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Authors: Jonathan Wilson

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Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics

BOOK: Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics
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Jonathan Wilson is the football correspondent for the
Financial Times
, and writes for the
Sunday Telegraph
. He is a columnist for
and the Japanese magazine
World Soccer King
, and his work has appeared in the
Independent on Sunday
, the
Daily Telegraph
Scotland on Sunday
, the
Sunday Herald
When Saturday Comes
Behind the Curtain
Travels in Eastern European Football
, was Jonathan Wilson’s critically acclaimed first book.
Inverting the Pyramid
was shortlisted for the William Hill Book of the Year and won the British Sports Books Awards Football Book of the Year.

Inverting the Pyramid



First published in Great Britain in 2008 by Orion
This ebook first published in 2010 by Orion Books

Copyright © Jonathan Wilson 2008

The moral right of Jonathan Wilson to be identified as the author
of this work has been asserted in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted
in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor to be otherwise
circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar
condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.

eISBN : 978 1 4091 1111 5

This ebook produced by Jouve, France

The Orion Publishing Group Ltd
Orion House
5 Upper Saint Martin’s Lane
London WC2H 9EA

An Hachette UK Company


∆∇ In writing this, I have been humbled by just how generous so many people have been with their time and thoughts. This is a long list, but that should not diminish how vital a role each of the people included in it played.

In Ukraine, Hungary and Russia, my thanks to Taras Hordiyenko, Sándor Laczkó and Vladimir Soldatkin, who were as enlightening and thorough as ever. Thanks also to Aliaksiy Zyl and his coterie of Dinamo fans in Minsk for their advice (and thanks to Chris Fraser for introducing us. Dima: the polonium night at the Emirates will never be forgotten).

In Argentina, my thanks to Marcela Mora y Araujo for introducing me to her vast circle of friends, to Rodrigo Orihuela, Féderico Mayol, Neil Clack and Klaus Gallo for their help in setting up interviews, translating, research and ferrying me around, and to Araceli Alemán for opening up her vast library of material, the regular disquisitions on the superiority of Juan Román Riquelme to, well, everything, and, of course, the extended walking tour.

In Brazil, my thanks to Ivan Soter, Roberto Assaf, Paulo Émilio and Alberto Helena Junior for sharing their time and learning so freely, to Cassiano Gobbet, Robert Shaw and Jordana Alvarez dos Santos for their efforts in research, translation and logistics, and also to Aidan Hamilton and Alex Bellos, for sketching out the background and putting me in touch with experts on the ground.

Thanks to Gabriele Marcotti for all his assistance with the Italian sections, for being such an informed and robust sounding-board, but most particularly for allowing me finally to participate in one of those restaurant debates in which bowls of hummus, tabouleh and tzatziki become the Udinese defence. I’d still like my time-share on the quiz trophy, though.

Thanks to Philippe Auclair for his help in France, to Christoph Biermann, Raphael Honigstein and Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger for their assistance with all matters German, to Simon Kuper and Auke Kok for their words of wisdom on Dutch football, and to Sid Lowe and Guillem Balagué for their advice on Spain. Thanks also to Brian Glanville for his unfailing generosity of spirit and for putting me right on a number of historical matters.

Thanks to Richard McBrearty of the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden and Peter Horne at the National Football Museum in Preston for sharing their expertise in the origins of football, and to the staff of the British Library at St Pancras, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the British Newspaper Library at Colindale.

