Most entertaining managerial spat of the season so far has to be the frank exchange of views between Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce after West Ham held Chelsea scoreless at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.
In case you missed it – and Chelsea missed it all night – the bare stats tell the guts of the story: the home side had 39 efforts on goal to West Ham’s one but, through a combination of death-or-glory defending by the visitors, a superlative performance by Hammers keeper Adrian and a recurrence of Chelsea’s inability to find the clinical finish, the night ended with Mourinho fuming and Allardyce unable to keep the smile off his face.
Mourinho promptly grabbed the post-match headlines by accusing the opposition of playing “football from the 19th century”, characterised, in his view, by time-wasting, feigning injury and ten men not daring to put a foot outside their own penalty area. Sam Allardyce’s team, he went on, had come to the Bridge not wanting to play football, let alone with an ambition to win or even, as he put it, “feel part of the quality of the Premier League”.
Big Sam’s succinct response? “I don’t give a shite, to be honest.”
You have to love it: it’s as if Oscar Wilde and Fred Flintstone got into a philosophical debate which Fred settled by scratching his chin for a moment and then bringing his big old wooden club down on Oscar’s head. Yabbadabbadoo!
Actually, it’s a pity Allardyce couldn’t have left that as the last word. But with his own ego at least as well developed as Mourinho’s – for all that they represent the chalk and cheese of Premier League management — he had to go on and hint that it was his own superior footballing intelligence which had proved decisive on the night.
“He can’t take it because we’ve out-tactic-ed him, out-witted him,” he crowed (note: the innovative “out-tactic-ed” is not to be confused with “out-tika-taka-ed” something of which, in fairness, no Allardyce team could ever stand accused).
Now I’m no Pro Licence holder, me, but I think it’s reasonably fair to say that setting your team out in the shape of a protective wall around your goal hardly requires much in the way of wit and probably barely qualifies as a tactic at all.
But that’s not to say that, depending on circumstances, it isn’t entirely justifiable. And West Ham’s currently embattled circumstances – 28 goals conceded in nine games before Stamford Bridge and with their Premier League status under threat – surely fitted the emergency bill before kick off in west London on Wednesday.
When a game turns into defence versus attack, with one side forced to withstand a 90-minute siege, there can be something almost noble about the qualities of concentration, resilience and sheer gut-busting effort required to keep a superior foe at bay. And if Wednesday night wasn’t quite the Culture Club versus the Crazy Gang, it was close enough to that template for most neutrals to have wanted the Hammers to hang on at the death.
Of course, it’s probably always easier for those of us on this side of the Irish Sea to identify with the oppressed. After all, some of the most cherished days in Irish football history have been all about defying the odds to smash and grab the glory, from Packie Bonner’s finest hour in Stuttgart in 1988, through the crucial defeat of Holland at Lansdowne Road in 2001 to the miracle of Moscow in 2011 when Richard Dunne spilled blood for the cause and an improbable point gained in the teeth of a Russian onslaught kept Ireland’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign on course.
In any event, there is a glaring irony at the heart of Mourinho’s complaints this week. The Special One is widely credited with importing the phrase “parking the bus” into the lexicon of English football, even if it was originally in reference to attempts by opponents in Portugal to derail his all-conquering Porto side.
But, on occasion, Mourinho has been only too happy to take the wheel himself, most famously when his Inter side went to the Camp Nou for a Champions League semi-final in 2010 and comprehensively suffocated Barcelona to hold out for a 3-2 aggregate win before going on to beat Bayern Munich in the final. And Mourinho certainly wasn’t making any apologies afterwards.
“We didn’t park the bus, we parked the airplane,” he quipped, “and we did it for two reasons. One because we only had ten men and two because we beat them 3-1 in the San Siro not by parking the bus or the boat or the airplane but by smashing them at the San Siro.”
In other words, the circumstances of the game demanded that Mourinho circled the wagons. Which, albeit at a less rarefied level – and with far less quality at his disposal — is exactly what Sam Allardyce did at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. And if “19th century football” is good enough for a place in the Champions League final, then it’s got to be good enough for a team fighting for its Premier League survival.
And now? All eyes turn to the big one at the Etihad on Monday, when Chelsea will come up against the goal machine that is Manchester City.
Irresistible force meets immovable object, anyone? Whatever about the game, Big Sam’s post-match analysis should be well worth waiting for.
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