Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics
by Jonathan Wilson
In the 1950, 60s and 70s it wasn’t uncommon in Europe to watch a professional game of soccer being played on a muddy, uneven, divoted pitch. As an event the game was more often that not a dour struggle, as a spectacle a waste of money, the result all that mattered.
Talented players, who favoured a ground passing and dribbling game, with deft touches, quick turns and bursts of speed, struggled to perform on sodden pitches. Those with more strength than skill excelled, the thwack of the boot, the towering header, the crunching tackle prevailed over everything.
Knowing that the skilful Hungarians of Budapest Honvéd would struggle on a muddy pitch, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ manager Stan Cullis had the rain-lashed pitch at Molineux watered before their friendly in December 1954. ‘Honvéd gradually got bogged down, their tricks got stuck in the mud,’ said the future manager Ron Atkinson, one of the teenage apprentices who watered the pitch. Wolves, playing a long aerial passing game, thrived in the conditions and came from two down to win 3-2. It was a victory for pragmatism over idealism, of force and strength over technique and skill.
For those who lived in the British Isles and most of continental Europe it was the way the game had been played for decades and, it seemed, the way it would always be played. Brute force and ignorance, strength and endurance, blood and guts, and hard men and uncompromising managers dominated the game.
Much of the reason for this was the way the game was taught. Most children who liked to play soccer in the mid-20th century learned their habits from school, church and community coaches, who were either very bad or very good, there was nothing in between. Mediocrity ruled. Those who were good were few and far between, their methods were decried and any attempt to introduce aestheticism was challenged by the authoritarian disciplinarians who did not see the sport as anything other than a method to inculcate belief systems in children, teenagers and young men. If you complained you were put off the team or kicked out of the club.
To get anywhere near the professional game in those days a talented player had to be lucky or so sublimely skilled that their talents couldn’t be ignored, Belfast’s George Best is a good example here. Because he had grown up in the 1950s playing the game with a tennis ball or a small rubber ball in crowded school playgrounds, bumpy wastelands and cobbled streets, he developed skills that allowed him to perform on anything and against anything. Even then he was fortunate to be spotted by a scout who recognised his talent and taken on by a manager who wanted to change the way the game was played.
But players like Hungary’s Puskas, Brazil’s Pele, Ireland’s Best, Holland’s Cruyff and England’s Hoddle were glittering gems in a rotten dungheap in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Their individualism was scorned, sometimes mocked and it became a cliché that skillful players were more of a hindrance than a help to a team fighting to win a cup or a title. Time and time again, particularly throughout those decades, players with ingrained work ethics, everlasting stamina and moderate skills were picked ahead of the individualists because they followed the orders and game plan demanded by the coach or manager. Physical ability, endurance and morale were more important than technique, skill and moodiness.
Valeriy Lobanovskyi, the astute Dynamo Kiev coach of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, made this clear. ‘The tactics are not chosen to suit the best players,’ Lobanovskyi said. ‘They must fit our play. Everybody must fulfil the coach’s demands first, and only then perform his individual mastery.’
Lobanovskyi was prepared to tolerate the skilful individualist in his system as long as they did what he wanted. But not every manager thought as he did and for a long time the game of soccer suffered worldwide, run by unimaginative, mediocre coaches who believed that winning justified the means.
Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, if nothing else, proves that thankfully, as soccer is finally recognised as a global sport, those days are over. No longer a sport dominated by Europeans and South Americans, soccer is fanatically popular everywhere, and thriving in the African, American and Asian countries. Tactics and systems have gradually combined with technique and skill to produce two versions of the game plan. The pragmatic version has seen teams play to a system, defend in numbers, press the opposition, get the ball into the opposing penalty area quickly and effectively, and score ugly goals. The idealistic version has teams play to the best of their players’ abilities, pass the ball around, attack and defend with skill, and score beautiful goals. Soccer in recent years has developed into a combination of both styles. And everyone on the team works hard, especially the talented players.
If one game epitomised this, it was the 1994 European Champions League Final between Italian champions AC Milan and Spanish champions Barcelona. After a numbing season that brought them a third successive Serie A championship, during which they scored only 36 goals in 34 games, Milan were not expected to beat Barcelona. The Catalans had won their fourth successive La Liga championship and had won the European title, beating Italian opposition, in 1992. Neither team were favourites. Opinion favoured Barcelona to win a thriller. Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff believed the match would determine the tactical direction of soccer for years to come. ‘We impose our style on the opposition, moving the ball quickly. Milan base their style on physical strength and defensive organisation.’
If anyone wanted a clue to the outcome they only had to listen to Arrigo Sacchi, whose Milan team had won an Italian title, two European titles, two Intercontinental cups, and two European Super cups between 1988 and 1990 with an attacking style of soccer rarely seen in Italy. ‘Italians are the most professional footballers in the world in terms of technical and physical attributes on and off the field attitudes,’ he said a few months before the European final, as he prepared Italy for the World Cup finals. He might have added that Italian coaches are among the most tactically astute in modern soccer, as his successor at Milan, Fabio Capella, would prove with his tactics in the game against Barcelona.
