Dafuge & Data: Big Sam’s Ghost

Although we are in 2028 I’m pretty sure Big Sam is still alive and kicking. Though probably retired. So whilst his actual ghost is not haunting the Flamingo Land Stadium the general spirit and ethos of Big Sam is. It’s our first season in the Championship and we are in real danger of just going back down.

We spend £3.6m on wages, the team in 1st place (Newcastle) on the wage table spend £52.9m. In fact, the team one spot above us in the table spend £4.2m. Our most valuable player is Joe Fairs on £4.9k a week and £725k value overall. Some (read many) Championship squads have a player or two pushing the £20m mark. It’s not a fair fight. Not by any means.

To get something out of this season it looks like we will need to adjust to being relegation battlers rather than promotion chasers – which is what we’ve been for the past 3-4 seasons in one way or another. To do this we need to learn the lessons of Big Sam. Relegation battler, alleged bung taker, pie eater, saviour.

A Painful Start

I should probably point out I’ve not just assumed this season is going to be painful. I’ve witnessed the pain during the off-season (with our inability to really compete for transfers) and then the subsequent bitchslap we got during the first few months of fixtures.

Three and a bit months, 3 wins, and 15 points in total. We’d shipped 22 goals in 15 games, and scored 18. It was not the high octane route one of seasons past. And although we were not in the relegation zone a point a game on average would probably get us there by the end of the season.

Big Sam and his Lessons

Despite the terrifying image below the Tifo video on Big Sam’s survival blueprint is fantastic. If you’d rather read about it I’d recommend Simon’s articles at DTG. As part of his Red Star series he really broke down the metrics and areas that Big Sam took to his clubs.

There are seven key areas for saving a club according to Big Sam (and Tifo):

  1. Keep clean sheets
  2. Don’t give away the ball in your own half
  3. Play the first pass forward
  4. Win the 2nd ball
  5. Set Pieces
  6. Exploit the oppositions weakness
  7. Final third quality

With the way the game is, and how some of the stats are I can’t address all of these points. Some we are already doing – arguably 2, 3 and 4 are covered by our longball tactic.

But I’ve selected a few areas to work on: Defence, Set Pieces and targeting winnable games. Now, this last one isn’t really mentioned in the video (though it could be under exploiting weaknesses) but it has been pointed out that Big Sam has on occasion identified games that were not likely to be winnable and fielded rotated or weaker squads to save the best XI for more achievable points.

“On Boxing Day 2003 Bolton travelled to Liverpool, going 2-0 down after 47 minutes. Allardyce reacted by immediately withdrawing his best three players: Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo, in the knowledge that Bolton had a game two days later against Leicester. He knew two full matches in such a short space of time was impossible for players of their age, so effectively gave up on the match at Anfield and concentrated on the winnable game…”

The Mixer, Michael Cox

This goes back to being pragmatic. Sometimes you can’t win pretty. Sometimes you can’t win at all. So you have to play the long game.

Our Defence

With Big Sam’s advice ringing in our ears, I went back and looked at the goals we were conceding. Both the stats and the eye test. If you listen to interviews with Big Sam about the first steps taken at places like Sunderland, Everton, West Ham and now West Brom it almost always centres around stopping the leaks at the back before anything else.

It felt like we were conceding a lot from through balls but not because the pass was splitting the defence but because the attackers were bringing it down and then gaining space with their pace and movement.

My defence seemed to be a bit static and struggled with through balls (7!) and attackers with a good first touch. That first touch was giving them enough space to leave my defenders in the dust. The stats seemed to largely back that up. If it was in the game or crossed then we were all over it but the opposition was isolating defenders and finding space behind them on a regular basis.

I can’t afford new defenders, and the loan options are bad or untested. So I had to work with what I had to plug the issue.

Structure/Defensive Line

The easiest patch to apply here was to drop the defensive line. My defenders are good in the air, and okay if they are positioned well when they are being run at. They struggle if a skilful first touch then leaves them out of position or if they have to make up ground.

