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Red Star Alliance: Big Sam’s Fantastic Four

This article continues the Red Star Alliance experiment, an affiliation of community-owned clubs featuring Red Star Wrexham.


For the second season with RS Wrexham, I sought inspiration for our role as the newly promoted upstarts in League Two and Sam Allardyce sprang to mind almost immediately. If there is anyone who can provoke the big boys and get a team to overperform, it’s Big Sam. Unfairly labelled by many as a little more than a long ball practitioner, Allardyce’s Bolton teams were both aggressive and incredibly efficient. Allardyce was able to recruit and motivate gifted players such as Okocha, Djorkaeff and Anelka and pioneered many aspects of the modern English game with data analysis, new coaching methods, and flexible formations. He also demonstrated an uncanny ability to exploit the weaknesses of Bolton’s opponents despite often having lesser talent at his disposal. 

One area I was keen to explore was Sam’s “Fantastic Four”. These are the Key Performance Indicators he identified as critical for Bolton’s survival in the Premier League so I thought they would be perfect for our needs in League Two. These KPIs were: 

  1. Bolton had to stop the opposition from scoring in at least 16 of their 38 league games to avoid relegation; 
  2. If Bolton scored first they had a 70% chance of winning; 
  3. Set-pieces accounted for almost 33% of all goals scored and in-swinging corners and free-kicks were more effective than out-swingers; 
  4. Bolton would have an 80% chance of avoiding defeat if they outran their opposition at speeds above 5.5m per second. 

Here’s the approach I took to implement these KPIs in FM in order to focus our training, tactics and recruitment: 

  1. Keep Clean Sheets
    • Sign defenders with the requisite defensive attributes but also with good First Touch and Passing skills. This is to reduce the number of goals scored from intercepted passes or other technical errors 
    • Utilise a defensive formation (i.e. 4-1-4-1) and roles based on the classic Bolton teams between 2004-2007
    • Use Defensive/Cautious/Balanced mentality depending on the relative strength of the opponent and their tactical setup 
    • Utilise scouting reports to identify opposition threats and try to nullify these with OIs or tactical tweaks
    • Increase the KPI to 19 clean sheets in order to account for the extra 8 fixtures in League Two compared to the Premier League. 
  2. Score First 
    • Use scouting reports to identify potential areas of defensive weakness in the opponent (e.g. line up our Target Man against the weakest defender) and tweak tactics accordingly
  3. Maximise Opportunities from Set Pieces
    • Ensure set pieces are trained in at least 2 sessions every week and apply individual training for players on set piece duties
    • Assign set piece takers so that corners and free kicks were in-swinging
    • Use logical attacking and defending set piece routines with mixed delivery from the taker (to avoid the possibility of creating an exploit).
  4. Faster Than/Outwork Opponents
    • Speed is not a data metric provided by FM but I believe that Distance Covered is an effective alternative as this would logically factor in players work rate and speed
    • Record the Average Distance Coverage vs Opponent from the Summary Stats Movement metrics
    • Recruit players with decent pace, work rate, stamina and natural fitness. 


To say I found a strong correlation between these KPIs and having a successful season would be a gross understatement. While, it’s not exactly rocket science to suggest that if you defend well, focus on set pieces, and outwork your opponent you can do pretty well, but I was astonished at just how effective focusing on these areas would be as we finished second in the league gaining another promotion up to League One!

Actively tracking these statistics rather than just collating the data at the end of the season also helped to identify areas to work on in training or make tactical adjustments.  Here is the data for how we faired against the Fantastic Four KPIs: 

  1. Clean Sheets – we registered a clean sheet in 23 of 46 games and avoided relegation.  Metric confirmed. 
  2. Score First – we scored first in 26 of our matches and won 22 of these, an 84.6% win ratio. Metric confirmed. 
  3. Maximise Opportunities from Set Pieces – we scored 17 of 44 total goals from set pieces, a 38.6% ratio. Metric confirmed. 
  4. Faster Than/Outwork Opponents – we had a higher movement total than opponents in 30 of 39 games that resulted in a win or draw, a 77% ratio. Given the 3% difference from the target, I’d suggest this is close enough to call as confirmed. 

So based on this seasons data you can conclude that if you keep a clean sheet, score first, work on set pieces and recruit fast and hard-working players you’ll not lose many games.  I will add that our goal scoring and attacking stats were pitifully bad, but our defensive numbers were off the charts. As an old school fan of Italian football, I’m very happy about that. I was so impressed by the Fantastic Four that I will continue to use them again next season in League One. 

With the Fantastic Four, I think Allardyce found an edge where many others have failed. These KPIs combined with his bold recruitment strategy and simple tactical approach worked beautifully. The man may not be a genius but he’s bloody smart. 


As mentioned, we managed to finish second in the league gaining promotion again and now find ourselves in League One. We were well off champions Bristol Rovers, but I am ecstatic with this outcome. Our success was almost entirely built on an exceptional defensive record and without the use of the Fantastic Four, I doubt we’d be anywhere near getting promoted.  

Goal scoring was an issue all season with only 44 goals scored in 46 matches but when you concede only 26 and lose just 7 matches at this level, it’ll keep you in the hunt. If I had any previous doubts that playing almost exclusively defensive football would never work in FM, I don’t doubt it anymore.

Despite our success, I still feel like our tactics are evolving so I plan on going into this in detail in a future blog as I think we need another season or two of refinement. In addition to the Fantastic Four, I am also tracking some other team and player metrics. Another season should hopefully produce some interesting results worth writing up.


Elsewhere in the Red Star Alliance: 

  • Celtic and Besiktas both did the double with back-to-back titles and Cup success. 
  • Marseille only managed 4th but was the only club in the RSA to make the quarter finals of the Champions League.
  • AEK won their domestic cup and qualified for Europe again finishing 3rd in the Greek league.
  • Livorno regained their place in Serie B with a playoff promotion from Serie C.
  • St Pauli finished mid-table (7th) again in 2. Bundesliga missing out on the playoffs
  • Rayo Vallecano’s stay up in the Spanish top flight only lasted one season and were relegated

One of the things I’m most interested in with this experiment is to see what player movements happen (if any) between Red Star Alliance teams making use of the affiliations but I’ve been disappointed that only three moves have happened between the other RSA clubs so far:

  • Besiktas – Sold Tokoz to Celtic (7M) and took over Celtic’s loan of Arzani from Man City
  • Livorno – Loaned Valetin from Vallecano

However, we have done our part for the cause in our first two seasons:

  • Loaned Ake, Perrin (season one) and Hadjem, Perrin and Chabrolle (season two) from Marseille
  • Loaned Giousis from AEK (season one)
  • Loaned Marie-Sainte from Livorno (season one)
  • Signed Pflucke, Meissner, and Hoffmann on a free from St Pauli II
  • Signed Mario on a free from Vallecano

Moving forward, Brexit will curtail our recruitment somewhat given the work permit requirements and our inability to recruit internationals as a League One club so we will have to focus on domestic talent for now. Celtic’s unwanted British players remain an option for us though. 


I’m about to click continue and head into our third season at RS Wrexham.  My next article aims to detail the various Allardyce-inspired tactics we’re using and the analysis I use to measure effectiveness and make improvements. Until then…

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Written by Simon Kean

I drink coffee, play bass, and think about football quite a lot.


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