Thanks also, for their various help in reading over sections of the manuscript, translation, and suggesting avenues of research to: Jon Adams, David Barber, Maurício Ribeiro Barros, Hanspeter Born, Duncan Castles, Marcus Christenson, James Copnall, Graham Curry, Sorin Dumitrescu, Dave Farrar, Igor Goldes, Luke Gosset, Gavin Hamilton, Georg Heitz, Paul Howarth, Emil Ianchev, Maciej Iwanski, Richard Jolly, John Keith, Thomas Knellwolf, Jim Lawton, Andy Lyons, Ben Lyttleton, Dan Magnowski, Emma McAllister, Kevin McCarra, Rachel Nicholson, Vladimir Novak, Gunnar Persson, Andy Rose, Paul Rowan, Ljiljana Ruzić, Milena Ruzić, Dominic Sandbrook, John Schumacher, Hugh Sleight, Rob Smyth, Graham Spiers, György Szepesi, Eric Weil, Duncan White, Axel Vartanyan, Shinobu Yamanaka and Bruno Ziauddin.

Thanks to my agent, David Luxton, and my editor at Orion, Ian Preece, for their unflagging support and helpful interventions, and to the copy-editor, Chris Hawkes, for his diligence.

And thanks, finally, to Ian Hawkey for spending so much of the Cup of Nations sharing his expertise in matters of punctuation, and to Network Rail for the points failure that led to the long wait just north of Durham during which the flaw in Reep’s theory became apparent to me.

felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas*

Virgil, Georgics, no 2, l 490

(* Fortunate is he who can understand the causes of things.)


∆∇ A tapas bar in the Bairro Alto in Lisbon, the evening after England beat Switzerland 3-0 in Euro 2004. The rioja had been flowing, and a multi-national group of journalists was discussing whether Sven-Göran Eriksson had been right to stick with an orthodox 4-4-2, or if, as it had been suggested he would, he should have switched to a midfield diamond. Had player-power, a late-night delegation of midfielders, forced the unexpected reversion to the flat four in midfield?

‘Oh, what’s the difference?’ an English colleague protested. ‘They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.’

There was a splutter of indignation. As I raised a drunken finger to jab home my belief that people like him shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it, an Argentinian, probably wisely, pulled my arm down. ‘The formation is the only thing that’s important,’ she said. ‘It’s not worth writing about anything else.’

And there, in a moment, was laid bare the prime deficiency of the English game. Football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment. (I should, perhaps, make clear that by ‘tactics’ I mean a combination of formation and style: one 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Steve Stone from Ronaldinho). The Argentinian was, I hope, exaggerating for effect, for heart, soul, effort, desire, strength, power, speed, passion and skill all play their parts, but, for all that, there is also a theoretical dimension, and, as in other disciplines, the English have, on the whole, proved themselves unwilling to grapple with the abstract.

That is a failing, and it is something that frustrates me, but this is not a polemic about the failure of English football. Apart from anything else, unless we are making comparisons with the inter-war era, I’m not convinced that English football
failing. Sven-Göran Eriksson was derided by the end, but only Alf Ramsey had previously guided England to the quarter-finals of three successive international tournaments. Whether Steve McClaren’s failure to get England through a Euro 2008 qualifying group that was far tougher than the xenophobes imagined represents a blip or the beginning of a prolonged slide only history will tell, but it seems perverse to start arranging the wake when England would have qualified had Steven Gerrard converted a simple chance four minutes after half-time in Moscow.

Look at Uruguay, look at Austria: that is decline. Look at Scotland, still punching heroically above their weight despite the restrictions imposed by a population of only five million. Look, most of all, at Hungary, the team who, in November 1953, rang the death knell for English dreams of superiority. By the time Ferenc Puskás, the greatest player of that most glorious of teams, died in November 2006, Hungary had slumped so far that they were struggling to remain in the top 100 of the Fifa world rankings.
is decline.

Nonetheless, for English football, the 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley stands as the watershed. It was England’s first defeat at home to continental opposition, and, more than that, the manner in which they were outplayed annihilated the idea that England still ruled the world. ‘The story of British football and the foreign challenge,’ wrote Brian Glanville in
Soccer Nemesis
, his reaction to that defeat, ‘is the story of a vast superiority, sacrificed through stupidity, short-sightedness, and wanton insularity. It is a story of shamefully wasted talent, extraordinary complacency and infinite self-deception.’ And so it was.

