With so many of us at home and football cancelled, now seems like a good time to dust off some of the classic games floating about the internet. And they don’t come much better than the 2006 FA Cup final between Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool and Alan Pardew’s West Ham. While most Cup finals are boring affairs between two sides trying not to lose, this game was anything but. It is generally regarded as one of the greatest FA Cups of all time, alongside the 1953 “Stanley Matthews” final between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers, and (usually) ahead of the 1987 final between Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur.
I’ve provided some basic team information, background on the game, and tactical analysis below. It’s organized to keep spoilers at bay, so you can read over the starting formations and background before watching, and even read the first half before watching the second without learning anything you don’t want to know.
Both sides lined up in a 4-4-2. Despite injury concerns for both Dean Ashton and Matthew Etherington, Pardew put out an expected side with one exception. Carl Fletcher earned his seventh start of the season filling in for regular Hayden Mullins, who was serving a suspension for a red card received late in West Ham’s 2-1 home loss to Liverpool just two and a half weeks earlier. While some commentators were surprised by Lionel Scaloni’s inclusion at right back, he had been the first option in that role since Tomáš Řepka’s departure in late January.
With a deeper squad, Benítez had more room to tinker. Despite being significant favorites, he chose the defensive pairing of Xabi Alonso and Mohammed Sissoko in midfield. While fans might have wanted Steven Gerrard playing in a central attacking role, he was instead pushed out to the right wing. Both decisions spoke to Benítez’s cautious outlook. Djibril Cissé, who had scored both goals in the recent encounter at Upton Park, started alongside Peter Crouch. One other subtle change would prove important. Concerned about the pace of Marlon Harewood, Benítez chose to play the right-footed but dynamic Jamie Carragher out of position on the left side of his center back pairing.
The game didn’t look like a classic in the making. Though far from a great side, Liverpool were the overwhelming favorites. Although they had finished a disappointing 5th in the league the previous season, they had also been unexpected winners against AC Milan in a thrilling, come-from-behind Champions League final and had just returned to the top four with a 3rd place league finish. West Ham, by comparison, had just returned from a two season journey in the Championship. Liverpool’s victory against West Ham shortly before the final was a fairly routine win and suggested they had little to fear from the upstarts.
But notwithstanding this loss, West Ham were a team that had finished the season well, and had a solid habit of playing up to bigger sides. In keeping with the so-called West Ham Way–and also with the reputation of their manager–they only knew how to attack. These two facts were not entirely unrelated, and it’s worth noting, as Pardew himself did in his post-match interview, that West Ham had the best record in the Premier League of coming from behind that season.
Looking back, the game also spoke to the changing nature of the Premier League as a whole. This was the period in which the traditional English 4-4-2 began to give way to 4-2-3-1, and notwithstanding his team’s more traditional set-up in this game, Benítez was one of the architects of that change. A cautious and meticulous Spanish tactician bringing to the English game a new attention to detail, his starting eleven boasted seven non-British players, while the three English and one Irish starters all represented their country at international level. West Ham, by contrast, had only three starters from outside the British Isles and an English manager who valued spirited, direct and forward play. Though definitely not a long ball team, West Ham and Pardew would have fit in the old First Division, while Liverpool was in the new mold of the Premier League.
While it easy to present Pardew as cavalier and unreflective in comparison to the meticulous, micro-managing Benítez, West Ham’s shape was arguably the more interesting of the two in the opening phase of the game. When defending, Ashton would drop back to mark Xabi Alonso, who was critical to Liverpool’s ball distribution with Gerrard out of the wing. With Nigel Reo-Coker often pushing forward into attack, West Ham sometimes looked like a 4-3-3 in moments of transition.
