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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.

Scotland 2-1 Liechtenstein

Hampden Park, 7/9/10.

On the highlights (there were highlights?) Liechtenstein looked like a team. They were comfortable in possession, passing the ball, running in support, and in Mario Frick they had a very good player in their ranks – who took his goal superbly but ought to have been closed down to prevent it happening. Every time they got the ball I thought – they’re going to score, they’re going to score – and eventually they did.

Scotland looked nothing like a team, disjointed, unable to make the simplest pass or run, scared of possession: but got out of jail.

There is no point dreaming of qualification – notwithstanding the fact that Lithuania won in the Czech Rep last night (we won’t) – and even if by some miracle we do qualify what’s the use? We’d only get humped in every game in the finals; or the play-offs.

Even the chance to become unofficial world champions has now been taken away after Spain were demolished by Argentina yesterday.

Germany 0-1 Spain

World Cup Semi-Final: Durban Stadium, Durban, 7/7/10

Again not a classic.

Where were the Germans who swept aside England and Argentina? I can recall them having only the one chance; which fell to the wrong K, Kroos not Klose. Apart from that they were never given much of a chance to counterattack by a Spanish side who pressed them high up the park and didn’t allow them time on the ball.

So the Spanish 1-0 juggernaut rolls on. Three results in a row squeezed out now, three one-nils out of five wins in total. Yet Spain seemed to have less of an aversion to shooting in this game – even if most of their efforts went past the post.

There’ll be a new name on the Cup on Sunday. But neither of them has set the tournament alight.

It’ll also be the first time a European side has won a World Cup outside Europe. Previously only Brazil have won outside their own continent (if you count Argentina’s win in Mexico as being in the Americas.)

Argentina 0-4 Germany

Greeen Point Stadium, Cape Town, 3/7/10.

A triumph for teamwork over individualism. The Argentines believed in their own abilities too much, kept the ball when a pass was on instead and ended up smothered by a German blanket. (Spain might be able to pass their way through this sort of defence; but I have my doubts. They don’t have enough width – as neither did Argentina.) The Germans knew exactly what to do when they had the ball, passed into the correct space and had scalpel-like precision when it mattered.

The turning point was really the first goal, a bad one for Argentina to lose as it gave the Germans extra belief – and something to hold on to. Without it, the first goal in the second half wouldn’t have been such a blow to Argentina. 1-0 down was perhaps doable, but not 2-0.

There are only two former winners left in it now. What odds would you have got on one of them being Uruguay? And neither being Brazil nor Argentina?

Brazil 3-0 Chile

Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg, 28/6/10

This was a bit like last night’s game. One side bright and passing neatly, the other breaking quickly. Brazil are much more solid at the back than Argentina, though.

Chile flattered to deceive. In the end their passing went on too long and they were often crowded out. They had a marked reluctance to shoot, trying to carve out the perfect scoring opportunity or essaying an overambitious pass. They went down the middle too often and didn’t use width enough.

Brazil are getting more and more impressive.

Argentina 3-1 Mexico

Soccer City, Johannesburg, 27/6/10

This game drew a red line through the assertion that Argentina are a one man team. Apart from an effort in time added on, Lionel Messi was barely in evidence. The Argentines have plenty enough fire power without him.

The result was tough on Mexico who played very bright and attractive stuff.

Yes, Tevez was in an offside position for the first goal but the flag did not go up and so he wasn’t offside. The second was a poor piece of defensive play but the third was a belter.

The best goal though, possibly one of the best of the tournament, was Javier Hernandez’s consolation for Mexico. He looks a talented player.

Quite why the “offside” goal was played on the giant screen at the ground I’ve no idea. Controversial decisions or inflammatory incidents aren’t supposed to be. (Zidane’s head butt in the final four years ago wasn’t.)

In any case, had this been a Scottish Second Division game no one would have been any the wiser. There, the players just have to get on with it with no confirmed sense of grievance.

Replays in order to “improve” decisions are impractical. Who’s going to put up a big screen at Links Park?

Germany 4-1 England

Free State Stadium, Maungang/Bloemfontein, 27/6/10

Well, this humiliation was coming.

