‘Oh, what’s the difference?’ an English colleague protested. ‘They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.’
There was splutter of indignation. As I raised a drunken finger to jab home my belief that people like him shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it, an Argentinian, probably wisely, pulled my arm down. ‘The formation is the only thing that’s important,’ she said. ‘It’s not worth writing about anything else.’
And there, in a moment, was laid bare the prime deficiency of the English game. Football is not about players, or at least not just about the players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment. (I should, perhaps, make clear that by ‘tactics’ I mean a combination of formation and style: one 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Steve Stone from Ronaldinho.) The Argentinian was, I hope, exaggerating for effect, for heart, soul, effort, desire, strength, power, speed, passion and skill all play their parts, but, for all that, there is also a theoretical dimension, and, as in other disciplines, the English have, on the whole, proved themselves unwilling with the abstract.
Anglophile Danes, Dutch and Swedes were equally quick to adopt the game. Denmark proving good enough to take silver at the 1908 Olympics. There was never any sense, though, of trying to do anything different to the British, whether from a tactical or any other point of view. To look at photographs of Dutch sporting clubs of the late nineteenth century is to look at a pastiche of Victorian Englishness, all drooping moustaches and studies indifference. As a participant quoted by Maarten van Bottenburg and Beverly Jackson in Global Games put it, the purpose of sport was to play ‘on English grounds, with all their English customs and English strategies…amid the beautiful Dutch landscape’. This was about imitation; invention didn’t come into it.
It was in central Europe and South America, where attitudes to the British were more sceptical, that football began to evolve. The 2-3-5 formation was retained, but shape is only part of the matter; there is also style. Where Britain, despite the acceptance of passing and the spread of 2-3-5, generally persisted in ruggedness and physicality, others developed subtler forms of the game.
Even those who agree most wholeheartedly with the former Tottenham captain Danny Blanchflower’s dictum that ‘the great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning; it is…about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish’ would surely not have it decided in the manner of figure-skating, by a panel of judges awarding marks out of ten. It is simple but unfortunate fact that eventually those who are looking to win games will toy with negativity. After the glorious excesses of la nuestra it came to the Argentinians; and for all the self-conscious aesthetism of the Austrians, it would just have surely have come to them had fascism not got there first. Golden ages, almost by definition, are past: gleeful naivety never lasts for ever.
Trophies and modernisation tumbled on together, the one seeming to inspire the other. The FA, instinctively conservative, blocked moves to introduce shirt numbers and floodlit matches, but other innovations were implemented. Arsenal’s black socks were replaced by blue-and-white hoops, a clock was installed at Highbury, Gillespie Road tube station was renamed Arsenal, white sleeves were added to their red shirts in the belief that white was seen more easily in peripheral vision than any other colour and, perhaps most tellingly, after training on Fridays, Chapman had his players gather round a magnetic tactics board to discuss the coming game and sort out any issues hanging over from the previous fixture. At Huddersfield he has encouraged players to take responsibility for their positioning on the field; At Arsenal he instituted such debates as part of the weekly routine.
Meisl and Hogan talked long into the night about their vision of football. Tactically, neither saw anything wrong with the 20305—which had, after all, formed the basis of all football for over thirty years—but they thought that movement was necessary, that too many teams were too rigid and hence predictable. Both believed it was essential to make the ball do the work, that swift combinations of passes were preferable to dribbling, and that individual technique was crucial, not for the slaloming individual runs that would become such a feature of the game in South America but for the instant control of an incoming pass to allow a swift release. Hogan was also keen to stress the value of the long pass to unsettle opposing defences, provided it was well directed and not an aimless upfield punt. Meisl was a romantic but what is fascinating about Hogan is that his beliefs were, essentially, pragmatic. He was not an evangelist for the passing game through any quixotic notion of what was right; he simply believed that the best way to win matches was to retain possession.
When the FA made shirt numbering compulsory in 1939, they ignored later developments and stipulated that the right-back must wear 2, the left-back 3, the right-half 4, the center-half 5, the left-half 6, the right-winger 7, the inside-right 8, the center-forward 9, the inside-left 10 and the left-winger 11, as though the 2-3-5 was still universal, or at least the basis from which all other formations were mere tinkerings. That meant that the teams using the W-M lined up, in modern notation, 2,5,3; 4, 6; 8, 10; 7, 9, 11, which is why ‘center-half’ is — confusingly — used as a synonym for ‘center-back’ in Britain.
