Sam Allardyce’s 4-6-0 and the end of Modern Football

By John Ray

I saw things on the sixth of October, Two-Thousand and Thirteen. Dangerous things; ideas and shapes which have left an imprint on my cornea that only slowly burns away, like the bright morning sun upon first wake. I’ve double-taked in stupor, wondering, “Am I really seeing this?” and “why now, I’m still young?” Who knew that Sam Allardyce would be the harbinger of the apocalypse after-all?

Before we get to today, I should clarify what set these events in motion. The end of days began in 2010, in the mind of a 46 year-old from Dunfermline, Scotland. The man’s name was, and still is, Craig Levein. He stayed close to home, and in a Candide-like way, preferred to cultivate his own garden in Scotland rather than venturing into England or elsewhere in the continent. He only left once, and that was to go to Leicester; no wonder he came back. This confidence in self and country bred results and led him straight to the top of the list of Scottish managers, and in 2009, he, Craig Levein, the guy who once punched a teammate really hard in the nose and who would later pick seven English-born players for the Scotland-side, was chosen as the next Scotland manager. 

On September 29th, 2010, we can only assume that because of coming events, Levein was sitting in a chair watching a rather turgid Rubin Kazan side take a draw from a home tie with Barcelona, and thinking, “there’s something in this, innit?”. Nine days later, on October 8th, he rolled out the first British 4-6-0 away to the Czech Republic in Prague. The defensive 4-6-0, like all great footballing inventions, came from Russia and was then claimed as someone else’s years later.

Everything could have been different if Levein had not lost 1-0, failed to qualify for Euro 2012, and eventually been sacked, but all those things did happen. The British press published statements to the effect of, “that’s not the English way, you mentalist,” and the anti-football 4-6-0 was presumed dead upon arrival. It’s funny how objects and ideas we thought were dead turn out to merely sink to the floor of the Thames or the Anduin, waiting to be resurrected by a creature slimy enough to harness their power. Yesterday, that man was Sam Allardyce. The 4-6-0 is back and its limitless power, in the hands of evil, may result in the destruction of football as we know it.

Sam Allardyce picked a team with Ricardo Vaz Te in it, and played him as a wingback for significant chunks of the match. If I’m being honest, it was pretty cool. Sam’s particular application of the formation was interesting in that it combined some good attacking concepts with the typical defensive shell you would associate with Sam Allardyce and the 4-6-0. The way that the 6 in midfield lined up was with one nominally holding player (Mark Noble), two wing-backs/wingers (Vaz Te and Stewart Downing), and a rotating front three (Mohamed Diame, Kevin Nolan, and Ravel Morrison). 

In attack, West Ham were, like I said before, surprisingly ambitious. The team opened up like an accordion from their defensive shape and sent their fullbacks, attacking midfielders, and wingers forward in packs of 4. What constantly took Spurs by surprise, however, was the almost random use of these 4 man units and the areas that they would come from. It was not an uncommon sight to see a fullback, a winger, and two midfielders forward. The fluidity undid Spurs on the break as the defenders genuinely looked like they had been hit by a train. 

In defense, the side sank deeper into their assigned positions. The defense ostensibly added four players as the two wingers became wingbacks and the two attacking midfielders became defensive midfielders. This is obviously a hard shape to break down, but the addition of the two wingbacks did well to neutralize Tottenham’s fantastic wide players for much of the match by removing the effectiveness of their overlap play, a hallmark of the 4-2-3-1.

The majority of the plaudits should, and will, go to Sam Allardyce and the West Ham players, but Andre Villas-Boas’s unwillingness to waver from his preferred 4-2-3-1 has been his Achilles heel in the Premier League since he first entered the league. I like AVB and want him to succeed, but you really can’t be so naïve as to only have one tactic and think that you won’t be found out, especially by teams content to defend and break. As Allardyce exemplified, tactics are as much about surprise as anything in the modern game and there is little mystery in the Portuguese manager’s game plan. Will this be the last we see of the 4-6-0? I’d wager not, but hopefully it falls back to the river floor for a while. In such a small dose it was actually rather nice, but once recognized as a legitimate option, it would result in a game that resembled a stalemate rather than the ebbing and flowing affairs that have made the Premier League the most popular league in the world. 

John Ray is a senior writer for A Football Report. You can follow him on twitter at @mynameisjohn and find more of his thoughts on his Tumblr. Comments below please.

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