How Sam Allardyce’s 38.8% career win record compares to the last five Leeds United managers

Looking back at the last five Leeds United managers and how their careers match up against Sam Allardyce’s.
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By the time you read this, it may have happened already – Leeds United are set to sack Javi Gracia after a torrid run of form and replace him with the doyenne of the relegation battle, Sam Allardyce. If you’re going to fire your manager with four games to go in the desperate hope of avoiding the drop, you can’t argue that Big Sam has the track record to back his appointment up. He’s been here before, many, many times.

His oft-repeated claim that he would have been handed the biggest jobs in the land if he was called Allardicio will never be proven, but how does his career as English football’s foremost firefighter stack up compared to recent Leeds managers? Is he the right man not just for the next few weeks, but for the long term?

It’s fair to say that appointing Allardyce just over a year after Marcelo Bielsa took charge of his last game at Elland Road represents a bit of a philosophical left turn. But these are desperate times, and when you’re at the point where the club accountants are frantically googling parachute payments, sometimes you have to throw years of hard work out of the window and simply pray for survival.

Allardyce has, of course, been relegated just once as a manager, during his most recent spell in the Premier League as manager of West Bromwich Albion when they went down in 2021. He successfully steered Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Everton and Sunderland to safety in tough seasons, so he knows what he’s about when it comes to life at the sharp end of the top tier.

As a result of all that time spent embroiled in relegation battles, Allardyce’s career win percentage isn’t especially overwhelming – 38.8% over more than a thousand games from his first run as a player-manager with Limerick to that losing battle with West Brom. It’s still better than well over half of Leeds’ permanent managers this century, however, and when you consider that he never did manage a big team with a big budget, has to be seen as pretty impressive in context. But how does he stack up next to Leeds’ five most recent appointments, both statistically and philosophically?

Javi Gracia – Career win percentage 40.7%

Gracia will largely be remembered in England for running Leeds aground this season and for being one of the many sacrificial lambs offered up to the owners of Watford. It’s pretty hard, if we’re honest, to judge what his proposed philosophy for Leeds was, as his team have rapidly spiralled into chaos, shipping 20 goals in Leeds’ last six matches. His career statistics, which take in spells not just in Spain but in Russia, Greece and Saudi Arabia, are pretty impressive, and taken it tandem with his respectable spell in Hertfordshire suggest a manager who wasn’t really out of his depth at Elland Road, but simply lacked the specific tools needed for a pretty challenging job.

Gracia has also endured rather declining returns over his career, with impressive earlier spells at teams like Pontevedra and Almería offset by rather more disappointing periods in charge of Valencia and Osasuna, both teams he struggled at. Perhaps a manager who needs the right circumstances to make things work, and didn’t get them in Yorkshire.

Jesse Marsch – 50.2%

50.2% is, frankly, massively impressive for a career win percentage. Only the best managers, in charge of the best teams, can improve upon that. His numbers are, however, rather flattered by 151 games in charge of New York Red Bulls and a lengthy spell at Red Bull Salzburg, a team who financially dominate the Austrian Bundesliga and where victory is expected in practically every match. His relatively average numbers in charge of RB Leipzig – 38.1% coaching a team that should be challenging for Europe every year – and his 11 wins from 37 league attempts for Leeds makes it clear that he has failed to impart his philosophical ideas on teams where the competition is fiercer.

That philosophy made a lot of sense for a successor to Marcelo Bielsa, at least – his high-tempo pressing game which puts organised pressure on the ball ahead of typical positional structure was a logical next step to Bielsa’s high-energy games, and bears little resemblance to the direct and defensively compact style favoured by Allardyce in his many relegation run-ins. Given that the Leeds defence became increasingly fragile during the American’s reign, the change may do Leeds good in the long run.

Marcelo Bielsa – 45.5%

Marsch is the only Leeds manager with a higher career win percentage than Bielsa since the rather brief days of Brian Clough. Which, arguably, shows you just how little stock we should put in career win percentages. Context is key, however, and Bielsa has taken his endlessly high-energy, attacking style to some of the biggest clubs in Europe and South America and left a lasting impression, as well as being one of the Argentinian national team’s greatest coaches.

If Bielsa was meant to be the blueprint upon which Leeds’ future would be built, then appointing Allardyce would represent a complete change of direction. Allardyce prefers disciplined defence and structured counter-attacks, whereas Bielsa likes to get the ball forward early and often and runs his players hard as they chase opposing defenders down in packs. The only real similarity is how scientific they are in their methodology – but they reached very different conclusions indeed in terms of how football should be played. But if you need a short-term manager to salvage a seriously sticky predicament – you’d be hard-pressed to argue for Bielsa…

Paul Heckingbottom – 42.3%

Heckingbottom lasted just 16 games in charge at Elland Road, winning four, but his recent success with Sheffield United – who he has steered back to the Premier League this season – means his career-wide win percentage is pretty healthy, albeit from a sample size less than a quarter than that of Big Sam.

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Reaching back to the pre-Bielsa days at Leeds is to hark back to a time when overarching philosophy was put on the back burner in favour of trying to find any old means to return to the top flight. That they never managed it, hopping rapidly from one head coach to the next, tells you something about the benefits of a consistent managerial strategy, and that could be the single biggest argument against appointing Allardyce – the squad has been built up with very different managers in mind and they may struggle to respond effectively to a completely different style of play. That said, whatever’s going on right now plainly isn’t working.

Thomas Christiansen – 51.8%

The Danish-born Spanish international has a startlingly high win percentage, and indeed managed a thoroughly respectable 42.9% at Leeds before he was unceremoniously deposed after his first run of poor results. Given that he’s done rather well elsewhere – albeit in Cyprus, Belgium and now as head coach of Panama – Leeds may have been better served sticking with him for a while. But that wasn’t the Leeds way back then.

His numbers are rather buoyed by successful stints in charge of AEK Larnaca and APOEL, where he won the Cypriot First Division in 2017, but a career low watermark of 41.9% in charge of up-and-coming Union Saint-Gilloise is pretty impressive, really.

So there we have it – going by raw win percentage alone, Sam Allardyce would be the least successful manager Leeds have had in recent years. You have to go back to Garry Monk, who departed in 2017, to find a Leeds manager with a lower career win percentage. But then, Allardyce has largely managed strugglers and stragglers, and with that one exception in the West Midlands, has done his job well enough to keep teams’ heads above water. Would he be a good fit for the long haul? Perhaps not. But there’s a fire that needs putting out, and Fireman Sam knows where you can find a hose…