For the first goal above we weren’t set right and the striker had plenty of space to run into before we could recover. In the second the flick on again leaves us wrong-footed and gives the striker time to get into a nice lose and central position to score.

Dropping the defensive line would in theory force more aerial duels, leave my defenders ‘set’ whilst they were run at, and reduce the amount of space attackers could gain with a quick burst of pace or sly knock-on. We can’t be split open by a through ball if there’s no space for the through ball to go into. I’ve not added it but a change to a sweeper-keeper might also help here.

This would leave me under more pressure, and concede a lot of possession. But we’ve already established that I don’t care about possession. In fact, drawing the opposition on by sitting deep could help with some of our longball counter attacks.

I’ve also got the chance to ‘go through the gears’. I’m not referring to FM’s number 1 OnlyFans profile. I’m referring to the fact there are degrees to defensive lines, the use of a sweeper-keeper and even changing the line of engagement to either shore up the defence, or open up play. I can cycle through these. For example, if things are still leaky I could lower the line of engagement to make the team harder to pass through, and if I have fast strikers still attack on the counter.

As a side note: An unintended consequence of a lower line might be hitting Big Sam’s requirement to get the ball forward with the first pass. If we defend deeper we might get the ball deeper, and then have more options ahead than behind.


Counter-pressing is all the rage. In real life and FM. Though interestingly a recent Zonal Marking podcast about West Ham pointed out that a lack of pressing can work quite well under the current pandemic/high-intensity calendar we have.

Whilst it’s a successful strategy in-game (most super tactics seem to use it) there are downsides. It leaves your team tired, and if you’re a weak side you can be pulled all over the pitch. You can lose a lot of your positional discipline if you are chasing the ball around like San Marino.

What we really need are some solid banks of defenders that are hard to pass through, and that leave few gaps to be exploited. I’m all for violently hunting players down and hacking their shins but having the whole team do that at the moment is leaving gaps. That’s not to say I don’t want to press at all, or that I don’t want to press intensely when we do, but that when we lose the ball we should get back into a rigid formation first.

With that in mind, we have switched from Counter-Press to Regroup. I can still target players for execution. I can still bully leftbacks and visit pain upon the visitors. But I’m just not going to do it by running around madly. We are going to get into position, and then spring like a steel bear trap.

Set Pieces

Big Sam knows set pieces are important. So do I. I’ve been trying to get the most out of them for several FM’s. I love a good long throw and filling the box with giants. Either to head it in or cause chaos. With the change to set pieces and long throws though my efficiency at set-pieces dropped off. It was broken, and for the first 15 games, I didn’t really fix it.

Not many set-piece goals, and not many instances of useful 2nd balls from them. In fact, long throws had started to become a liability and I was getting caught on the counter more.

Taking inspiration from Rensie’s post about set-piece routines I decided to take another look. I didn’t go to the extent of using my youth team to work out how effective they would be but I checked the takers again, made changes to who would be placed where. And with my mind partly on being caught on the counter myself, I moved an extra player back.

So far they’ve not been amazingly effective but the 2nd balls are better, and the loss of possession has been remedied. We have seen a gradual improvement in goals from second balls (which don’t count to the stats as they’re not directly from the set-piece) but I think this is something that is going to take me more than 15 games to fix though. Our takers and throwers aren’t great, so we will be limited here no matter what.

Picking a Hill to Die on

As per the quote earlier in the blog. Sometimes you’ve got to know when to hold them, and when to fold them. While it is great to think about winning every match the reality is that is can’t always happen, and trying to win everything is often a one way trip to losing more than you need to.

For the pragmatists here that means you need to pick your battles. Some can be won, and some should be avoided as best you can. Saving your strength elsewhere. If each match is a battle then the season is the war. I don’t need to win every battle, however nice that may be, to win the war.

If me and Big Sam can’t convince you then maybe Sun Tzu can.

He will win, who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

Sun Tzu, a long time ago

Come for the hoofball, stay for the philosophy.

As a result I identified a basic cut-off. If they were top 6 then I wouldn’t try. 7-10 I would look at on a case by case basis. 11 and below were fair game and potentially winnable games. I did also consider resources as well in case there were bigger teams having dips in form.

