Retro Review: West Ham 5–4 Bradford City 1999/00
During lockdown, West Ham posted the full match footage of the classic 5–4 win vs Bradford City from the 1999/2000 season and, with no Premier League footie on over the last fortnight, I decided to take a trip down memory lane. You can watch the full game here:
I’d seen the goals and some highlights before — Di Canio asking to be subbed, his squabble with Lampard over the penalty, Joe Cole’s 1st league goal for the club — but it was a bit before my time, so I’d never seen the game in full.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.
The past is a foreign country
The original plan was to look back at this game from a tactical perspective to try and breakdown what one of the more successful West Ham sides in living memory was all about. That quickly went out of the window for two reasons.
One was a literal perspective problem: the camerawork in this match made it extremely difficult to get a full view of the pitch. It was generally shot pretty tight to the action, which made it virtually impossible to keep track of the big picture, and the gratuitous use of close-ups while the ball was in play further compounded the issue.
The other problem was that there was basically no settled possession at all during this game (and very few goal-kicks either) which made it difficult to establish exactly what shapes the teams were playing and to track movement off the ball.
This was chaos from start to finish, so perhaps it’s a bad example to use, but the standard of football on display here was fucking abysmal. Drawing conclusions on an entire era based on a single game is perhaps a bit unfair, and this was a fixture between two pretty poor teams —West Ham finished 9th this season with 55 points, while Bradford stayed up and finished 17th with 36 points — but I genuinely watched more coherent games between League Two teams last season. There’s absolutely no structure to either side and no attempt to take control of the game in possession.
The result of that is a game that somehow manages to be simultaneously relentlessly frantic and painfully slow; I’m not quite sure how they managed it, but West Ham contrived to be a part of possibly the least entertaining 5–4 of all time here. The ball is barely ever in play for a prolonged period of time and it takes half an hour for either team to string together more than 3 consecutive passes.
Virtually no actual football gets played in the opening quarter of the match.
The flow isn’t helped by a long delay early on after a pretty gruesome ankle turn for Shaka Hislop. That leads to the introduction of Stephen Bywater between the sticks and boy does he have a memorable debut.
As he’s donning the gloves and trotting onto the pitch, the commentator unhelpfully starts hyping him up as a future England prospect and, even without the benefit of hindsight, you knew exactly what was coming.
Aside from a couple of dodgy kicks, his first real involvement was to charge out and sweep up a through ball, a glimmer of modernity amongst the anarchy around him. Sadly it’s mostly downhill after that as he spills a shot into the 6-yard box for Bradford’s third, gets his positioning badly wrong for their fourth, and then drops a cross into a dangerous area when we’ve got it back to 4–4:
He does end on a good note though with a commanding punch from a cross right at the edge of his box.
I came into this expecting to be blown away by the academy boys and Di Canio, but the most ‘modern’ players on the pitch here were Trevor Sinclair (doing a very Michail Antonio job upfront with his back to goal for the first hour as a lone centre forward):
and Scott Minto:
You could stick both of those two (but Minto in particular) into a Premier League game this weekend and their playing style wouldn’t look out of place.
Almost everything else in this game would, though. Even aesthetically this feels like such a huge departure from current Premier League viewin experience. The kits here are the perfect emblem of the football here — scruffy, loose, and a relic from the past.
The actual tactics
The pre-match graphics have this one down as a 4–4–2 vs 4–4–2 clash:
… but as West Ham’s unorthodox striker partnership might suggest, those formations aren’t quite accurate.
Bradford are closer to playing a conventional shape but, as with most 4–4–2s, one of the strikers drops off to function more as a no.10 (in this case it’s Dean Windass). The Bantams were tenacious in their attempts to win the ball back in midfield, but they had practically nothing going forward except these big diagonals over the top for Dean Saunders to chase:
It never really paid off for them, although Saunders did eventually get through 1vs1 but hit the inside of the post. Beyond that they offered little and scored their goals from a corner, an extremely soft penalty, and the two Bywater blunders we saw earlier.