Realising that Barcelona’s real strength lay in the expressive skills of Koeman, Guardiola and Bakero, Capella devised a tactical system to stop these players giving Romario and Stoichkov the ball in dangerous attacking positions, in front of and behind Milan’s back four. Massaro shackled Koeman, Albertino refused to give Guardiola a kick at the ball and when Barcelona managed to get the ball forward the Ghanan Desailly won the tackles that gave Milan absolute control of midfield. It was, to an extent, Barcelona the aesthetes versus Milan the pragmatists. Capella used Milan’s ultra pragmatic tactics as a springboard to launch a counterattacking game that Cruyff’s Barcelona, with all its talents, could not live with. Massaro, who benefited from Barcelona’s confusion to score twice in the four goal victory, said afterwards that everything had worked out just the way Capella said it would.
Whether Milan had the better players on the day or were simply the better team was compromised by the performances of both clubs the following season. Milan had a poor domestic season, finishing in mid-table, and lost their European title in the final, going down one-nil to the Dutch Champions Ajax, who had an average age of 22. Cruyff added Milan’s pressing game to the quality in his squad, but failed to retain La Liga, finishing nine points behind champions Real Madrid and went out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals, losing lethargically to Paris Saint-Germain.
Cruyff’s prediction that the game would determine future tactics proved accurate as many coaches used the performances of both teams to demonstrate how they wanted their players to play. This style of soccer is now common in Europe and is beginning to be used in South America where soccer had clung desperately for years to its sublime expression.
The game had changed to embrace elements that go beyond strength and fitness, skill and technique. Lobanovskyi expressed an aspect of that change. ‘Today … players know that the morning after the game the sheet of paper will be pinned up showing all the figures characterising his play. If a midfielder has fulfilled sixty technical and tactical actions in the course of the match, then he has not pulled his weight. He is obliged to do a hundred or more.’
A combination of factors now determines the outcome of games. The emphasis on fitness now includes programmes that embrace athleticism, endurance, speed, stamina, diet and rest. Training and coaching methods are constantly changed and updated. Practice games, set-plays, dead-ball kicking, one-touch and two-touch small games, ball technique and dribbling are enacted constantly on the training pitches and arenas.
Managers and coaches now rely on a team of practitioners in various disciplines. Games and players’ performances are analysed, preparation for games is thought-out and re-thought, motivational techniques are applied, player morale is studied, even superstition is considered and ground staff work as hard as anyone to make sure that playing surfaces are near perfect, both in the training complex and in the stadium. Nothing, anymore, is left to chance.
Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, was emphatic about this when he explained his thoughts about his team’s defeat to Barcelona in the 2009 European Champions League final. ‘That night was disappointing. You can look at reasons and excuses and it’s always better to look at the reasons. If they are good reasons you can put that to the back of your mind and go away and live your life. If there were no reasons at all then we would be worried, but I think there were valid reasons so we will move on. I took the DVD on holiday and went through everything. It made me feel more honest about the whole build-up. Did we have the right hotel? Things like this. The training, everything. We looked at all of it so I am quite clear about where we are and where we go. The problems can be put right and they certainly will be put right.’
This is the real change in the sport. Soccer is no longer static, no longer owned and ruled exclusively by pragmatists and idealists and people with agendas. After decades of moving slowly towards an holistic approach to the way it should be played, soccer is now a complete sport, arguably the embodiment of everything that describes humanity, good and bad.
Tactics and systems and fitness mean nothing without motivated, intelligent, skilful players. If players feel good, understand how the game is played and are comfortable with tactics, success usually follows. As long as soccer is played there will be debate between those who believe that the coach and the system is the difference between winning and losing, and those who believe it is down to the intelligence of the players and how they express themselves on the pitch. The enlightened will argue that both these factors are crucial. Ariggo Sacchi, the inventive and imaginative aesthete, argued that the players must follow the script provided by the coach. ‘The actors, if they’re great actors, can interpret the script and their lines according to their creativity, but they still have to follow the script.’
But a multitude of factors now decide the outcome of games and it is this acknowledgment that has dramatically changed modern soccer. Once, when injuries, suspensions, loss of form and other related performance issues affected the morale of players and teams, clubs had to put up with the disruption until their players recovered. Now, the squad game has replaced the team game. A club today will keep a squad of around 25 to 30 players, many multifunctional, to allow the manager or coach to cope with injuries, suspensions, loss of form, fatigue, etc.
Wilson’s book chronicles this progression in the story of the tactical changes and the people who made them since soccer became a professional sport. As a history book it is a great addition to the soccer library but largely it is a well-written and nicely constructed cut-and-paste job, meaning that most of his sources are secondary. For the historical chapters this is fine but for the contemporary period, since the early 2000s, Wilson should have sought out more of the primary protagonists in the game.
There is no doubt that this book will be regarded as a seminal work, but it would have been much better if Wilson had interviewed many of the active coaches whose task is to devise systems and methods to win games today. It is one thing to try and rely on gems of information from media sources and on ghosted autobiographies but another thing to put questions directly to older coaches like Capella, Cruyff, Hiddink and Ferguson and younger coaches like Guardiola, Dunga, Keane and Zola about their tactical systems, training methods and general management.
Had he brought this book up to date, he could have concluded the journey that the story of tactics in soccer has taken since muddy pitches and hammerhead strikers embodied the sport’s image. Instead the reader is left, like a unimaginative centre-forward, stranded up front, not sure what is happening in the game.