The need to stop Gerrard created early opportunities for Liverpool, as he earned two free kicks in the opening 15′, but West Ham were never really under the cosh. While their opening goal had a fortunate finish, it also capped off a lovely attack up the right flank and took advantage of Benítez’s overthinking. Yossi Benayoun passed inside to Ashton, who fed Scaloni perfectly in behind John Arne Riise. Playing on the wrong side, Carragher attempted to clear Scaloni’s whipped-in cross with his stronger outside foot rather than to sweep it over the end line with his left. But he also misjudged the curve of the ball, which ended up careening off his standing leg into goal. The second goal also came from a Scaloni cross and a Liverpool error. This time, it was Pepe Reina, who dropped Etherington’s shot, allowing Ashton, who had already headed Scaloni’s ball on to Etherington, to nip in for a poacher’s goal.
If the first goal did more to energize West Ham, Benítez was quick to respond after the second. He moved Cissé out to the left, bringing the pacy Harry Kewell inside underneath Crouch. The change had an immediate effect on the game, as Kewell won a free kick, quickly taken by Gerrard to feed Crouch in behind on the left for a header that was incorrectly judged offside. But Gerrard repeated his delivery from open play less than a minute later for Cissé to pull one back with a magnificent volley. While Gerrard’s individual quality on both deliveries should not be undervalued, it’s also clear that West Ham were at least momentarily unsettled by the change.
Second HalfEmbed from Getty Images
If Reina bore significant responsibility for the second goal, he had a remarkable double save in the opening minute of the second half to keep Liverpool in the tie. Right after this, Sissoko and Alonzo swapped positions in midfield, and their opposites Reo-Coker and Fletcher followed suit. The latter was clearly a defensive adjustment; whether the Liverpool move was part of a tactical plan or simply an onfield change isn’t clear to me. It may also have been in anticipation of Fernando Morientes replacing Kewell, who repeated his misfortune from the Champions League final by again succumbing to a hamstring injury. With Morientes on, Liverpool returned to a purer 4-4-2.
It’s not clear how much of a difference this new formation had on Liverpool’s second goal, which was created by a free kick, though Morientes was another big target to aim at, and was in the clutch of players in the box that Alonso lofted the ball toward. But it was Crouch who managed to get up over Ashton and head it back for Gerrard, who had slipped goal side of Fletcher and rifled home a top left equalizer.
Interestingly, West Ham seemed at least as energized by the goal as did Liverpool. This was especially true for Benayoun, who became significantly more assertive, driving inside and at times across the field, as he did in the build-up to West Ham’s unexpected third goal. If Ashton and Etherington were West Ham’s best attacking players in the first 60′, Benayoun was the dominant figure thereafter, a performance that surely played a significant role in Liverpool’s signing him a season later. It was not Benayoun’s play, of course, but a mishit cross by Paul Konchesky and a second likely error by Reina that put West Ham back in the lead with less than 30′ left to play. But he did make an impressive run up the middle right before Benítez’s final set of changes, dishing the ball off to the right and eventually breaking into the box for a pass that Harewood, on the endline, was unable to feed him.
With just over 20′ remaining, Benítez brought on right back Jan Kromkamp for Alonso, who had been nursing a hamstring injury going into the game; and less than 5′ later he replaced Crouch with defensive midfielder Dietmar Hamaan. Even recognizing that Hamaan was effectively a positional replacement for Alonso, these do not look like the attacking substitutions one would expect of a team chasing the lead. Haaman lacked Alonso’s creativity, and Kromkamp was a defender replacing a striker. But the changes did allow Liverpool to shift to a 3-5-2. This placed Carragher as a sweeper between Sami Hyypiä and Finnan, got Kromkamp’s fresh legs onto the right flank, and finally pulled Gerrard into central midfield.
