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Ross Bramble has a look at the enigma that is Alan Pardew’s managerial career and why he’s the definition of a Jekyll and Hyde manager.
It’s said there are only two things you can guarantee in life – death and taxes. It occurs to me however, that the ancient philosophers responsible for that little bromide never did count on the managerial prowess of one Alan Pardew. If there’s any other certainty in life, it’s that Pardew will always sway between incredible runs of goalscoring form and undefeated streaks, and arduous hikes through infuriating spells of successive lifeless defeats.
At the time of writing, Alan Pardew’s current side Crystal Palace are enduring the latter. Six games without victory, including five consecutive Premier League defeats, see the Eagles sinking back toward the relegation zone, despite the high-priced acquisitions of Christian Benteke and Yohann Cabaye over the last two seasons. On paper, this Crystal Palace side is one that could and should be competing with teams much higher in the division; in fact, before this recent run of poor form, Crystal Palace were proving as such with an impressive four match unbeaten run, which featured a 4-1 victory over Stoke City and an excellent comeback win over Sunderland.
Patchy runs over form aren’t new for Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace, either. Back in the 2015/16 season, the Englishman presided over a run of six games without defeat, and a handful of three and four game spells, too. But for every positive period, there is always an equal and opposite negative with Alan Pardew – eleven games without a win in a league saw Palace plummet down the Premier League table. The run may have even cost the manager his job if not for the excellent FA Cup run that saw the Eagles defeated in extra time by Manchester United in the cup final.
What must be said, however, is that this is not a phenomenon exclusive to Crystal Palace. Alan Pardew has a record of precisely this sort of Jekyll and Hyde form across his portfolio. For every run of five unbeaten, there is sure to be a run of five without victory, and vice versa. The media will support recurring “Pardew for England” campaigns ad nauseum, and just as quickly report that his job is hanging by a thread. In fact, in the build up to this weekend’s crunch fixture with Bob Bradley’s struggling Swansea, the media are already reporting the axe is ready to fall should Pardew be unable to claim the points. So just what is Pardew’s problem? Well, that’s not as difficult a question as it might appear.
To better understand what goes wrong for poor old Pards, we need to take a quick look at some graphics. Dating back as far as his run as West Ham manager, Alan Pardew has always stuck to a tried and true tactical set up; a 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1, depending how you wish to see it. While most graphics will suggest Pardew prefers a stable 4-4-2, I’m more of the persuasion that the 4-2-3-1 is the more appropriate set up, so for the purposes of this illustration, I have attempted to find some sort of happy medium between the two, to allow you to more clearly see the balance his set up attempts to strike. With that said, here are the line-ups for some of the biggest games Alan Pardew has presided over for West Ham, Southampton, Newcastle and Crystal Palace.
In the above examples, we see the line-ups for West Ham’s 3-2 FA Cup final defeat to Liverpool, Southampton’s 4-1 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy victory in 2010, the Newcastle side that beat Chelsea 2-0 at the Bridge, and the Crystal Palace starting eleven for the FA Cup final against Manchester United in 2016. Hopefully the graphics can more accurately depict the Pardew formation – not quite a 4-4-2, but not quite a 4-2-3-1, either. Having seen the line-ups, the similarities quickly become plain.
Pardew’s formations are truly formulaic. The back is built of two experienced centre backs – one more technical, one more forceful – and two flying attacking full backs. In front of them sit to two holding midfielders – one more technical, one more physical, but both adept at putting their foot in. Ahead of them are two tricky, pacey wingers, usually allowed the freedom to cut inside. Up front are two strikers – one strong and bulky to fulfil a target man role, and another a trickier, sharper finisher. The difficulty in naming the exact formation Pardew plays lies primarily with these two. The bulkier striker is always furthest forward, ready to receive the long balls and try and set up his runners with knock downs and hold up play. The second, quicker striker is allowed to drift between the midfield three and the offensive two, making him harder to pick up and track. Nonetheless, this is the Pardew formula, and it doesn’t change for anyone, or, more importantly, anyTHING.
As a Southampton fan who lived through the Pardew era, I like to make light of Alan Pardew’s little black tactics book he’s so often seen with at pitch side. Who knows what gets written in there. I like to imagine it’s a flip book, either of a stick man celebrating, or a curse word getting bigger and bigger as each page goes by, depending on which sort of run his team is on. The reason I make so light of it, is much the same reason that Newcastle fans decried him back in 2012, just as Charlton fans did back in 2006 – tactical inflexibility. What Pardew has is more than just a formula – it’s a dogma. Pardew has so much faith in the benefits of this formation, that it never changes outside of squad-crippling injury crises. Whether the going’s good or whether the fans are booing his sides off at half time, the tactic never changes.