And yet, thirteen years later, England became world champions. The vast superiority may have been squandered, but England were evidently still among the elite. In the past half century, I’m not sure that much has changed. Yes, perhaps we do have a tendency to get carried away before major tournaments, which makes a quarter-final exit sting rather more than it probably ought, but England remain one of the eight or ten sides who have a realistic chance of winning a World Cup or European Championship (freakish champions like Denmark or Greece notwithstanding). The question then is why that opportunity has not been taken. Perhaps a more coherent structure of youth coaching, an increased focus on technique and tactical discipline, limits on the number of foreign players in the Premiership, snapping players out of their complacent bubbles, or any of the other hundred panaceas that have been suggested, would improve England’s chances, but success is a nebulous quarry. Luck retains its place in football, and success can never be guaranteed, particularly not over the six- or seven-game span of an international tournament.

A theory has grown up that winning the World Cup in 1966 was the worst thing that could have happened to English football. Rob Steen, in
The Mavericks
, and David Downing in his books on England’s rivalries with Argentina and Germany have argued that that success set England back because it established deep in the English footballing consciousness the notion that the functionality of Alf Ramsey’s side was the only way to achieve success. I don’t fundamentally disagree with either - although the trait pre-dates Ramsey - but it seems to me that the real problem is not so much the way Ramsey’s England played as the fact that, in the minds of generations of fans and coaches in England, it laid out a ‘right’ way of playing. Just because something was correct in a particular circumstance, with particular players and at a particular stage of football’s development, does not mean it will always be effective. If England in 1966 had tried to play like Brazilians, they would have ended up like Brazil: kicked out of the tournament in the group stage by physically more aggressive opponents - in fact they would have been worse off, for they had few, if any, players with the technical attributes of the Brazilians. If there is one thing that distinguishes the coaches who have had success over a prolonged period - Sir Alex Ferguson, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Bill Shankly, Boris Arkadiev - it is that they have always been able to evolve. Their teams played the game in very different ways, but what they all shared was the clarity of vision to successfully recognise when the time was right to abandon a winning formula and the courage to implement a new one.

What I want to make clear is that I don’t believe there is a ‘correct’ way to play. Yes, from an emotional and aesthetic point of view, I warm more to the passing of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal than to the pragmatism of José Mourinho’s Chelsea, but that is a personal preference; it is not to say one is right and one is wrong. I am well aware, equally, that compromises have to be made between theory and practice. On a theoretical level, I respond to Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv or the AC Milan of Fabio Capello. Yet on the pitch, when at university I had for two years the chance to influence the style of my college side (well, the seconds and thirds at least), we played highly functional football. Admittedly, we weren’t very good and we probably got the best out of the players available, but I suspect we could have played more aesthetically pleasing football than we did. Amid the beer-soaked celebrations that followed a title each year, I’m not sure anybody was too bothered.

It is not even so simple, though, as to say that the ‘correct’ way of playing is the one that wins most often, for only the dourest of Gradgrinds would claim that success is measured merely in points and trophies; there must also be room for romance. That tension - between beauty and cynicism, between what Brazilians call
futebol d’arte
futebol de resultados
- is a constant, perhaps because it is so fundamental, not merely to sport, but also to life: to win, or to play the game well? It is hard to think of any significant actions that are not in some way a negotiation between the two extremes of pragmatism and idealism.

The difficulty, then, is in isolating of what that extra quality comprises. Glory is not measured in absolutes, and what constitutes it changes with circumstance and time. British crowds soon grow tired of patient build-up, but in, for instance, Capello’s first spell at Real Madrid, crowds booed when Fernando Hierro hit long accurate passes for Roberto Carlos to run onto. To the modern sensibility, it is baffling that the early amateur footballers thought passing unmanly, and yet it may be in time to come - as indeed it already is in certain cultures - that the present-day British distaste for diving seems just as naively irrelevant.

