Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics

By Jonathan Wilson


A terrific read from Jonathan Wilson, this pacy yet gripping and informative book gives a potted history of football tactics and formations, from the chaotic early years through 2-3-5, W-M, 4-2-4, 4-4-2 and the modern variants on 4-5-1.

Football tactics is an area often debated and argued over, but is yet conversely a frequently misunderstood topic dominated by superstitions, misinformation and lazy assumptions (particularly in Britain, where as the forward hints, even the upper echelons of journalism and management contain hard-headed Luddites). In a roughly chronological procession of the game’s developments, beginning with the codifications in the mid-nineteenth century by the Victorian public schools, Wilson sets out describing the evolution from primitive early games – where passing, let alone the notion of defending or organisation, were considered ill-mannered by some – into the sophisticated sport favoured by coffee-drinking Viennese society between the wars. While many fans will be aware that originally formations were much more top-loaded than in the modern game, Wilson’s clarity and authority in showing how 2-3-5 adapted into the W-M fashioned by Herbert Chapman, and then the subsequent developments adding extra defenders and midfielders across the world (often simultaneously and independently) fills in the rough mental sketches with vividly detailed pictures.

Relatively unknown characters in popular knowledge, such as the ‘organised disorder’ of 1940s Dinamo Moscow’s front-line, the fiery Hungarian wanderer Bela Guttmann, the invention of pressing by Viktor Maslov in the Ukraine and the moronic philistinism of ex-FA chief executive Charles Hughes, are brought to life, with a dispassionate historical review examining their influence on the game in their own times and in the present day. Most of the milestone matches are touched upon or described in detail too, such as the first ever international in 1872 between England and Scotland – showcasing the Scottish ‘pattern-weaving’ approach against the English dribbling – the Hungarians’ debunking of English superiority in 1953 and the World Cup final of 1970 between Brazil’s legendary side and Italy’s fading catenaccio stars. Indeed, the tragic legacy of catenaccio – far from the boring and utterly destructive monster of popular imagination (at least at first), it was the inferior copies of La Grande Inter and their dirty tricks that sullied its reputation – is one of the great joys of this book, one of many surprising nuggets of information reeled off in discussing the great sides of footballing folklore. One always hears of the cynicism of the Italian sides or the infamous Estudiantes side of the late 1960s, for example, but the brutish approach occasionally adopted by the Total Football practitioners of Ajax and Holland is always glossed over in favour of eulogies to their supreme talent, and Graham Taylor, the ex-Watford manager pilloried for his failure with England in the 1990s, gets his reputation mended away from the bigotry and idiocy of the tabloid press.

As it is a general book that encompasses nearly two centuries of the global history of the world’s most popular sport, some people may feel that it is perhaps a bit too brief on some subjects or does not delve into a level of analysis bordering on obsessive compulsive, but there is a full and lengthy bibliography for one to peruse through and pursue the areas that piqued their interest in more detail to counter this possible downside. It may also seem strange to have thorough discussions of the likes of Guttman and not more detailed passages on his more celebrated colleagues such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Fabio Capello, or the role of Mario Zagallo, Brazil’s withdrawing left-winger in 1958 and 1962, given more page space than Pele or Garrincha, the players who won those particular tournaments, but while more on the more famous names may have been useful, the nature of this book is tactical innovation and evolution, hence it is less about the masters and more about the inventors. This means that England, the inventors of the game, but often tactically behind and second-best, are not as central to the narrative as many may think (or indeed expect), their main role being codifying and spreading the game that in turn the Scottish, Italians, Austrians, Uruguayans, Argentineans, Soviets, Hungarians, Brazilians, Germans and Dutch then refined and reorganised.

One problem with the book, though, is that since it was written in 2008, the success of the ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy running through Spanish football has further developed tactics and formations, with Wilson’s prediction that the old ‘No. 9’ centre-forward becoming extinct hinted at by the way they operated often with just David Villa up front, often drifting in from the left, and it would be interesting to read Wilson’s take on how a team of small yet nimble ball-players have triumphed in a global game characterised by the pace and power of the Premier League. Even accounting for this slight drawback – which will be remedied at some point by Wilson or a successor to this book – it is an absolute must-read study for any fan who seriously wants to understand formations, a must for any coach or student of tactics, and a must for anyone struggling to get enough football during the lean summer months.