It’s unclear how much these changes shaped the outcome. At the same time, Pardew brought in Bobby Zamora for Dean Ashton, leaving him up top while shifting Harewood out right and Benayoun into the middle of a counter-attacking 4-5-1. His later substitutions, defender Chris Dailly taking over for Fletcher in midfield and especially–with 5′ remaining in regulation–40 year-old legend Teddy Sheringham for Matthew Etherington, suggested a manager seeing out a win. Right before that second change, West Ham had broken up the left on a counter attack, Benayoun feeding Etherington, and the latter putting a cross in that a slipping Reina allowed to bounce dangerously across goal–an error he wasn’t punished for. Behind the play, Gerrard had stayed down, showing the first signs of cramping that would continue for the rest of the game. Though play remained open, fortune seemed to be showing herself for West Ham.
At the end of regulation, Cissé went down with cramps to the left of West Ham’s box. Scaloni put the ball out nearby rather than hiking it upfield. When Liverpool returned him the ball via throw-in, Carragher rushed to close him down (not, it must be said, the most sportsmanlike behavior), and rather than shepherding the ball out of bounds he attempted to clear it. The ball swung inside to Gerrard, lurking outside of West Ham’s attacking third. Gerard has admitted that the only reason he was in this position was because his cramping meant he couldn’t move anywhere else. In fact, it was for just reason that Pardew had told Reo-Coker–who had been marking Gerrard since both sides had shifted to a midfield three–that there was no point in marking him all the way out there.
Seemingly unable to do much else, Gerrard passed it left to Riise. Riise put a cross into the box that Danny Gabbidon managed to head out, but not away. The ball bounced out to Gerrard, who caught it perfectly 35 yards out and hit one of the most memorable goals in FA Cup history. This would prove to be Shaka Hislop’s final game for West Ham (and in Europe, though he did manage 10 starts for FC Dallas the following season), and he has publicly wondered whether a younger version of himself would have stopped the goal. He does seem to hesitate ever so slightly on the shot. It was an open and exciting injury time, but the game remained tied.Embed from Getty Images
The main event of extra time was Liverpool’s effort to maintain despite being plagued by cramping. In addition to Gerrard and Cissé, Carragher and Steve Finnan were suffering, forcing the side into a more defensive posture simply to offer coverage in back. Of the starters, only Sissoko seemed unfazed, though even he went down in the final minute of the game. As a result, they returned to a sort of 4-4-2, with Sissoko nominally a left wing though in fact still playing as the left side of a midfield trio–not unlike Blaise Matuidi’s role for France at the last World Cup. West Ham set up in a 4-4-1-1 with Sheringham underneath Zamora, and while they seemed less dehydrated, they also seemed unable to capitalize on that advantage.
Each half of extra time ended with a memorable chance. At the end of the first half, Hyypiä made a brilliant turn to elude both Harewood and Scaloni, then hit a blistering shot that was narrowly wide of the far post. At the end of the second, Zamora won a free kick off Hamaan, and Benayoun got it in for a half-hit, looping header by Reo-Coker that was nonetheless destined for the top right corner–until Reina touched it onto the inside of the crossbar and out, his best save of the match. Harewood had a chance at the rebound, but struggling with cramp of his own, he pulled it wide.
Penalties are often described as a lottery, but they are a fixed lottery. The team that shoots first has a 60% chance of winning a shoot-out, and Liverpool kicked first. Having said that, Liverpool won the shoot-out in commanding form, and significant credit is due to Pepe Reina. He arrived in England with a reputation as a penalty stopper, and he delivered in this game with three saves, one of which was truly impressive. He was also consistently off his line early, a critical (if technically illegal) component of penalty-stopping in the pre-VAR era.
Though Liverpool would reach another Champions League final in 2007 and would finish as runners-up twice in the league, this was Benítez’s last trophy at the club, and the club’s last major trophy (unless you count the 2012 Carabao Cup) until the arrival of Jürgen Klopp. West Ham have not won a trophy since their previous FA Cup final in 1980, in which they had become the last Second Division side to win the Cup.
Thanks to Bécquer Seguin and Public Books for encouraging me to revisit this game, and for including me in their listicle of great sporting moments.