On the West Ham side of things, the shape was pretty fluid. Di Canio had the freest of free roles, although mainly popped up on the left wing. That gave Joe Cole license to shift inside from his nominal left-sided position and he looked so much more comfortable when he was playing through the middle. Lampard unsurprisingly pushed forward to support Sinclair up top, and all of that left the side operating in a kind of asymmetrical 4–2–3–1 shape in possession:
It’s hard to say that it worked, but it did at least get our best players playing in areas where they’re most effective. In that respect, you could call it a success.
Steve Lomas’ role was probably the most interesting one, as he did this shuttling job covering the right wing while also acting as a safety net for Lampard in the middle of the park. Lomas was apparently 25 when this game was played, which my brain just cannot comprehend at all — he’s never been anything other than a grizzled 35-year old veteran in my mind.
On paper that pseudo-CM partnership of Moncur and Lomas is a truly grim one and in practice it wasn’t much better. That being said, it’s quite funny that our first two goals involved both of those two falling over:
I also did have to laugh at this passage of play from John Moncur in the second half:
Fucking hell mate.
Quick shoutout here for Harry Redknapp.
He’s got a well-earned reputation for being more of a wheeler dealer and a passion merchant than for being a tactician, but he made a tactical tweak after an hour that changed the game.
With Bradford 4–2 up and coasting, Redknapp took off his right-back, Gary Charles, for centre forward Paul Kitson. Steve Lomas dropped to RB and Sinclair shifted out to the right to play as a more typical winger, which left the team in a very attacking 4–3–3 shape.
Having a target man as a central focal point and a proper winger down the right stretched the game and gave the team far more balance. The commentator did mention that Kitson had recently been injured, which probably explains why he didn’t start, but that change from ‘Arry ultimately won his team the game.
Someone get this game a bib
… because there was so much dribbling.
The biggest difference between this game and modern football was the prevalence of dribbling over passing. While there was barely any structure for either team in possession and a complete lack of emphasis on moving the ball up the pitch through passes, absolutely everyone in this game tried to dribble their way through traffic.
I’m not entirely sure what that’s down to. Is it the pitches? This game was played in February, so some wear and tear is understandable, but it’s notable how bobbly it is compared to the pristine surfaces Premier League clubs play on now. There’s a couple of occasions here where the ball springs up as someone is about to control the ball — perhaps if players didn’t feel like they could rely on a consistent first touch, they thought it safer to try and carry the ball on the dribble.
Is it down to personnel? Di Canio, Cole, Sinclair, even Moncur are all talented dribblers in various different ways, so maybe the high volume of dribbles is a reflection of their playing styles more than anything else.
Is coaching a factor? As previously mentioned, Redknapp’s never been renowned for being a particularly meticulous or innovative coach and it’s evident how much of the players’ movement here is improvised — is this neglect towards passing a result of a reliance on the individual ability of our players over a cohesive tactical approach?
Or is it simply a product of its time? Arsène Wenger’s only had two full seasons in charge at Arsenal at this point and not yet achieved the big successes that would help his ideas to filter throughout English football.
More generally, Cruyffian Total Football is on the wane a bit by the late 90s. Cruyff himself was sacked by Barça in 1996 after a couple of barren seasons and the last 5 Champions League finals had all been between workman-like sides, with Juventus’ penalty shootout win over Ajax in the 95/96 final marking a turning point. A pre-Galactico era Real Madrid would go on to win this year’s edition of the competition over Rafa Benítez’s Valencia side in another match up between primarily attritional sides.
Football is cyclical and this period of time is a low ebb for possession-oriented styles of play. Pep Guardiola is still an active player and we’re a decade away from him taking over at Barça and dominating the top level of the game with a more expansive approach.
It’s therefore unsurprising that there’s a real lack of passing quality in a match between two mediocre Premier League during this era of football.
