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Soup of This Day #360: Sing The Words Wrong

February 6, 2014

The Jubilee Line at Waterloo
Taking the London Underground, you get on the eastbound District line at Upton Park, the home of West Ham United FC, changing to the Jubilee line at West Ham. From there you roll to Waterloo (above) and then on to Westminster, before a return to the District Line and the Wimbledon branch. Alighting at Fulham Broadway and it is a short walk to Stamford Bridge, where can be found Chelsea FC. These 2 London football clubs are surely linked by Waterloo then – Photo: Chris McKenna (Thryduulf), 2006. Chris McKenna (Thryduulf) is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

On Wednesday the 29th of January, a week or so just past, English football heavyweights Chelsea welcomed fellow Londoner’s West Ham United to their Stamford Bridge home for a crucial English Premier League (EPL) clash. Chelsea needed a win to keep pace with the Premiership’s leaders, whilst the Hammers needed to gain any points that they could in order to aid them in their struggle against relegation.

With more to lose, West Ham were defensive from the off and is as often the case in such circumstances, Chelsea struggled to break their desperate opponent’s stubborn resistance. The result was a goal-free stalemate that gave West Ham a precious away point, while Chelsea effectively dropped 2 points in their hunt for the title.

After the game, Chelsea’s manager José Mourinho was not happy at what had transpired. He explained why he was unamused in a post-match press conference whereby he provided his own variation of Bill Woodfull’s famous line:

‘There are two teams out there. One is playing cricket and the other is not.’

Obviously José didn’t mention cricket in his paraphrasing – He was not suggesting that either team was playing cricket during a football match, although this confusion would have explained the lack of a scoring shot as neither team seemed to have brought a bat. Instead he was claiming that by being so defensive and thus stifling the artistic flair of his own team that West Ham were not playing football as it should be played in the EPL or indeed in the modern game.

Or the not-so-modern game. In fact José went on to clarify that West Ham’s stultifying approach was:

‘…football from the 19th century.’

Which is a long time ago.

This is an alarming prospect. If correct then it would imply that, as they apply to football, the cultural and technological advances of the past 100 to 200 years have been for nought.

Or, more accurately, nought-nought.

To ascertain then if José might be on to something, I thought I’d analyse a game from the 19th century. This admittedly is difficult as film only really started to gain prominence at the end of the 19th century and earlier inventions, such as zoetrope, would have required a ridiculous number of on-the-fly animations to be accurate.

Fortunately though, there exists enough written accounts so as to make at least 1 match-up worth comparing to José’s 21st century experience – An international, between France and England in the early part of that past age.

It was not, in spirit or in actuality, a friendly international. There was little love lost between the opposing sides and the outcome of this match would settle a European title. Consequently both outfits travelled with large squads to the ground – Travelling was necessary as previous encounters had seen extensive crowd trouble and so a relatively neutral venue was selected for the occasion.

The English side was not exclusively English – All of the home countries were represented in the playing list and there were also some continental brethren, particularly from Germany and the Netherlands, in the ranks. This is a rough approximation of both the modern day clubs, Chelsea and West Ham. However, as this English team of yore was perhaps over-matched in personnel and started the match with a defensive intent, I think they were more like West Ham than Chelsea.

That means that I’m equating ye olden-day French outfit with the present-day Chelsea. The comparison is vague – The latter outfit was predominantly Gallic in staffing, while Chelsea does not have a single Frenchman on its current list – Ironically the modern West Ham does.

Still, like José’s skilled aggressors, this French club of the 19th century was determined to play with flair and style. Attack was the mantra for them, with their tempestuous manager favouring forward thrusts through direct channels. In an ironic echo of José’s comments, the English manager would later deride this as:

‘…the old way.’

At 1st this meant attacking drives down the flanks. The English club’s wing-backs though were up to that challenge – They made each side of the pitch into a bulwark of resistance, blocking repeated raids with stubborn tackling and the occasional wall. This was to be critical – Without control of those flanks the French team were forced inboard, where they were susceptible to an offside trap.

This was not a crippling blow though – The French team still had the numbers to swamp the midfield, with the resultant potential for potent attacks through the centre channel and into the heart of the English defence.

But what a defence it proved to be. The English outfit had deployed a flat back-line across the park. Because it was so flat, this defence looked thin, however this seeming frailty was misleading. Where the French team strode forward, restricted to narrow channels, their opposite numbers could overlap and tackle these laterally limited attacks in relative strength. Imagine every member of the defence is agile enough to act as both a centre-back and a sweeper – This is what faced that French club.

This was a pivotal tactical distinction – The French manager, perhaps lacking mental fitness from a period of suspension on the sidelines, or perhaps just jaded by the length of the overall campaign (He’d lead his team in away matches as far afield as Egypt and Russia), was unable to adapt. Without variation from their opponents, the English side were able to absorb each attempted strike by the French. Like West Ham, they had stultified their opposition, refusing to let them play their natural game and thus negating their pomp and flair.

The French manager was as miffed by this as his modern-day counterpart José was by Chelsea’s inability to break down West Ham.

So he called for a redoubling of his troop’s efforts, surging forward in 1 final all-out and seemingly overwhelming attack.

It got close, bulging the defensive line and forcing the kind of goal-line scramble that is less about tactical nous and more about desperation.

The French strike-force could not score though and as so often happens when 1 side commits so heavily to attack, they became exposed to a counter. The English manager saw his team’s chance and roared them on, urging his men to take over their opponent’s territory. In this task they were aided by the addition of some quality German substitutes, who, with fresh legs, were able to attack down the flank and fire crosses into the centre at will.

The back-pedalling French team were broken, mentally and physically distraught. They had ceded possession of the momentum and, despite a last-ditch rally, conceded the winning strike in the dying minutes.

It was a near run thing though. Damn near.

Just how close can be demonstrated in the toll taken on the men who had donned the kit and fought for 1 of the teams. A fair number of the brave souls suffered leg or arm injuries, while heads and torsos were also not spared. Sadly, neither team was able to field the kind of medical care that exists today and so many injuries would lead to infections. More than 1 player had a leg or an arm subsequently amputated, which hardly happens at all in modern football.

Because of this rate of attrition, the substitute’s bench was significantly larger than you will find in today’s game. In fact, it seems that more than 140,000 men took part in this game, of which some 45,000 were so stricken that they received the ultimate red card from the central referee, 1 Mr. G. Reaper.

As I write that, it occurs to me that I may have mashed up the Battle of Waterloo with a football game. The former conflict was a long time ago (199 years past or so) and maybe because of that you can understand my confusion. Given the passage of time it is sometimes difficult to gain perspective with such comparisons.

Unless you’re Sam Allardyce, the present-day manager of West Ham United. When José Mourinho’s comments had been relayed to him and he was asked for a response he simply offered up the kind of terse reply that might have been favoured by the Duke of Wellington, had Napoleon griped at him before his final exile to St Helens:

‘I don’t give a shite, to be honest.’

Sing The Words Wrong

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