Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat of Blackburn on Sunday sparked fresh recriminations about the playing style of Sam Allardyce’s side, with Rafael Benitez sarcastically observing: “I think it is a model for all the managers around the world, their style of football.”
That Blackburn are a hard-working, physical side is no secret. Allardyce, though, has taken umbrage at criticisms of their football in recent weeks. Speaking prior to the Liverpool game, he said: “People just think Sam Allardyce and long ball but that is not fair on my players. We are playing some good stuff at times… It’s not my players’ fault, it is mine. Actually no, it is you guys [the media] who write about perception and not reality.”
Blackburn are not likely to win any prizes for the beauty of their football, but a look at how their tactics have evolved over the course of the season reveals that Allardyce possesses a commendable willingness to innovate.
For the first game of the Premier League season, a 2-0 defeat at home to Manchester City, Blackburn lined up in a very conventional 4-4-2 with two centre-backs, two full-backs, two industrious central midfielders, two creative wingers and two pacey centre forwards. The diagram below, a screenshot from ESPN Soccernet, shows the team’s average positions from that game (starting players circled). The advanced position of centre-back Christopher Samba (4) can probably be explained by the fact he was pushed forward late on as Blackburn chased the game.
[Squad numbers: 1. Paul Robinson, 2. Lars Jacobsen, 3. Stephen Warnock (now at Aston Villa), 4. Christopher Samba, 5. Gaël Givet, 6. Ryan Nelsen, 7. Brett Emerton, 8. David Dunn, 9. Jason Roberts, 10. Benni McCarthy (now at West Ham United), 11. Vince Grella, 12. Morten Gamst Pedersen, 14. Paul Gallagher (now at Leicester City), 15. Steven N'Zonzi, 16. Steven Reid, 17. Keith Andrews, 18. El Hadji Diouf, 21. Martin Olsson, 22. Nikola Kalinić, 23. David Hoilett, 26. Franco Di Santo, 27. Míchel Salgado, 39. Pascal Chimbonda]
An injury to Benni McCarthy, and the return to fitness of David Dunn, prompted Allardyce to tweak his system. For the 0-0 draw at home to West Ham on August 29, Dunn played in a central role in support of Jason Roberts. Allardyce was so struck by Dunn’s effectiveness in the position that he persevered with the system, even when McCarthy returned to fitness.
“I was looking forward to the start of the season with him [McCarthy] but all of a sudden we put David Dunn in at Gillingham away [in the Carling Cup on August 25] in the hole behind a front man,” Allardyce said in November.
“He played so wonderfully well in that game that we have continued that position for him in the first team. He has grasped that position so well that he is our top, top player at this moment in time.”
In the 3-1 win against Portsmouth on November 7, Dunn’s positioning (8) in support of on-loan Chelsea forward Franco Di Santo (26) meant that Blackburn played in a 4-4-1-1:
Dunn continued to play in an advanced, central position until he, too, was struck down by injury. In the period from late November to early January, Blackburn went nine games without a win and slipped into relegation danger. The 2-0 defeat at home to Tottenham on December 19 even saw Allardyce experiment with something approaching a 5-3-2, which featured right-backs Michel Salgado (2) and Lars Jacobsen (27) doubling up on Rovers’ right flank:
It was in the 2-1 victory at home to Wigan on January 27 that Allardyce finally settled on his current formula, with Morten Gamst Pedersen (12) and El Hadji Diouf (18) deployed in support of lone striker Nikola Kalinić (22) and in advance of a three-man midfield. It is essentially a 4-3-2-1 that becomes a 4-2-3-1 when David Hoilett (23) advances forward from midfield. The system is best illustrated by the average position data from the convincing 3-0 victory over Bolton on February 21:
The system provides a strong platform for the £6 million Kalinić – who has begun to hold down a regular starting place, having scored 32 goals in 59 games for Hajduk Split and been described as ”the future of Croatian football” by Slaven Bilić – and also adventurously accommodates the pace of 19-year-old Canadian striker Hoilett in a midfield carrilero role.
Blackburn’s rather pragmatic approach to the game is understandably not to everyone’s taste, but Allardyce – a coach renowned for his desire to innovate – deserves credit for his efforts to bring the best out of the players at his disposal by frequently adjusting his tactical stance.