Sam Allardyce and Julien Lopetegui appointments symbolic of disparity in vision
Sam Allardyce’s appointment as England manager is only the latest symptom of the muddled thinking that has come to characterize coaching appointments in the Three Lions setup.
The English FA have previously experimented with the charismatic foreign manager (Sven-Goran Eriksson), the youthful internal hire (Steve McLaren, formerly Eriksson’s assistant), the Rolls-Royce foreign tactician (Fabio Capello) and the well-travelled veteran Englishman (Roy Hodgson).
With nearly every category of coaches having been exhausted, the England FA have now plumped for the mid-table talents of Sam Allardyce – for no clear reason apart from the fact that he’s different to those that failed before him. The FA aimed a shot in the dark, and it just happened to land on Big Sam’s hefty 6’ 3” frame.
Let’s be clear – Allardyce is a competent coach and an eminently likeable character. To his credit, he has left most teams he has coached in better shape than when he found them. England will improve under him, but much of that is also down to the fact that they can’t get any worse even if they tried.
Surely, one of the world’s most high-profile national teams can do better.
A lesson from Spain
England isn’t the only national team navigating an uncertain period of transition. After being utterly humiliated in the 2014 World Cup and disappointing at the recent Euros, Spain have finally bid adios to Vicente del Bosque and replaced him with Julen Lopetegui, most recently the head coach at Porto.
Like Allardyce, Lopetegui has never won a major trophy in his managerial career. However, he has a track record of success with Spain’s youth teams, notably winning the European Championships with the U19s and U21s in successive years. In doing so, he helped nurture a generation of players who will now be tasked with leading La Furia Roja’s transition forward.
Some of the players who flourished under Lopetegui’s watch – David De Gea, Alvaro Morata and Koke to name a few – have successfully managed to transition to the senior team. Others, such as Thiago Alcantara, Isco, and Jese Rodriguez have fallen behind. Who better to guide this clutch of diverse talents than a man who has already proven his ability to get the best out of them both individually and collectively? Furthermore, Lopetegui’s body of work speaks to his ability to find a balance between possession and directness, crucial in a post-tiki-taka world.
Whether Lopetegui succeeds remains to be seen. But the point is that there was a cogent line of thinking behind his appointment, both in terms of tactical fit and familiarity with the personnel who will take the pitch.
So while Spain has appointed a manager who aligns with their coherent, pre-existing vision, England has opted to select a coach in the hope that they may one day be able to construct a footballing identity around his success. Far too much of a burden is being placed on one man’s shoulders, and it suggests that the FA haven’t fundamentally learned from the failures of Allardyce’s predecessors.
Big Sam, the right answer?
Those invested in England’s success – fans, media and footballing figures alike – are coming up with increasingly creative ways to rationalize Allardyce’s appointment. Many are praising the 61-year-old to the skies as the perfect candidate for England because of his tactical acumen, motivational abilities and the fact that he’s not one to suffer fools gladly.
But if he’s all that, how come no one ever seriously backed him for the job in previous years? Indeed the wave of optimism presently sweeping the British football media smacks of disingenuousness and delusion in equal measure.
Fair play to Big Sam, who finally has the big job he’s always craved and has never shied away from coveting in public. It’s difficult to begrudge a man who has roughed it out among the cellar-dwellers of the Premier League for so many years and now has one of the most prestigious jobs in world football. If anything, you can be sure that he won’t take the job for granted.
The problem is that’s just about all you can be sure of. Allardyce’s appointment is largely a step into the great unknown, a Hail Mary that contrasts strikingly with Spain’s scrupulous selection.