- Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics
Lovers of soccer often call the sport the Beautiful Game while those less impressed dismiss what most of the world calls football as boring. The truth, as one learns from Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, depends upon how each game is played, what ideas inform the way each team plays. A team may attempt an aesthetically pleasing style of play, with passing and movement that dazzles the eye through the synthesis of teamwork and skill. But a team less talented or less concerned with spectacle may win (or cynically try not to lose) by negating creativity with utility. Wilson’s study of tactics reveals “the history of two interlinked tensions: aesthetics versus results on the one side and technique versus physique on the other” (p. 6).
Although the sport emerged from folk custom via public schools to become the leisure-time passion of the English working class, it was the Scots who first thought to pass the ball between teammates. That this never occurred to the English might be attributed to a national suspicion of theoretical speculation and is arguably the root cause for England’s decline as one of soccer’s superpowers. England has not won a major international tournament since it hosted the World Cup in 1966 and the reasons for that legacy of failure inform much of Wilson’s narrative.
No figure takes more blame than Charles Reep, who in 1968 made the claim that possession was counterproductive since goals were, according to his statistical analysis, most often scored from three passes or less. The result was an emphasis on direct play to get the ball into the “Position of Maximum Opportunity” as quickly as possible. Bad enough the national tendency to ignore theoretical speculation, Wilson argues, “faith in wrong-headed pseudo-intellectualism is far worse” (p. 141). But Reep had influential believers, so creativity, like an exotic flower, was left to blossom on foreign shores.
While Reep plays the villain, Wilson praises the heroic innovators whose vision shaped the game. Often condemned for introducing reactive, mechanistic football, Herbert Chapman is redeemed by Wilson as “the first modern manager” (p. 47). Under Chapman, [End Page 530] London’s Arsenal rose to prominence in the wake of the 1925 change in the offside law. Prior, the 2-3-5 formation (from defense to forward positions, not counting the goal-keeper) was standard. Chapman exploited the rule change by adopting the “W-M,” a 3-2-2-3 formation. Dropping players back from forward to more defensive space on the field, positioning that resembled a pyramid began a process of inversion, ergo Wilson’s book title. Cheap imitation of Arsenal’s counterattacking “modernist football” (p. 51), though, quickly turned innovation to convention and ironically proved a negative tactical influence on the game.
Wilson necessarily extends his view beyond his native land and perhaps finds himself most at home in the Viennese coffeehouses of the 1920s, where soccer was the toast of the intelligentsia. It was there that Jimmy Hogan, an exiled English prophet, promoted “the importance of the mind in football” (p. 63), influencing talents like Béla Guttmann. Touring the United States with Hokoah Vienna, Guttmann decided to stay and play for the New York Giants of the American Soccer League. When the ASL went down with the Depression, Guttmann moved on to manage clubs such as Boca Juniors in Argentina, Italy’s AC Milan and Benfica of Portugal, teaching free-flowing possession football like language from country to country.
Despite such cultural diffusion, the conflicts of the twentieth century meant that national styles often had ideological implications. The interwar Italian teams under the guidance of Vittorio Pozzo reshaped tactically by adding defenders, using man-marking to counter creativity. This won the 1934 and 1938 World Cups, giving Mussolini’s nation “the victory it so desired, but . . . the methods to which they were prepared to stoop to achieve it left a sour taste” (p. 71). Similarly, Soviet football (using Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s system) emphasized...