The big boys
This West Ham squad is littered with players who have been deeply romanticised in the years since, so let’s evaluate their performances here and see if they measure up to the myth.
When looking back at games from the past, it’s so difficult to divorce yourself from hindsight and the baggage of reputations, but it’s important to try and contextualise these things where you can. With players like Joe Cole, that becomes an active process as you try to recalibrate your expectations.
But before we get to that, just watch this:
Joe Cole’s just turned 18 at this point.
His technical quality is mesmerising, but his desire to get on the ball and his willingness to take on responsibility at this stage of his career is staggering.
Those slaloming runs and his ability to navigate tight spaces with his footwork are impressive, but the way he uses both feet for absolutely everything is the real standout — it gives him so much variety and so much threat on the dribble and with his passing.
The general consensus is that Jose Mourinho moulded Cole into a winner, a more robust, more disciplined, more tactically astute footballer at the elite level. That’s probably true to some extent, but it’s never been something I’ve fully agreed with. There are signs evident here, at the age of 18, that he has that side to his game — the crunching tackles, the strength to hold off his opponents, the ability to actively press when out of possession.
What a magical footballer. What a shame that we weren’t good enough to keep hold of him for a little bit longer.
“Frank Lampard was good, actually” isn’t exactly the hottest or most interesting of takes. But the vitriol surrounding his departure from the club and the mists of time have masked quite how good he was for us.
Lamps has 7 shots in this game. From central midfield. As a 21-year old. For reference West Ham United Football Club as a whole averaged 10.89 shots per game last season:
Only two of them were inside the box, but they were all fairly central and around the edge of the area, so it’s not like he was taking complete long range punts. Half of them with his left foot, too.
This match was chaos start-to-finish, so it might just be a freak occurrence, but this is Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo level attacking output. It’s a shame that Opta data doesn’t stretch this far back because I’d be fascinated to see what sort of numbers he was putting up for us over the course of a season.
His combination play in the final third was also pretty good and he got through plenty of donkey work too:
Lots to like about this performance. He looked like a superstar in the making.
I was anticipating Rio to be the one who stood out the most against the backdrop of the times, but that wasn’t really the case. He was less outstanding than expected, but that’s potentially down to the way he’d been asked to play more than his own shortcomings.
After the wild start, he settled into the game and mostly stuck to doing the basics well, although there were a few glimpses of what he could do and what he would become sprinkled in.
There’s a habit of getting a bit too tight to the player he’s marking but he just eats up ground on the cover and is able to sweep up his own mistakes.
Paolo Di Canio:
God it must’ve been so infuriating to play with him.
The story of this game was Di Canio’s ongoing battle to win a penalty. Every time the ref turned down his appeals, Di Canio grew more and more unhinged. Eventually his irritation boiled over into his spat with Lampard over the penalty that Kitson won, which thankfully he scored, saving everyone from a potentially awkward situation.
But beyond that sideshow, Di Canio was enormously frustrating to watch. He’s clearly a profoundly gifted footballer but everything grinds to a halt when he has the ball and the rest of the team have no idea how to attack without him orchestrating things — he’s constantly looking to solo dribble past his opponent, chopping backwards and forwards to engineer a yard of space for yet another chop-back and he ends up holding onto the ball for so long that it kills any space his team-mates have found.
It’s hard to pick apart the chicken and the egg of all this: does Di Canio have to play this way to compensate for his team-mates/his manager’s deficiencies? Or does his inclusion stymie everyone else’s productivity?
If you’ve ever come across the Ewing Theory — the idea that a team functions better as a collective when their superstar player is absent — you might wonder whether that would’ve applied to Di Canio and this West Ham side.
This game was ridiculous in almost every aspect and yet also kind of boring for the most part, despite 9 goals and a huge comeback. It’s one of the weirder football-watching experiences I’ve ever had and a window into an era of football that’s long since gone. The 1999/00 season was only 20 years ago, but it feels like an entirely different game from a modern perspective.