In The Mixer
One man's opinions on all things football

Following the Champions’ league exits of England’s top two sides, it seems that it is now universally accepted that going for victory in all competitions is foolish, it being ‘impossible to win on all fronts’. In fact, the very use of this terminology – usually found in descriptions of failed German attempts to conquer Europe – suggests that attempting to win the Champions’ League alongside other domestic competitions is as difficult as taking an army through Russia in wintertime. As many a General has found to his cost, this is indeed very difficult and by extension, United and Chelsea are excused for their poor showing in last week’s semi-finals. Just like the armies of Napoleon and Hitler, they had become battle-weary, whereas Liverpool – who according to Mourinho have been focussing solely on Europe since January – and Milan were not better, just fresher.

Now, to anyone who actually watched both matches, this view may seem a little hard to swallow. And anyone who witnessed Chelsea lump countless diagonal balls to Drogba or Manchester United obstinately refuse to mark the brilliant Kaka may wish to suggest that the root cause of the defeats imposed upon United and Chelsea was not fatigue, but tactical naivety. Going for victory on so many ‘fronts’ is undoubtedly a tall order, but both teams played into the hands of their adversary. Traps were laid and the Premiership’s top two sides gamely fell prey to their opponent’s devices.

One doesn’t imagine that the DVD of Liverpool’s epic victory over Milan two years ago is among Sir Alex Ferguson’s personal collection, but had he thrown even a cursory glance at that game, he couldn’t have helped but notice how Kaka took Liverpool to the proverbial cleaners before the tough tackling German, Didi Hamann, was brought on to nullify the Brazilian’s wizardry. With his influence diminished, Liverpool were able to get a foothold in the game and went on to stage one of the greatest comebacks of all time.

On Wednesday night, Sir Alex Fergusson’s United refused to pay any special attention to the dynamic Brazilian. Pre-game, when asked directly how he planned to deal with Kaka, Fergusson claimed with dismissive authority that he would be dealt with by the nearest man. This was not a bluff and was quite extraordinary considering how the balletic playmaker had twice dismantled the United defence just a week previously. Ferguson’s carefree attitude was bordering on arrogance and he was suitably punished when Kaka ghosted unmarked into the United box to slot home Milan’s crucial opening goal.

The Rossoneri were certainly not going to leave Ronaldo and Rooney unattended in a similar fashion. The Portuguese was constantly tracked and hounded by two men, whilst Rooney was left isolated up front. Despite an array of attacking talent at their disposal, United failed to provide any support for England's most potent striker. As Sven found out against Portugal, Rooney is not suited to playing up front on his own: he becomes frustrated, the responsibility becomes burdensome. He is at his best when another forward is able to occupy defenders, leaving him the space to operate in front of them. The combative Smith should have started against Milan, if only to bring Rooney into the game.

Whereas United were largely undone by their failure to deal with an outstanding individual, Chelsea were bereft of ideas from start to finish in their clash with Liverpool. Due to the regularity of the meetings between these two clubs, a synthetic rivalry has developed, which provokes as much volume and fervour inside Anfield as when more traditional foes are in town. Fans have claimed that the noise during Liverpool’s semi-final victory two years ago was like nothing experienced at Anfield before. On Tuesday night, it was possibly louder. And just like two years ago, Mourinho’s men were unable to silence the Liverpool faithful.

Like United, Chelsea left the focal point of their attack isolated up front and persisted in lumping aimless diagonal balls forward from Ashley Cole who seems to have lost all of the marauding instincts that characterised his game at Arsenal. In the vain hope that Didier Drogba could reproduce some of the magic that has enabled Chelsea to emerge unscathed from many a tight squeeze this season, they persevered with this tactic throughout the match. It was only the late introduction of Wright-Phillips and Robben that enabled Mourinho’s side to pose any attacking threat at all. However, by this stage, the tie had degenerated into an exhausted slugfest, with both sides hoping for a mistake rather than actively trying to create an opening.

For all Mourinho’s sound and fury before the game, his team exited with a whimper. They came to Anfield intent on preventing Liverpool scoring, but when the goal came, there was no plan B for them to fall back on.

So, simple as it is true, fatigue was not to blame for the Champion’s league demise of United and Chelsea. They just got it tactically wrong on the night.


It is common for football writers and pundits to heap praise upon players and managers whose media profile far outweighs their achievements or abilities. It is, however, rare for inappropriate superlatives to survive the test of time. In a rather strange inversion of a common assumption regarding the veracity of historical accounts, the more time that separates the lauding of a player or manager from their heyday, the more accurate the description is likely to be. If somebody writes in glowing terms about the achievements of Brian Clough or Bob Paisley, we know that this opinion has had time to mature and is firmly founded on years of perspective. Sure, we all have a tendency to romanticise the past, but this tendency is eclipsed by our ability to indulge in the present and ignore everything that we will come to reflect upon in time.

It is now less than a day since the unfathomably popular ‘Big Sam’ quit Bolton and already the hacks are busy shovelling praise left, right and centre. Perspective will, no doubt, come in time, but at the moment we are being subjected to a big, fat, Big Sam love-in.

Although we shouldn’t take away from his achievements – he took Bolton Wanderers from Division One and turned them into an above mid-table Premiership side - we should remember one thing above all else: during his reign, Sam Allardyce won nothing as manager of Bolton. His best Premiership finish was 6th and he qualified for the UEFA cup only once with the ensuing European adventure ending two rounds prior to the quarter-final. He is a good, solid Premiership manager, but not a great one, by any stretch of the imagination. Great managers win trophies even when handicapped by the subject of an interminable Allardyce whinge: an unlevel playing field.

To coin a popular expression, great managers make the impossible possible or at least turn the unlikely into an eventuality. Now, it is very difficult to imagine even the greatest manager usurping the big four and turning Bolton into title contenders, but an FA Cup, a League Cup or even a UEFA Cup was certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

Arsene Wenger recently commented that if managers were all given equal resources, he would regularly come top of the league. Big Sam, however, disagreed and snorted his disapproval, claiming that the winner of this hypothetical championship would not be Wenger but Allardyce.

The former Bolton manager likes to indulge in this fantasy that he is champion among underdogs. Take out the big spenders and there he is, sitting pretty at the top of the tree. But the facts tell a remarkably different story. Even if we take the big four out of the equation, Allardyce’s premiership record is not a succession of titles but a 12th, 13th, 4th, 2nd and 4th place finish. This is hardly the record of one of the game’s greats. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if any of the ‘big four’ managers had this return after 5 years in the Premiership, they would be struggling to hang on to their jobs.

Many fans of the beautiful game will not be at all upset to see an end to this particular Bolton era. Under Allardyce, the team played their own unique brand of hoofball: they were dirty, scrappy, and downright unpleasant to watch. They were like Revie’s Leeds, but without the success. Predictably, though, their combative approach was a rather touchy subject for their former manager. When anyone dared question his chosen style of play, he would launch with unerring regularity into yet another whinge about how the team had to compensate for their lack of investment in the transfer market. Yawn.

Why Big Sam still remains such a popular choice for the England job is, quite frankly, beyond me. Perhaps the public are attracted to that gruff, rhinoceros-like personality: the northern toiler, doing everything he can to stay afloat whilst other top managers are gifted with the footballing equivalent of a silver spoon. Myself, I see only a grumpy, rancorous excuse-maker, whose teams play with all the style of lumbering heavyweight boxer.