Brian Clough and Sam Allardyce aren’t exactly kindred spirits. The former, an ex-striker who infamously told Leeds United’s title-winning cast to throw their medals in the bin because of their style of play; the latter, a brutish former lower-league centre-back who has become synonymous with using attritional tactics to grind teams into submission. And yet, the same question lingers over both – what would have happened if they managed England at a major tournament?
In one way or another, both paid the price for being outsiders to English football’s mainstream. Clough’s divisive eccentricity, although good enough to lead Nottingham Forest to consecutive European Cups, blackballed him from the ultimate management job in England. Allardyce, meanwhile, flew too close to the sun when he was handed the England role. Indiscretions or not, the reign of the most unfashionable Three Lions manager in a generation was ended after just one game effectively by a newspaper sting and public opinion.
The idea of either managing England during their respective eras creates two very different images; one of the Three Lions not failing to qualify for four consecutive major tournaments in the 1970s and developing a legacy of expansive football, and another containing a side built to win games by a single goal, taking their chances on the break and at set pieces. If one is the utopia English football missed out on, the other is the dystopia many were pleased to see Allardyce’s abrupt dismissal avoid.
But at this moment in time, England are unavoidably an Allardyce-equipped team, something highlighted by two World Cup qualifiers last week that saw the Three Lions average 69% possession but score just twice against a Slovenia side currently ranked 55th and a Lithuania team currently ranked 97th in the world. England no longer develop players capable of causing damage in tight spaces when the opposition have ten men behind the ball. In fact, it’s become a common strategy for opponents to let England dwell and linger in possession, knowing they’ll struggle to create chances and can eventually be picked off.
That doesn’t mean English football has died a death; rather that England’s strengths lay in other areas. And looking at the make-up of the individuals currently in Gareth Southgate’s thoughts, the Three Lions’ primary route to victory should be the counter-attack.
Raheem Sterling provides the perfect example as to why; in the Premier League, he’s as effective as any other forward in eating up ground on the break. But playing in the No.10 role against Slovenia, the Manchester City attacker found himself continually squeezed out of the game, unable to find room between two defensive midfielders. It’s a similar case in the engine room too, where Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson provide all the energy and defensive awareness a manager could want from his central midfielders but none of the creativity, craft and composure.
Alongside Sterling in attack, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck all fall into the counter-attacking template as well, offering great speed, power and dribbling ability, while Kyle Walker and Danny Rose present a similar kind of dynamism on the overlap.
In truth, we shouldn’t be surprised; after all, the Premier League has become the most counter-attacking top flight in the world, where players blessed with pace and strength rule supreme and the action remains end-to-end. In fact, just one year ago we saw the first ever champions to finish the season with less than 50% possession in Leicester City and even last season, Chelsea ranked sixth in the Premier League’s possession charts, compared to first in the dribble rankings. Inevitably, English players are a product of the Premier League, and the Premier League is only becoming more counter-attack orientated.
Although there’s nothing stopping Southgate from setting up his side that way when the 2018 World Cup comes around, he quite simply lacks Allardyce’s track record of doing so, and especially with the same efficiency. Big Sam built six Premier League sides on those ideals without being relegated, while showing expert game-management and the ability to man-manage very different personalities from a variety of backgrounds. The Bolton team that finished sixth in 2004/05 included Anthony Barness and Fernando Hierro.
The great sadness, though, is that Southgate probably will feel obliged to create a counter-attacking team for the World Cup, and it will inevitably a slender imitation of what Allardyce could have put together. Allardyce has always been a man with a plan who knows his side’s strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses to intrinsic detail; Southgate, based on evidence thus far, lacks that same nous, and certainly the same level of ruthless pragmatism.
It would have been Clough’s worst nightmare to see a manager like Allardyce in charge of England, but Allardyce would argue the ends justify the means. And if dogged, organised and attritional counter-attacking football is England’s best chance of ending half a century of misery next summer, why not have one of the best and most experienced counter-attacking managers the Premier League has produced over the last 25 years?
Allardyce personifies that category through his sheer longevity trusting in those ideals. But whether he or Clough could have lead England to glory will remain nothing more than a tipsy, hypothetical debate to pass the time during one of the Three Lions’ never-ending supply of mind-numbing qualifiers. In any case, Allardyce can at least take some solace in being compared to incredibly prestigious company. He and Clough are far from kindred spirits, but they both make us ask ‘what if’.