Big Sam Allardyce did Big Sam Allardyce things as he led Southampton from the bottom of the Premier League to a mid-table finish in 2022/23. Six months on from that glory, he’d holidayed ahead, spent a few months in the Caribbean topping up his tan and was now ready to discover the second team in this FM Experiment.
And as a reminder, we’ve expanded this experiment out to the top five leagues in Europe, rather than simply the Premier League in last year’s adventure.
Bottom At Christmas Season 2
On Christmas Day 2023, Big Sam had a couple of appealing options available. First, it’ll be absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s bottom of the Premier League… Norwich. While Southampton had benefited from Big Sam’s efforts and were 9th. Elsewhere, Huesca were bottom of La Liga and 6 points off safety and Sudtirol were bottom of Serie A and were 4 points from safety.
But the big two options that hooked Big Sam’s fancy were Toulouse propping up Ligue 1 and 6 points from safety and Schalke at the base of Bundesliga and 8 points from safety. So where to go?
Big Sam Heads To Germany!
Of course, the most intriguing option there was Schalke. But, having taken control, Big Sam instantly regretted it. Schalke are not only nailed to the bottom of Bundesliga, but are also £18.7m in the red, have a transfer budget of £470k and, scarily, £243m of debt! On the pitch, Schalke hadn’t won in 9 matches had only scored 4 goals in that time, and only have 9 goals and 2 clean sheets (against Leverkusen and Dortmund!) in 17 games.
The plusses about Schalke were a very good midfielder in 22-year-old Tom Krauss, a good attacking option in Amine Harit, half-decent midfielders in Rodrigo Zalazar and Florian Flick, and 17-year-old midfield starlet Assan Ouédraogo.
Those players aside, there wasn’t a great deal to shout about and Big Sam wasted no time in flogging the deadwood, selling 12 players for a profit of around £3m. He also didn’t have a great deal of choice in the transfer market, but did make a classic Big Sam purchase by signing a much-needed playmaker in 38-year-old David Silva for £110k from Sociedad. The loan market was also utilised to bring in centre-back Becir Omeragic from Inter and a younger goalkeeper in Valencia’s Giorgi Mamardashvili.
And with the squad slightly strengthened, Big Sam opted for a relatively solid-looking 4-3-3. Krauss is probably the key man in the holding midfield role, a lack of decent strikers will see more responsibility placed on Harit’s shoulders and the chances of success may rely on whether Silva can still cut it at the age of 38.
Tough Start To Life In Bundesliga
Allardyce’s experience of German football was a tricky home game against 8th-place Stuttgart. They started poorly, conceding after 34 minutes, but striker Marius Bulter was teed up by Ouédraogo to earn a decent point. The same result followed at 14th-place Gladbach as they fell behind early but Butler again rescued a probably undeserved point.
Another tough home game saw 4th-place Frankfurt come to town and Silva and Omeragic make their debuts. They again started slowly, conceding after 3 minutes and were 2 down half an hour later. But a half-time rollicking worked as Bulter scored a penalty then left-back Thomas Ouwejan nicked a late equaliser. That steady stream of draws cut Schalke’s deficit to 6 points but stretched their winless streak to 12 – with the club record of 16 lurking in the distance.
A tricky away game took them to 8th-place Koln and they took the lead for the first time under Big Sam as Bulter scored just after half-time. But the home team’s pressure told as they equalised through Matías Arezo on 82 minutes for a 4th successive draw! But that ended with a 4-0 hammering at Leipzig.
A massive game saw 15th-place Hertha come to town and Schalke finally stepped up to end their 15-game winless streak. Harit scored just his 2nd goal in 23 games this season, before Ouédraogo and winger William De Camargo scored their first goals for the club. A huge 3-0 victory lifted Schalke off the bottom of the table and just 2 points from safety!
Next up were two absolute must-win games considering the run that followed. First, a trip to 12th-place Werder Bremen and Mamardashvili kept his second clean sheet – doubling the team’s tally for the campaign – and winning player of the match, while striker David Kownacki came off the bench to nick an undeserved 84th-minute winner. And that lifted Schalke out of the relegation zone for the first time all season. Next was 14th-place Darmstadt and easily the most dominant performance of Big Sam’s reign delivered another victory and clean sheet as Bulter and Kownacki sealed a 2-0 win with Omeragic player of the match.
A Really Tough March And April
A really tricky run of games followed, starting with an unlucky 2-1 defeat at 5th-place Freiburg, who only won with a 94th-minute penalty. They claimed a 0-0 at home to 8th-place Wolfsburg led by another excellent Omeragic performance before a 3-week international break – in which Krauss made his Germany debut – led into a 4-1 beating at runaway leaders Bayern.
That was followed by a 1-0 loss at home to Leverkusen and a 6-2 battering at rivals Dortmund, in which Bulter scored two more. That flurry of poor results plunged Schalke deep into relegation trouble, dropping to 17th and 4 points from safety going into the final 4 games.
Bundesliga Relegation Battle
The better news was that Schalke’s final four games were slightly easier. Their Bundesliga survival hopes could swing on a massive game as they welcomed 16th-place Union Berlin. And it’s safe to say they absolutely bottled it under the pressure as they crumbled to a 5-2 defeat, in which they were 4-1 down inside 50 minutes!
Big Sam tried to buck the trend by switching to a back five at 13th-place Hamburg. But it absolutely did not work as Schalke crashed to a 3-0 defeat that all but confirmed relegation. And the inevitable was confirmed a week later with a 3-2 defeat at home to Mainz. And the miserable conclusion ended with a 2-1 loss at Hoffenheim.
Indeed, that final-day defeat saw Schalke drop to last place in Bundesliga for the first time since February, bringing a dreadful couple of months to an end. Schalke lost their last 7 matches, after winning 3 in a row and taking 10 points from their previous 5 games – which tells you FM23 is all about momentum!
There were some positives, such as Bulter scoring 11 in 27 matches of which 10 were under Big Sam’s tutelage. And some of the young players at the club have plenty of promise. But all in all, this was a pretty dire few months.
It’s safe to say Big Sam’s second season of Bottom At Christmas was a massive failure, having promised so much going into the final few games of Bundesliga. But what awaits him in season 3? Join us next Wednesday to find out!