So overwhelmingly conservative was the English outlook that the manager of Doncaster Rovers, Peter Doherty, enjoyed success in the fifties with his ploy of occasionally having his players switch shirts, bewildering opponents who were used to recognising their direct adversary by the number on their back.
For the importance of tactics fully to be realised, the game had to be taken up by a social class that instinctively theorised and deconstructed, that was as comfortable with planning in the abstract as it was with reacting on the field and, crucially, that suffered none of the distrust of intellectualism that was to be found in Britain. That happened in central Europe between the wars. What was demonstrated by the Uruguayans and Argentinians was explained by a — largely Jewish — sectionof the Austrian and Hungarian bourgoise. The modern way of understanding and discussing the game was invented in the coffee houses of Vienna.
Their (Schalke 04) coach, Gustav Wiesner, was an Austrian, and under him they practised a version of the whirl that become known as ‘der Kreisel’ — the spinning-top. According to the defender Hans Bornemann, it was not the man with the ball, but those out of possession running into space who determined the direction of their attacks. ‘It was only when there was absolutely nobody left you could pass the ball to that we finally put it into the net,’ he said. Hogan may have admired their style, but he would have questioned their ethos.
Aside from the negativity to which it lent itself, the major effect of the prevailing conception of the W-M was to shape the preferred mode of centre-forward. Managers quickly tired of seeing dribblers and darters physically dominated by the close attentions of stopper centre-halves, and so turned instead to the sort of big battering-ram-style centre-forward still referred to today in Britain as ‘the classic No. 9’; ‘the brainless bull at the gate’ in Glanville’s characterisation. If Matthias Sindelar represented the cerebral central European ideal, it was Arsenal’s Ted DraKe — strong, powerful, brace and almost entirely unthinking — who typified the English model.
… unspoken process that was inherent in the W-M. One inside-forward would always be more creative than the other; on half-back more defensive.
As Richard Williams points out in The Perfect 10, it was usual — perhaps giving credence to theories linking left-sidedness with creativity — for the inside-left to be more attacking than the inside-right, which is why the No. 10 rather than No. 8 became lionised as the playmaker.
Just as England reacts to any set-back by lamenting technical inadequacy, so Brazil blames defensive frailties.
The plaintiveness comes from the same source — a railing against habitual failings, an angry realisation that the traditional way of playing is not innately superior. They irony is that Brazil’s traditions and England’s could hardly be more different. There is no right way of playing; at some point every football culture doubts its own strengths and looks wistfully to the greener grass abroad.
… a system of zonal marking, introduced by Zezé Moreira at Fluminense, which obviated the need for the strict man-to-man marking of the W-M — the aspect that had failed so disastrously in 1950 — and also permitted a greater fluidity. When Arsenal toured Brazil in 1949, they had been struck by the willingness of Brazilian sides to attack from all positions, something they seem both to have feared and regarded as a weakness, a sign of tactical indiscipline. ‘Suddenly, a bloke comes dashing through and he’s had a shot at goal and the ball went wide,’ said the full-back Laurie Scott, describing Arsenal’s 5-1 win over Fluminense to Aidan Hamilton. ‘And we started looking around to see who we’d got to blame for this. We couldn’t find it. We found out it was their full-back. See, they didn’t care. I never went up like that.
The greatest three minutes of football ever played
Feola was concerned by reports of the Soviets’ supreme fitness and had decided that his side had to intimidate them with Brazilian skill from the off. ‘Remember,’ he said to Didí just before he left the dressing room, ‘the first pass goes to Garrincha.’ It took a little under twenty seconds for the ball to reach the winger. Boris Kuznetsov, the experienced Soviet left-back, moved to close him down. Garrincha feinted left and went right; Kuznetsov was left on the ground. Garrincha paused, and beat him again. And again. And then once again put him on the ground. Garrincha advanced, leaving Yuri Voinov on his backside. He darted into the box, and fired a shot from a narrow angle that smacked against the post. Within a minute Pelé had hit the bar, and a minute after that, Vavá gave Brazil the lead from Didí’s through-ball. Gabriel Hanot called them the greatest three minutes of football ever played.
In a piece in A Gazeta in 1949, Mazzoni wrote that:
For the Englishman, football is an athletic exercise; for the Brazilian it’s a game.
The Englishman considers a player that dribbles three times in succession is a nuisance; the Brazilian considers him a virtuoso.
English football, well played, is like a symphonic orchestra; well played, Brazilian football is like an extremely hot jazz band.
English football requires that the ball moves faster than the player; Brazilian football requires that the player be faster than the ball.
