more solid in the air, with some of the big boys at the back like Bartley and Yokuslu reaching over 70% of their duels won.

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Furthermore, their long-ball approach has been very intentional since Sam Allardyce’s arrival, with even Matheus Pereira trying to pull off a significant amount of long-passes from everywhere on the field, not just the final third. Johnstone himself has completed the second most long ball passes in the league, behind only Nick Pope. Most of their sixty-five long passes per game come from those deeper areas from the likes of Ajayi, Bartley and Johnstone, which presents one major reason for their low passing percentage. Further up the field, Pereira’s attempts haven’t been much of a help either and often don’t result in anything fruitful for the Baggies.

low block

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As should be pretty much expected of a Sam Allardyce or even a West Bromwich Albion team for that matter, the Baggies set up in a mid to low block, that to be fair, has been higher up the pitch than it was under Slavan Bilic. Yokuslu is a steady presence in front of the back-four, while Maitland-Niles and Gallagher are mobile, capable pressers that can give Albion a different edge to their defensive shape. Gallagher in particular has been highly impactful this season, acting as the side’s top ball-winner and often leading any sort of verve and fervidity West Brom may attempt in defense. The 20-year old Chelsea loanee has won 2.8 tackles per game, almost acting as an outlier in a system designed to shift and shuffle with the play, instead constantly working to pressure the ball higher up. No West Brom player has put the opposition under more pressure than Gallagher or won more of the ball. Diagne has also been a much better presser than Grant or Robinson, another positive feature of his play that has helped to inspire some decent results in recent weeks. However, he’s not one to win the ball on a tackle, and more likely to put his opponent under enough pressure that they make a poor pass instead. Allardyce’s 4-1-4-1 system has also aided in the mid-to-low block as it remains fairly compact and tough to break down when done correctly. Yokuslu’s role as a deeper-lying midfielder has been a positive one in helping the Baggies have more defensive stability in front of their inexperienced back-four. But overall, West Brom haven’t been able to keep the ball out of the net, or remain as organized as Big Sam would have liked this season.

failures in possession

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One of West Bromwich’s greatest failures this season has been their inability to keep hold of the ball. The Baggies have kept the lowest possession (40.9%) and have the worst passing record (72.9%) in the league, with very few players in the side showing any ability to pass the ball around with any quality. Instead of being a possession-based side, they are much more reliant on long-balls, set-pieces and crossing. Only Burnley have completed more long passes per game than West Brom’s sixty-five, with no team in the league completing fewer short passes than the Baggies. They simply aren’t able to penetrate through central areas and have no sense of link-up play between their striker and central midfielders. Mbaye’s been brought in to fix that, but even he has struggled with his back to goal in linking up with those around him like Maitland-Niles and Gallagher, who have undeniable ability should they be given the chance to make things happen more often from central channels. Only Wolves have attacked down the right more than West Brom, meaning they have a heavy reliance on playing the ball into the wide areas for Matheus Pereira in particular to work his minimal magic and deliver crosses.

The Brazilian midfielder has the most crosses and chances created of his teammates, but given how little the Baggies keep the ball, his statistics still don’t really stand out when compared to others in the league. He also has quite a few inaccurate crosses to his name, as West Brom have struggled to fully get on the end of balls into box and finish off genuinely good scoring chances. No team has had fewer shots on or off target in the league. Above all else, their lack of possession and failure to create good scoring chances has been the biggest conundrum for Sam Allardyce to solve. He hasn’t been able to work it out despite some positive additions, and they’ve stayed second to bottom all season long.

concluding thoughts

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West Bromwich Albion have been genuinely one of the worst teams in the Premier League this season, but they have grinded out some decent results under the influence of both Slavan Bilic and more recently Sam Allardyce in their quest to stop 2020-21 from becoming a complete and utter embarrassment; even if relegation looms large. The Baggies have failed to pick up any form of decent possession, relying instead on a long-ball approach and an aerial presence that they’ve failed to truly capitalize on. Their mid-to-low block, recent acquisitions and 4-1-4-1 system have helped to improve the defensive structure in front of the back-four, but it hasn’t been enough to help Big Sam steer clear of the relegation zone. West Brom now look destined to go back down to the Championship, where they will need to rebuild and start again in their quest to come back up to the top flight.

So there it is! A tactical analysis of Big Sam’s sad West Brom. Be sure to check out more tactical analyses, particularly ones that are slightly more exhilarating than this one, and follow on Twitter and Instagram to never miss an update @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…
-> Scott Parker – Fulham – Tactical Analysis (2020-21)
-> Sean Dyche – Burnley – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)
-> What’s Gone Wrong at Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)


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