Sam Allardyce as good as Pep Guardiola? Man City show they are separated by a gulf
Nobody is ahead of Sam Allardyce. Not Jurgen Klopp, not Mikel Arteta and not Pep Guardiola. Or so argued Allardyce, anyway. A game into his comeback, just maybe Guardiola is slightly ahead of him. The scoreline suggested as much, the match – as one-sided as a 2-1 can get – indicated they are separated by a gulf, in ambition and skill, in ability in possession and footballing philosophy. But, given the inferior players at his disposal and the difficulties he inherited, a man of Allardyce’s immense self-confidence may feel it supports his case they are equals.
If a logical explanation of Allardyce’s debut defeat in charge of his ninth Premier League club – eight more than Guardiola – is that Manchester City are a better team than Leeds United, in better form and that the Spaniard has had seven years to work some of his players and the Englishman three days with his, there was little early evidence of his self-proclaimed genius. Not as Leeds amassed 48 passes in the first half, and Ilkay Gundogan completed 92 on his own. Nor as his defensiveness proved self-defeating as Gundogan, supposedly City’s holding midfielder, was in effect invited forward and duly delivered a swift, clinical brace.
Allardyce is entitled to argue that the dismissed Javi Gracia got a much heavier beating at Bournemouth last week, that his four-game rescue mission in effect only ever boiled down to the trio of fixtures against Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham, that he escaped the Etihad Stadium without really denting United’s goal difference. Yet that owed much to a rare off day from a Leeds lad. The Yorkshire-born Erling Haaland headed against the bar, shot against the post and drilled wide after Kevin De Bruyne found him in delightful fashion. The 51-goal forward had six opportunities but spared a club his father, Alf Inge, used to represent. Haaland’s generosity extended to allowing Gundogan to take an 84th-minute penalty but, instead of completing a hat-trick, he struck the post.
So the scoreline had a respectability for Allardyce, especially considering that Leeds had conceded four to Bournemouth, five to Crystal Palace and six to Liverpool in Gracia’s awful April. And yet a manager who had bracketed himself with some of those at the top of his profession returned with a brand of anti-football. There were contrasting tactics from apparent peers, with Allardyce’s all-out defence against Guardiola’s more offensive approach. City played with the ball, Leeds without it. It was progressive against regressive.
Leeds conceded 19 minutes into Allardyce’s reign and before two of his midfielders, Jack Harrison and Weston McKennie, had completed a pass. They conceded a second and begun the second half before Harrison had found a team-mate. He went off after 65 minutes with a lone successful pass to his name. Not that it was entirely the winger’s fault; just as striker Patrick Bamford was so isolated he could be forgiven if he were suffering from loneliness.
The Allardyce blueprint was unsurprising. Bielsa’s buccaneers were not Allardyce’s adventurers. Rather, the aim was to be Big Sam’s bores, to shut out City. Such attacking intent as they possessed in the first half consisted of urging McKennie to take long throws, with Allardyce mimicking them in case the American was in any doubt. There was a little more positivity after the break, with the substitute Rodrigo halving the deficit after Manuel Akanji’s poor header. It helped Leeds that City’s thoughts turned to Real Madrid; Guardiola had already made seven changes for the start, though the unwanted alteration came in the second half when Nathan Ake limped off.
They have 10 consecutive league victories, 14 wins in a row at home in 2023. Leeds have five defeats in their last six outings. Allardyce is the clean-sheet specialist brought in to repair Leeds’ leaky defence but even packing it with something approximating to a back nine proved a flawed approach.
With Rodri rested, Gundogan was deployed as the defensive midfielder; in reality, he had little defending to do. Leeds’ policy of keeping so many players back gave him licence to advance and he twice struck in similar fashion. Twice found by Riyad Mahrez, twice in space on the edge of the box – Leeds were still deeper – he picked out either bottom corner with expert precision. He showed less accuracy when Pascal Struijk tripped Phil Foden in the box.
Allardyce had selected Joel Robles ahead of the out-of-form Illan Meslier, perhaps for his prowess at timewasting, perhaps for the saves he made from Haaland and Foden, and repurposed Rasmus Kristensen as a centre-back. He prowled around the technical area like an exasperated rhino. Alongside him was a hyperactive Karl Robinson, forever pointing to try and convey lessons learnt at Oxford; the League One football club, not the university. With City 2-0 up, the home faithful serenaded Allardyce with chants about him being sacked in the morning. Even Leeds aren’t quite ready for a fifth manager of the season yet, however, and the second half at least suggested they are not in freefall. But a quarter of Allardyce’s reign is gone already and the underlying problem for Leeds is that 16 clubs are ahead of them in the table and the three below have games in hand.