Pardew’s sides are quick and brutal on the counter, with pace on both wings and a good distributor holding the line and firing balls in to the space, or more often than not, onto the head of the target man. The great thing about this tactic is that when it works, it’s lethal. Palace have dangerous options all over the field, and there’s no easy way to deal with them their wide variety of threats. The team is quick and tricky enough to make you pay for dallying on the ball or committing too many men, but it’s tall and strong enough to take advantage of set pieces and dispossess you in dangers areas. You only have to look at the two great successes of Alan Pardew’s managerial career to see those benefits – the Southampton side the won the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and finished just outside the playoff places in League 1, despite a ten-point deduction, and the Newcastle side that claimed a European position back in 2012. Pardew even won both LMA and Premier League Manager of the Season awards for that particular accomplishment. An FA Cup final with both Crystal Palace and West Ham are not to be sniffed at either, let’s not forget. Both of those sides came close to claiming the cup in their respective finals.
So it’s clear that Pardew can make a success of clubs, given the finances to bring in his ideal starting eleven. But no matter how much Pardew achieves, he seems constantly under pressure. When Newcastle were starting to struggle under Alan Pardew, most neutrals told the Toon Army to be careful what they wished for when calling for his dismissal. Having done so well with them the year before, why were Newcastle fans so angry with him now? Well, ask Charlton fans, who were equally as disgruntled with Pardew near the end of his tenure. Or perhaps you could ask Crystal Palace fans, who are witnessing the nuclear winter of Pardew’s tactics as we speak. The Pardew formula can work wonders for stretches of time – but then it tanks. And when it tanks, Pardew both refuses to alter his style, and seems incapable of inspiring the fans or the players.
Alan Pardew always seems to be dancing on that razor’s edge between excellent, European-level manager, and uninspiring Mr. Fix It that passes his sell-by date far too quickly. He has a nice manner about him which usually endears fans early doors, and even more so when the riches are rolling in. He seems relaxed and considered in his interviews and yet passionate and involved on the touchline. Pardew is clearly a man who loves this sport and certainly wears his heart on his sleeve, even if at times it comes at the expense of his dignity (remember that dance?) or his place on the touchline (the clash with David Meyler remaining the most memorable blemish on his recent record). His teams can be dynamic and energetic when the going is good, and Alan Pardew feels like he’s in the trenches kicking every ball with his players. But when the tide turns, fans begin to feel as though their players are floating out to sea, with Pardew standing on the boat and shouting for them to swim back.
His time at Charlton came to an end with chants of “We want Pardew out” and “We want our club back” down at the Valley, as the club sank in to the Championship’s bottom three. At Southampton, backstage problems between Pardew and his staff, added to Nicola Cortese’s growing disapproval of his simple style, put pay to Pardew’s time on the south coast. The club, which arguably boasted the greatest League One team in the history of the division, were 14th at the time. His Newcastle tenure ended in tears as well of course – fans had been baying for his dismissal for months, before Crystal Palace allowed a smooth transition for both club and manager in 2015. And now we’re back in the dark times once more, with Pardew balancing finely on the edge of another managerial cliff. His Crystal Palace side, in spite of their fantastic run to the FA Cup final and a handful of undefeated streaks, have been the worst performing side in England in 2016, gaining less points than the two teams relegated from the football league back in May.
To surmise then, by day, Alan Pardew is a fantastic manager, capable of bringing success to any club willing to invest in his formation. But, by night, Alan Pardew is a poor manager, dogged by tactical rigidity and insipid man management skills. He truly is the definition of a Jekyll and Hyde manager, and it doesn’t take much to turn his teams from unstoppable force to paper in the wind. That said, it is not for me to decide whether a club should keep or dispense with their manager – only the board know the ambitions of their clubs, and only they can decide whether Alan Pardew’s spells of success are worth his spells of hardship. But one thing is for sure; if Alan Pardew hopes to one day manage in Europe once more, or survive in a Premier League that seems to slowly be returning to the good old days of coaching squads rather than buying teams, then he has to start becoming more flexible.