A topsy-turvy, manic encounter, and yet entirely predictable when neither side can defend. Immense fun, but weren't these two teams with title ambitions in August..?
Man United's winning run was halted by ten-man Aston Villa as Louis van Gaal's side struggled to crack the hosts' resistance. Van Gaal is still waiting for a big performance...
Although many would do so begrudgingly or perhaps through gritted teeth, there is seemingly nothing controversial about stating that Sam Allardyce is a 'good manager'. He has won two league titles. He took Bolton to the Premier League and established them as a mainstay, including four consecutive top-eight finishes and European football. In his only full season at Blackburn Rovers, the club finished tenth in the Premier League, a world away from their current predicament. Only three Englishmen have won more Manager of the Month awards in the Premier League, and he has been seriously considered previously for the England manager's job. So, a good manager, no?
Allardyce also has a distinct way of achieving his success, a style that could perhaps be best described as pragmatic. During his time with Bolton specifically, Allardyce gained a reputation for electing to utilise a direct tactic, picking out target man Kevin Davies, who would then lay the ball to wingers for a cross into the box, or attempt to win a set-piece from which the side could capitalise. His sides are required to be hardworking and determined. It may not be particularly pretty, but it has previously proved effective, earning him the respect of Bolton fans and plaudits alike. If last Tuesday's game in the Camp Nou taught us one thing, it is that there is more than a single way to skin a footballing cat.
It would, however, be fair to say that West Ham fans have not taken too kindly to the imprinting of Allardyce's approach on their football club, chanting "We're West Ham, we play on the floor" on numerous occasions this season, and booing the side off regularly after unsatisfactory results, particularly at the Boleyn Ground. West Ham fans believe that their side should attempt to play football the 'proper way', keeping the ball on the floor. As we know, this is not really Big Sam's bag.
In fact, the club have self-styled themselves as the Academy of Football (a term used similarly to the Liverpool Boot Room), such has been their production line of talented youngsters who were immediately comfortable with the ball at feet (Lampard, Cole, Carrick, Defoe, Ferdinand (Rio, not Anton) et al). Allardyce, they felt, was tarnishing this tradition. The manager, for his part, reacted angrily to such criticism, labelling the detractors'delusional'. After the club's home defeat to Reading handed the Royals the advantage in the race for automatic promotion, Sam claimed that members of the crowd were "talking b*llocks" in criticising his methods.
In many ways the manager's reasoning is logical. Whilst the fans may want their team to play attractive football, that was also the intention of previous incumbents Gianfranco Zola and Avram Grant. Both managers won less than a third of their games as West Ham were plunged into danger and then eventually relegated. Allardyce's remit (and West Ham's aim) was to return to the Premier League at the earliest possible opportunity. Substance had to take precedence over style, because style had proved ineffective and insubstantial.
Unfortunately, in committing the managerial equivalent of placing all of his eggs in one (aesthetically displeasing) basket by giving it the big f*ck you to the naysayers, Allardyce was gambling on success. Success has not been achieved. The manager may have won exactly half of his games in charge, and West Ham may have only missed out on automatic promotion by just two points, but when the details are examined, Big Sam has tangibly come up short. Including loanees, Allardyce has signed 18 players this season. Access to salary figures is clearly impossible, but it would be a statement of assumed fact to declare that this is the most expensively assembled squad outside of the top division. Despite David Gold's assertion last season that relegation would be "financial Armageddon", West Ham still signed a player for £3.5million from the Premier League. The owners, it appears, have temporarily postponed Armageddon by simply plugging an ever-growing hole with cash. And the cash will run out.
It cannot be portrayed more appropriately than this: West Ham have used players in the Championship this season that share 358 international caps (a mind-blowing fact for a team outside the top flight). They ceded second place to a Southampton side for which the number of international caps is 56 (and David Connolly has 43 of these). If West Ham gain promotion through the play-offs, redemption may have been achieved for the manager, but otherwise it will be a season of expensive failure. Even if West Ham do gain promotion, doubts will still be raised.
So, if we have already stated that Allardyce is good manager, why has he not succeeded at West Ham, a club with players better than any other in the division? And if we see Neil Warnock as one of the best managers at Championship level, then how come he has only won one of his 14 games in charge of Leeds United? The answer may question our thought process surrounding managers.
Although fans of football will agree that a talented manager can be crucial in the fine line between failure and success, judging the ability of an individual appears to be a difficult task. In fact, the game has consistently raised the question as to whether the simple concept of a 'good manager' actually exists.
Let me explain. Roberto Di Matteo is sacked by West Bromwich Albion in February 2011 after a run of one win in 11 games, Chairman Jeremy Peace worried that the Italian will relegate the club. Di Matteo is then appointed interim Chelsea manager after the failure of Andre Villas-Boas (who in turn won four trophies last season at Porto), where he loses just one of his first 16 matches, beating Barcelona over two legs in the process.
Meanwhile, in 2007 Alan Pardew was sacked from West Ham after taking the club through their worst run in 70 years. The same then happened at Charlton less than two years later, leaving the club towards the foot of the Championship, and to complete the hat-trick Pardew was removed from his position at Southampton in August 2010 amidst reports of low staff and player morale. Eighteen months later, his fortunes had shifted. After his surprising appointment to the top job at Newcastle United, Pardew has led the side to potentially their best finish in ten years. Moreover, he has spent a fraction of the money enjoyed by previous regimes at the club.
So rather than a manager's success be solely down to ability, is it not that certain managers just fit certain clubs? And, more importantly in the case of West Ham, could certain managers be doomed to fail before they start (and see Steve McClaren's reign at Nottingham Forest to add more fuel to this particular fire)? Was Allardyce always going to fail, simply because the fans' desired ethos clashed with his principles of success?
Whether or not this is the case, both sides must swallow pride. In football, as in life, things are rarely ideal. The 'perfect fit' comes around extremely rarely (Ferguson at Manchester United and Brian Clough at Forest are two that spring to mind), and West Ham must now instil a sense of togetherness for their play-off campaign. Play-off success is crucial for both club and manager. Despite protestations to the contrary from Karren Brady, Allardyce will surely be sacked if West Ham fail to win at Wembley on May 19. He will have transformed himself from the manager of a top ten Premier League club to a spurned Championship manager in 18 months.
For West Ham, the consequences could be more severe. They have a squad bloated with high-level wages and are significantly living beyond their financial means. A return to the swelled coffers of the Premier League is vital, particularly given the impending introduction of the Financial Fair Play rules. As Allardyce himself remarked: "The rules are going to cause absolute chaos and are going to destroy football as we know it unless we are very careful."
One thing West Ham have not been this season is careful. And whilst the club, manager and fans may not be the perfect match, for the next three weeks Mummy and Daddy simply have to get along. If not, this could be a messy divorce.
Daniel Storey - Twitterise him @danielstorey85