As you can see above. Even if the likes of Newcastle had a bad run they were still Goliaths and would be treated as such.

Ghost or Ghostbusters?

Well after 15 games of the new system we had 5 wins, 20 points. Conceded 32 goals, and scored 26. Despite our changes, it looks like our defence got worse somehow. Doesn’t seem great, does it? Sounds like we should be chasing the spirit of Big Sam out with a proton pack rather than inviting him back for a one on one at the pottery wheel.

But context is key here. 22 of those goals were conceded against teams we played weaker sides against. Games where we were so outmatched that a win was unlikely anyway. Whilst I don’t like shipping goals and tanking the goal difference in a practical sense I’d rather have fresh legs for the games I had a chance of winning. And that is what happened. We kept the goals down against the weaker sides and as a result, we picked up points against teams that were mid-table to relegation rivals. Newcastle could sell their most valuable player and buy our entire club, lock stock, 4 times over and have change. We were never really going to compete there. Not this season, not with this budget.

Looking at it another way. Pre-Big Sam blessings we won 3 out of 11 winnable games against mid-table to relegation teams. Post-Big Sam’s visitation we won 5 out of 8 winnable games. A 27% win rate improving to a 62% win rate.

Flip it and look at the loss rate. We lost 36% of targeted games pre-Big Sam, and a hugely impressive 0% after. Bring back the pottery wheel.

More Data?

A comparison of the 15 games before the change, and 15 after is nice (small sample though it is). I have obviously continued to play since then and have picked up 4 wins out of 4 for winnable games, and 1 loss against a bigger side. I’m not going to win a title this way but I am going to get to safety.

And as predicted, whilst we have been losing the battle for possession it has been fine. That’s not the battle we were interested in. Some of our counter-attacking moves have been beautiful. Obviously for longball Scarborough beautiful means a lofted ball forward (as per Big Sam’s rule no.3) that is nodded down by a targetman for another striker to finish (rule no.7).

Other Lessons from Big Sam?

“…the thing about Sam is that he gave me a level of personal affection and care, above everything else professionally, that I will never ever forget.”

Ivan Campo, in The Athletic

It’s not one of the key points but it’s something that is often mentioned when talking about Big Sam. Many players report what a good man-manager he is. And on Morale Football Manager that sort of inspirational people-centred approach can reap some real benefits. Some of the things I’ve made sure I do is praise good training performances every fortnight. Anyone above 8 gets a pat on the back, and a voucher for a greasy spoon fry-up to be redeemed during the offseason. I’ve also started using the individual team talk option for anyone who is nervous or unsure. I proceed to tell them everything is okay to squeeze out an extra percentage point or two of performance.

An unintended bonus of rotating players depending on the strength of the opposition has been an odd boost to some players morale. Maybe they just enjoy seeing their back up players getting pasted by former premiership sides. I think what is more likely though is that they don’t waste energy or morale getting beaten, and instead get a boost when they play a more manageable side. It’s like using a stunt double to keep your star actor fresh and safe. They are going into key games happy rather than at a low ebb.

“We were the underdogs and Big Sam was a good motivator. it was about sacrificing yourself for the team every game. Anyone not willing to do that couldn’t survive there. You needed to be 2,000 per cent dedicated.”

Youri Djorkaeff, in The Athletic

The players that are getting their pants pulled down by the big teams? Well whilst they aren’t going to be the happiest about that, they are at least happy about getting game time. This rotation is helping me meet a lot of promises about appearances and squad status. It has also given me the chance to assess pairings and players that would have otherwise only gotten brief outings. For example, I now know to sell my backup striker Akande if a half-decent offer comes in and keep backup striker Wheatley instead.

Future Big Sam Seances

We’ve still got a way to go before the end of the season. We don’t yet know if Big Sam has worked his magic from afar. We might stay up, we might not. But we have at least improved our chances I think. These Seagulls will not be going quietly.

If you enjoyed this but haven’t read much about the Scarborough data-driven journey so far then check out the posts below.