Saturday, 10 July 2010

World Cup special!

In the run up to the World Cup I was fortunate to be able to borrow my brother's copy of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, not that he could have stopped me given that he's currently in a different hemisphere to his books. Anyway it was originally a birthday present from me, so fair's fair.

The pyramid of the title refers to the shape of the team on the football pitch. In the early days of the sport, when passing was thought unmanly, teams would generally play with almost everybody in attack. Gradually this settled down into the 2-3-5 formation (2 in defence, 3 in midfield, 5 in attack), still hugely attacking by today's standards. Over the course of the century formations became more and more defensive, to the point where 5-3-2 was a common sight. The pyramid had been inverted.

Jonathan Wilson's book tracks this long-term trend along with more detailed looks at tactically advanced teams through the ages. The chapters are divided geographically, giving insight into the various footballing cultures of the world and how they resulted in stereotypical national traits such as the Brazilian emphasis on flair, the Italians on defensiveness, the English on running around like headless chickens and so on. They also make clear how each country's analysis of their own faults has barely changed over time, so the Brazilians have always worried that they don't have a solid defence like Italy, the Italians worry that they don't have the power and speed of England, and the English worry that they don't have the flair of Brazil. Meanwhile, the Germans win.

A book on this topic obviously runs the risk of being drily abstract, but Wilson avoids this by providing many interesting portraits of the men who pushed football tactics forward, from Herbert Chapman's W-M formation to Alf Ramsey's wingless wonders, from the inventors of catenaccio and the inventors of Total Football to Charles Reep's pseudo-statistical defence of the long-ball game. A recurring theme is the frustration of would-be innovators at the conservatism and thoughtlessness of English football, where 'pluck' and 'spirit' is to this day valued above all else.

At each stage in football's development clear transitions can be seen: a dominant formation is humbled by a master tactician, whose work is quickly imitated by others. The new tactics then become dominant until a new innovation is found. On top of this the game has got continually faster with an emphasis on 'pressing'. The increased fitness of the players is a major factor in the development of new tactics and particularly the streamlined, defensive-heavy formations of modern times.

The book discusses tactics right up until the present day, including the demise of 4-4-2 in recent years at the hands of single-striker formations. Wilson even speculates on the possibility of the death of out-and-out forwards altogether, with signs that the likes of 4-6-0 may be about to take off. The modern game values universality, with midfielders becoming forwards as necessary.

The final chapter resonates particularly strongly after England's last world cup match, in which Capello's 4-4-2 was ripped apart by Germany's far more fluid team. Wilson has written an interesting analysis of the match online. His take on why the 4-4-2 that worked so well in qualification didn't work against Germany is that Capello wasn't actually playing a strict 4-4-2 during the qualifiers; a useful reminder that you should never read too much into the formation on paper.

Wilson has more recently written The Anatomy of England, a history of the England team through its most dramatic matches. When it comes out in paperback I hope it includes an in-depth analysis of England-Germany, which surely ranks as a historic loss. It was the only English game of the tournament where the problem was at least in part tactics: in the group stages the dominant failing was lack of confidence and fear of failure, a contrast seemingly lost on most pundits.

Inverting the Pyramid is not a book for football novices (although it does contain not only a clear explanation of the offside rule but also why it was introduced and why it changed in 1925). I highly recommend it to football enthusiasts who want a deeper appreciation of the role tactics play at the highest level and why they have evolved over time in the way they have.

Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics
by Jonathan Wilson
First published 2008