New book details how Sam Allardyce helped change the Premier League's tactical landscape at Bolton Wanderers

Marc Iles

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CHARTING the tactical evolution of the Premier League since its inception 25 years ago, a new book released this week reveals some of the ways Bolton Wanderers have shaped the top-flight game we know and love.


Top journalist Michael Cox – known to many through his work in the Zonal Marking blog – traces the path between a time when English football was stuck in the dark ages and still recovering from the European ban, to the multi-cultural melting pot we see today.


Though the influence of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson are all well-chronicled, Wanderers feature heavily, not least because of their long association with tactical trendsetter Sam Allardyce.


Big Sam’s famed War Room at Euxton helped establish the Whites as a top-flight force against all odds, and the achievement warrants its own chapter in Cox’s new book, The Mixer.


The post-Allardyce era at Bolton is also analysed, with Cox revisiting his view on the football played under Owen Coyle.


Here, we catch up with the author and ask him to elaborate on some of the points he makes in the book, priced at £16.99 and available in all good bookshops.


Q - To what extent was Sam Allardyce a tactical innovator - and was it solely down to his war room?


A - This is the contradiction with Allardyce – he was hugely innovative off the pitch while his players were very old-fashioned on the pitch, essentially playing the most blatant long ball football of the time. However, the fact he incorporated so many technical players, like Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka shouldn’t be forgotten. Who cares about long ball football if those players are collecting Kevin Davies’ knock-downs?


Perhaps the most innovative on-pitch aspect was the fact he and his statistical team built ‘player profiles’ for every position, essentially working out what was required from every player in the starting XI. Allardyce then used this to convert players into different positions – think of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro deployed as ball-playing midfielders, Kevin Davies moved to right-wing, or Henrik Pedersen playing left-back. None had ever played those roles before, but Allardyce worked out they had the capabilities to do so.


It’s also worth pointing out that Allardyce used only one striker before the vast majority of Premier League sides followed suit, which often allowed Bolton an advantage in midfield against superior sides.


Q - Why did certain teams - Arsenal, Liverpool etc - struggle to cope against Bolton?


A - Arsenal struggled because they refused to adjust their approach when going away to Bolton. They continued to play ‘the Arsenal way’ and often left themselves open to Bolton’s approach. Allardyce was also very clever at targeting the weakest member of Arsenal’s back four. In December 2005 Bolton effectively ganged up on Pascal Cygan in a 2-0 league win, and a month later for a 1-0 FA Cup victory they did the same against Philippe Senderos. Rafael Benitez prepared Liverpool better, but they were often simply overpowered.


Q - Before Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro, the position in front of the back four at Bolton was dubbed the 'Paul Warhurst role,' believe it or not. Why was that position so important to the way Allardyce set his side up back then?


A - Allardyce was one of the first manager to move to a 4-5-1 system, and therefore he used a more obviously defined holding midfielder than a lot of other teams during this period. Therefore, while other sides’ deep midfielder was often drawn forward into battle with the opposition’s central midfielders, Allardyce’s holding midfielder tended to sit very deep, protect the defence, and use his freedom to spread possession intelligently.


Q - After Allardyce’s departure (and let’s forget Sammy Lee’s brief spell) did you notice any tactical departure under Gary Megson from the style which made Big Sam famous?


A - No! It felt like Megson was simply playing Allardyce-esque football, but without the meticulous planning which made Bolton such an incredible force under Allardyce. It was fairly bleak.


Q - Lastly, you make mention of Owen Coyle’s team in the book. It will probably surprise some Bolton fans to hear his approach was not dissimilar to Sam’s. Could that have contributed to his downfall?


A - Perhaps. There’s a back story here. I wasn’t convinced that Coyle’s style of football had changed significantly from Allardyce, so I investigated the statistics. And while the numbers suggested slightly more technical football under Coyle, they still pointed to fundamentally direct football – the fourth-lowest possession share, the third-worst pass completion rate. The areas where they excelled were in terms of tackles, where they made the most, and in terms of their aerial duel success rate, which was the best in the league.


There’s nothing wrong with excelling in those figures, of course, but this was what Bolton still specialized in, and while they scored a couple of wonderful goals that season, it wasn’t necessarily a fine reflection of their style.


I wrote an article about this, and the findings were subsequently put to Coyle who wasn’t particularly happy with my article. and said as much. I didn’t actually think he was a bad manager – Bolton were initially doing well – I just didn’t understand the praise for Bolton’s style of play.


Again, I think they were still broadly playing the football Allardyce wanted, but without the level of tactical planning.