Allardyce, Moneyball and Pragmatism
Sam Allardyce probably won’t save Leeds United.
I don’t say that to disparage him. I say it because every bookmaker currently has Leeds at an implied probability of around 70-80% to get relegated. FiveThirtyEight is a bit more confident at 67%. Their model estimates that Nottingham Forest will end the season in 17th place on 35 points. For Leeds to match that total, they would need four points from their last two games against West Ham and Tottenham. For Leeds to stay up, it might not be Allardyce saving them as much as the other teams slipping up and dropping points. He’s come into a very difficult situation.
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That doesn’t really change my opinion of Allardyce. I think he’s good at what he does, and what he does has been misrepresented at times. “Leeds ditch ‘Moneyball’ ideals for Sam Allardyce’s pragmatism”, ran the headline from The Times responding to his appointment. “Nous, tactical organisation, POMOs (positions of maximum opportunity), defensive aggression, call it what you will”, Martin Hardy wrote in the article, “[Leeds chairman Andrea] Radrizzani has gone from “Moneyball” idealist to Big Sam pragmatism in his hour of need”.
That headline combined two of the most abused words in English football writing. Let’s start with “pragmatism”, and apologies for this, but I’m going to do what any mediocre student essay does and quote a dictionary definition. Since the Oxford Dictionary apparently charges for its use, I’m going to make it worse and just rely on Google, which defines pragmatism as “an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application”.
That seems fairly straightforward. The classic example in football is Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team of the 1990s. Keegan was seen as a romantic, wanting to play attacking football that gave individuals the freedom to do as they wanted in his team. By comparison, Sir Alex Ferguson was seen as the pragmatist, playing a more solid and sensible football that didn’t end in thrilling 4-3 defeats that cost his team the title. Similarly, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool were seen as romantics, playing wide-open football that led to some big defensive mistakes and couldn’t compete with a more solid Manchester City team. If you asked the average English football journalist to name examples of teams not being pragmatic, they’d probably point to those two.
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