Inverting The Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

The History of Football Tactics, Orion, 2008, 356p.

This book does exactly what it sets out to, describing the evolution of football tactics from their formless beginnings when everybody on the pitch, apart from the goalkeeper, dribbled towards the opponents’€™ goal with team mates ‘€œbacking up’€ in case the ball was lost, through the invention of passing (or, as it was delightfully phrased, combination play; I like that, let’€™s bring it back) in Scotland, the first real formation of 2-3-5 – one of whose pioneers was my beloved Dumbarton – mentioned on page 23 but not, alas, in the index – in winning their sole Scottish Cup in 1800 and long time ago, 1883 to be precise: its gradual stalemating till the offside law was changed in the 1920s to allow only two defenders between ball and goal line which in turn led to the withdrawal of the centre half into the back line of a 3-2-5 and the ‘€œclassic’€ three defender, two half back, two inside forward, plus centre forward line-up of the W-M or W-W. The later adaptations of this formation (in some cases, as in Great Britain, very much later) via the diagonal, through the deep lying centre forward, 4-2-4, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, by which time the pyramid of the book’€™s title had been inverted, leading on to 4-5-1, even 4-6-0, plus the variations of all of these and the pressing game, are given their place and their innovators due recognition.

In particular the histories of football in various countries, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the USSR, the Netherlands, England, even a foray into the Scandinavian experience, and the life histories of the various coaches concerned, are admirably laid out as is the tension between attack and defence, creativity and negativity, craft and effort. Through it all the importance of system is a given. A well-organised and drilled side will always beat a disorganised one, or one following too rigid a previous template, provided the system is understood and adhered to.

The tendency for any innovations to be imitated at first mainly in a defensive sense is noted and in passing the notions of Charles Reep and Charles Hughes of direct football being particularly effective is knocked on the head, even on statistical grounds. In some cases it can be, as can any system, but against good players who can keep possession directness will fall down.

Whether football’s evolution has ended is a moot point but in the modern world with global TV coverage and worldwide scouting it is unlikely any team will be able to spring a truly revolutionary tactical surprise. But then again before that offside law alteration there had been little or no tactical change for around thirty years. In Britain, the W-M then held sway for another forty or so.

But the centre half disappeared as a half back, wingers disappeared, full backs became wing backs, wing halves and inside forwards turned into central defenders or midfielders, who evolved into holding players or playmakers; and the playmaker has all but disappeared. The centre forward may go the same way. (I would say that, arguably, with Barcelona, he already has. Messi is not a centre forward, Villa and Pedro tend not to play up the middle.)

In modern football flexibility within a system is a key ingredient, and fluidity. Modern players at the top level are no longer specialists in the way they were. Everyone is an attacker and defender at the same time. (However some will always remain more gifted and more general than others. At the level I watch football the demarcation of roles is still pronounced. I doubt that will change soon.) Football is actually a game played with space – or denying it – and not really with the ball. But, as Barcelona demonstrate, possession, keeping it and regaining it, certainly helps.

The book has occasional infelicities of the sprung for sprang type and a few typos but for all those interested in football and how it came to be the way it is this is a wonderful, informative and illuminating read. I thank my younger son for lending it to me.

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