Here, after dismal performances against the USA, Algeria and (despite some whistling in the dark) Slovenia, a bunch of over-blown, over-paid, cosseted individuals who perhaps believe their own hype too much but played as if they’d never seen each other before were roundly horsed by an opposition who worked together as a team and actually looked as if they knew what they were doing.

Yes, the ball was over the line from Frank Lampard’s shot but it wasn’t a goal. It wasn’t a goal because the ref didn’t give it. End of debate.

And forget about goal line technology. It’s not needed. For big games like this the fifth ref – as introduced in the Europa League this season – would surely have spotted this one.

Back to the game.

There was a telling stat which unrolled a few minutes before Germany scored.

Shots: Germany 4 England 0.

Yet England had had the greater share of possession. They simply couldn’t do anything with it.

At half time I was thinking that Argentina would probably take both of them. Germany’s confidence will have an almighty boost now, though. A 4-1 win does that to you. And we’ll see how Argentina fare against Mexico tonight.

As far as England is concerned, was it a case of good players not living up to their potential?

Maybe it’s really that they’re not actually very good, that in their club sides they are surrounded by people of other nationalities who make them look better than they are.

Anyway, I can relax and enjoy the competition now. No more references to 1966 to spoil it.

Nigeria 2-2 Republic of Korea

Durban Stadium, Durban, 22/6/10

I couldn’t bear to watch the Argentina-Greece game as Greece are so negative. I opted for this one instead and it was a cracker, both teams going for the win.

Yakubu Ayegbeni had a Chris Iwelumo moment (yes, it was possible for someone else to miss such a sitter) but was able to atone with a penalty a minute or so later.

The overall spectacle was spoiled somewhat by the commentariat (Simon Brotherton, Mark Bright, Garth Crooks, Martin Keown and Dan Walker?) all obviously wanting Nigeria to win; so much so it distorted Brotherton and Bright’s commentary.

From their first attack – when they nearly scored – South Korea had looked bright and dangerous and always threatened the Nigerian goal. Yet the commentary insisted that Nigeria were dominating. They did look good for a spell after their first half goal but normal service was soon resumed and South Korea deservedly equalised. It wasn’t until South Korea took the lead that a change of tack was heard. After Nigeria’s equaliser it was back to the earlier type utterings despite South Korea having as many chances to win the game.

A very enjoyable watch nonetheless. This was 2-2 going on 5-5.

France 0-2 Mexico

Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane, 17/6/10

The better team (by a country mile) won this game.

A France side which in retrospect was in decline even as long ago as when Scotland beat them twice in the last World Cup qualifiers, had no invention, no spark and looked disinterested.

Mexico by contrast were bright and fluid and constantly looked threatening.

France are out unless they hump the hosts and there is not a draw in the other game (or, if head-to-head results count before goal difference only if Mexico beat Uruguay.)

The TV pundits seemed to think Uruguay and Mexico might collude to draw and thus eliminate both Bafana Bafana and the French.

But….

Would you want to come second in this group?

Okay you would have got through but it would also mean most likely facing Argentina in the second round. (I can’t see Greece beating them to come first in Group B.)

England 1-1 USA

Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg, 12/6/10

Honours even, then. Possibly a fair result.

Contrary to the TV pundits I thought it was a thoroughly disjointed and lack-lustre performance from England in the first half – which the US dominated even if they didn’t work Robert Green enough. (As it turned out working him once was enough.)

Rooney was anonymous, Lampard was anonymous – I don’t recall him being on the ball at all till the second half.

The US, by contrast, seemed to have an idea of what they were trying to do: at least their passes were crisp and reaching their team mates.

It was noticeable that after the US goal the commentator suddenly remembered that the US pushed Brazil hard in the final of last year’s Confederations Cup.

In the second half things opened up a bit late on, Rooney began to make an impact on the game, but neither side looked totally convincing.

So. Did we see potential winners tonight?

Let’s put it this way.

I don’t think Brazil, Spain, Argentina or even Holland will be quaking in their boots.

Edited to add: I see from the highlights that Lampard was involved in the goal – but that was his only contribution to the first half.

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