The English player thinks; the Brazilian improvises.
The English pragmatism
This wasn’t so much about finding men in space as about the creation and manipulation of space. ‘We changed things,’ the inside-forward Eddie Baily, later Bill Nicholson’s assistant, told Phil Soar in his 1982 history of the club1. ‘We gave the ball to the man who was marked. But other players slipped into support positions to give the man with the ball more options. That in turn depended on how the ball had been give and we had to guarantee that our man received it.’ It didn’t matter if a player had a defender tight on his back if all he was doing was bouncing the ball off, changing the angle of attack.
Such progressiveness was rare in England, though, and Spurs were regarded with suspicion, despite their success. As the rest of the world developed technically, and worked out increasingly sophisticated defensive patterns or means of structuring fluidity, British football ploughed its own, less subtle, furrow. In its own way, it was just as rooted in fear — or, to its apologists, pragmatism — as the catenaccio Harrera would eventually adopt, but this was a very British insecurity. Skill, or anything that required thinking too much, was not to be trusted, while physical toughness remained the ultimate virtue.
It is no coincidence that, the World Cup triumph of 1966 aside, the iconic image of English football remains a blood-soaked Terry Butcher, bandaged but unbowed after inspiring England to the goalless draw against Sweden that ensured qualification for the 1990 World Cup. Even the manner of that stalemate was characteristic. … England simply sat back, defended deep, and relied on courage under fire: what Simon Kuper has called the urge to recreate Dunkirk at every opportunity.
‘The perfect game,’ Brera once wrote, ‘would finish 0-0.’ Rocco perhaps did not go quite that far, but he did have a fanatical aversion to the ball being lost in midfield with meaningless sideways passes, and insisted that all his players should track back, even the forwards. The idea was not always well recieved.
Having recovered from diptheria, he (Helenio Herrera) gained in strength sufficiently that by his teens he was recognised as a physically imposing full-back. ‘From fourteen or fifteen years old, I played with the Arabs, Jews, with the French, with Spaniards,’ he told Simon Kuper in an interview given five years before death finally caught up with him in 1997. ‘That is the school of life.’
He began his formal playing career with Racing Casablanca, but, discovered by ‘scouts looking under the rocks in poor countries’, as he put it, soon moved to Paris. … His career had never threatened to be much more than average, but it was brought to an end anyway at the age of twenty-five after he suffered a serious knee injury. Typically, given his acute sense of his own destiny, Herrera later in life drew a positive from the setback. ‘As a player I was a very sad thing,’ he said. ‘My advantage is that big-star players are monuments of presumptuousness when they become managers. They do not know how to teach someone what they naturally did with so much grace. Not in my case.’
I’ve been accused of being tyrannical and completely ruthless with my players, but I merely implemented things that were later copied by every single club: hard work, perfectionism, physical training, diets and three days of concentration before every game.’
The preparation extended to dossiers on the opposition. Players came to know their opponents so well that it was said they could recognise them from Herrera’s descriptions without recourse to photographs. Suaréz regarded Herrera’s approach as unprecedented. ‘His emphasis on fitness and psychology had never been seen before. Until then, the manager was unimportant. He virtually slapped the best players, making them believe they weren’t good enough, and praised the others. They were all fired up — to prove him right or wrong.’
‘In attack, all the players knew what I wanted: vertical football at great speed, with no more than three passes to get to the opponents’ box. If you lose the ball playing vertically, it’s not a problem — but lose it laterally and you pay with a goal.’
Rinus Michels and Valeriy Lobanovskyi each came to the same realisation about how football should be played. They game, as they saw it, was about sapace and how you controlled it: make the pitch big when you have the ball and it is easy to retain it; make it small when you do not and it becomes far more difficult for the opposition to keep it.
Both encouraged their players to interchange positions, both relied on team-mates being able to cover, and both produced sides that were capable of exhilarating football. … Pressing was the key, bit it was only in the mid- to late- sixties that it became viable.
In an amateur context, pressing is all but impossible. It is hugely demanding physically, requiring almost constant motion and thus supreme fitness levels. By the time of Michels and Lobanovskyi, the shortages of the war years were over, nutrition was good, and sports science (both legal and illicit) had advanced sufficiently that players could keep running for ninety minutes. This was a stage of football’s development that stemmed as much from enhanced physical possibility as from advances of theory.
- This sentence is a good representation of what I liked the least about this book — unceasing, mostly irrelevant, character introductions. It’s fair to say that all the names and relations in this sentence could have been safely removed, and still the effect of the passage would be clear. ↩