Even acknowledging that football is about more than simply winning, though, it would be ludicrous to deny the importance of victory. Wenger can be frustratingly quixotic at times but, as his negative tactics in the 2005 FA Cup final showed, even he at times acknowledges the need to win. To condemn Ramsey, when he brought the only international success England has known is a luxury English fans cannot afford; to accuse him of ruining English football rather than saluting his tactical acuity seems wilfully perverse.

I’m not saying we should discount them entirely, but it is dangerous, anyway, to read too much into performances at the major international tournaments. It is rare that there is one outstanding side in the world, rarer still that they actually win the World Cup. The example of Brazil in 2002, casually brushing aside the opposition, is almost unique, and even then, particularly given their lethargic qualifying campaign, it seemed almost supremacy by default as the other contenders, weakened by various combinations of injury, fatigue and ill-discipline, capitulated in the heat. France probably were the best side in the 1998 tournament, but they only really showed that in the final. Two years later, they were significantly the best side at Euro 2000, and yet were within a minute of losing the final to Italy.

In fact, two of the greatest sides of all time, the Hungarians of 1954 and the Dutch of 1974, lost in the final - both to West Germany, which may or may not be coincidence. A third, the Brazil of 1982, didn’t even get that far. 1966 aside, England’s best performance in a World Cup came in 1990, a tournament so beloved for Gazza’s tears and an England penalty shoot-out defeat - a trope that would become tediously familiar, but which, back then, carried the resonance of tragic failure - that it helped kickstart the 1990s boom. Yet England’s preparation for that tournament was awful: they scraped through qualifying; their manager Bobby Robson was pilloried in the press on an almost daily basis, the media was expelled from the training camp after revelations about the relationship between various players and a local PR rep, and the whole thing was played out in the shadow of hooliganism. Against the Republic of Ireland and Egypt, England were dire, and against Belgium and Cameroon they were lucky; only against Holland and West Germany, neither of which games they won, did they play well. In fact, the only team England beat in ninety minutes was Egypt. And this, somehow, led to football’s middle-class revolution.

Over the course of a league season, luck, momentum, injuries, errors by players and errors by referees even themselves out - if not absolutely, then certainly far, far more than they do over seven games in a summer. That England have gone over forty years without winning a trophy is annoying, and for that various managers, players, officials and opponents bear a degree of responsibility, but it does not equate to a fundamental decline. It is possible that there is a fundamental flaw in the way England play the game, and an almost self-conscious Luddism hasn’t helped, but it would be hard to make a serious case for a root-and-branch overhaul of the English game on the basis of results in major tournaments alone.

Globalisation is blurring national styles, but tradition, perpetuated by coaches, players, pundits and fans, is strong enough that they remain distinguishable. What became apparent in the writing of this book is that every nation came fairly quickly to recognise its strengths, and that no nation seems quite to trust them. Brazilian football is all about flair and improvisation, but it looks yearningly at the defensive organisation of the Italians. Italian football is about cynicism and tactical intelligence, but it admires and fears the physical courage of the English. English football is about tenacity and energy, but it feels it ought to ape the technique of the Brazilians.

The history of tactics, it seems, is the history of two interlinked tensions: aesthetics versus results on the one side and technique versus physique on the other. What confuses the issue is that those who grow up in a technical culture tend to see a more robust approach as a way of getting results, while those from a physical culture see pragmatism in technique; and beauty - or at least what fans prefer to watch - remains very much in the eye of the beholder. British fans may admire (although most seemed not to) the cerebral jousting of, say, the 2003 Champions League final between AC Milan and Juventus, but what they actually want to see is the crash-bang-wallop of the Premiership. That is not entirely fair, for Premiership football is far more skilful now than it was even ten years ago, but it remains quicker and less possession-driven than any other major league. Judging by the figure paid for overseas television rights - a three-year deal worth £650million was agreed in 2007 - the rest of the world thinks it has found a happy balance.

BOOK: Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics
13.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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