Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson
Over the last few years there has been a steady rise in the number of books about football. The list of authors is no longer confined to dilettante, arriviste, wanky media luvvies and fanboy geeks but is instead open to those who simply take the subject seriously without patronising or playing to the lowest common denominator. This is officially A Good Thing because most newspapers, television and radio stations still don’t.
Pete Davies’ Italia 90 book All Played Out started this pot boiling, which is now kept bubbling nicely along by dozens of books and a million blogs, each owing much to Davies and to the success of the better 90s fanzines. So successful has this been that a generation has now grown up unembarrassed about discussing football as a game of sophisticated strategy and not simply as an abiding neanderthal passion. This ever growing coterie of writers and broadcasters, including Tim Vickery, Sid Lowe, Guilleme Balague, Gabriel Marcotti, Raphael Honigstein, even dear old Danny Kelly, are genuinely insightful and owe precisely nothing to how football is reported in the press nor much to how it is broadcast on radio and television.
This generation does not feel the need to dumb down nor to pretend to be more working class than thou. This may be uncontroversial across Europe but to us Brits a willingness to demonstrate intelligence is tantamount to an open declaration of a raving 70s TV version of camp homosexuality. Just ask Graeme Le Saux. Which you would be able to do if three years ago he hadn’t flounced out of the BBC in a whirl of taffeta. Or something.
Some successful books now even verge on the academic. Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy was a brilliant anthropological look at how national characteristics transfer themselves onto national playing styles, while Stefan Szymanski’s Why England Lose, drew lessons from economic theory to analyse success and failure.
Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant book Inverting The Pyramid is similar in that it is painstakingly researched with a clearly structured central thesis, but remains wonderfully entertaining as he traces the development of football tactics over the past 100 years. This story takes us from the corinthian days of 2 defenders and 8 attackers, where even passing let alone tactics were seen as unmanly. Those pesky Austrians put paid to that by simply putting a defender or two behind the ball. No wonder we went to war with them in 1914.
Soon enough all teams played a 2-3-5 W formation, the pyramid of the title. On goes the story of how great teams changed the way the game is played. Arsenal in the 30s, succeed with a defensive solidity that formed the basis of their teams for the next 60 years. Hungary in the 50s evolved around several individual geniuses and destroyed England in two games that finally put payed to the illusion of invincibility of the founding nation. How dare these upstart Magyars not play in the same positions throughout the match. We should’ve gone to war with them too.
To be sure there are teams built around the need to destroy rather than create. Thus Wolves in the 50s turn a nation toward a functional long ball game, despite the best efforts of a wonderful Spurs side to reintroduce the English to grass in the early 60s. Elsewhere cynicism reigns as the Italians invent catenaccio and bore the world. Fortunately for the world the Brazilians invented a version of 4-4-2 that made the world fall in love with the game all over again and gives rise to marvellous teams, especially in Holland where both Ajax and the national team excel. How does a chap stand a chance of winning with teams like that. England did not qualify for the world cup in either 1974 or 1978 and has suffered an inferiority complex ever since. How dare these pesky foreigners combine skill with the energy to press opponents all over the pitch and not stay in the same sodding place?
Eventually we reach the AC Milan side of the early 90s, a team that as the observant may have guessed, inverted the pyramid, seemingly the last major tactical change and barring the odd up and at formation is broadly what every successful team now plays. Yet orthodoxy eventually breeds heresy and no doubt the thing will move on again. How cool would it be to see a 2-8 formation from 100 years ago have a go now.
I write this as my team, the ridiculously underachieveing Spurs, has had a week during which it failed dismally against a much weaker team at Wembley, yet finished up thumping its two nearest rivals both of whom were some way ahead in the league. Did the newspapers seek to explain such glorious lunacy in tactical terms? They did not. Thankfully there are other avenues and other means for working out what is going on. Jonathan Wilson I salute you.