Sunday, 7 April 2013

A Licence to (Pub) Bore: Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson.

It is a bit of a cliche that repressed laconic Scottish men can only communicate mano a mano when discussing football.  The awkward silence can be ended with an endless discussion of the versatility of full backs or the necessity of playing two strikers when at home and so on  and so on forever.

Recently I would argue though that in Scottish football the debacle and implosion at Rangers, the continued downward spiral of the national team and endless debates on restructuring means that these have replaced discussions on tactics.  They  have fallen by the wayside or  rather put on the shelf and only dusted off occasionally maybe for Celtic's European matches or if eyes come across a Premiership game or the Champions League.  Indeed if you look at Strachan's interview and thousand yard stare post Scotland-Serbia tactical formations were probably the last thing on his or any other Scot's mind.

But this is as Jonathan Wilson's absolutely excellent book demonstrates is a very bad thing in modern football.  Ironically it was in the early years of association football that Scots led the way in developing any form of tactics when playing the game.  English Football slowly adapted to this but was always suspicious.  Indeed one of the reasons of lack of relative success in English football, he argues, is its inability to take on tactical and strategic innovation.

In giving an outline of the development of tactics in football Wilson essentially covers every major development in Wold Football in the last 150 years.  The title comes from the fact that when football began in the late 19th Century the emphasis was on total attack with 5 forwards  and 2 defenders - admiration of dribbling skills and standing off players was the norm.  A bit similar to rugby union - which was of course a posh offspring of football.

The history of football really though in Wilson's view can be looked at through the prism of this being turned on its head.  Indeed it ends (it was written in 2008) with speculation of playing with no clear attackers or strikers - the false 9 position. The ultimate inversion.  And yet the best teams seem to be adapting this system it  was really the formation that Spain used to win  the 2012 European Championship and Barcelona use every week.  It is pretty high risk though - Spain stuttered through the Euros drawing with Italy and Portugal until it all clicked in the final when they met Italy again and dismantled them 4 -0.  When off song Barcelona have lost to Celtic, Real Madrid and AC Milan playing that system.  Man United experimented with it a few years ago with Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs all playing in midfield really but now have reverted to a heavy reliance on one centre forward (R Van Persie).  Big Phil Scolari back as Brazil manager has also reintroduced a traditional striker Fred in his plans to win the World Cup.  And of course er Craig Levine tried it with Scotland away to the Czech Republic, we lost one nil.

See I have started again  most of those points aren't in the book - they happened after it was published. But that is part of the magic of the work it makes you look at football in a different way and go on and on about it. It's like a manual but readable and quite funny in places.  So through all the major events in football: the growth of the Hungary team in the 1940s and 50s, the Brazil team of the 1970 World Cup victory, the catenaccio system of Inter (defeated by Stein's Celtic), the England 1966 victory, total football of 70s Holland, the Saachi machine at Milan they are explained with the incremental changes of formations.  

It is not for everyone this book - who would guess that a discussion of the impact of the change to the offside rule in 1920s could not be universally enjoyed.  It has a lot of tables and charts  in it (!)  and the prose is pretty chunky:  "Aside from the negativity to which it leant itself, the major effect of the prevailing conception of the W-M was to shape the preferred mode of the centre-forward"... As I said not for everyone.

But as well as giving you a new way of looking at football there is loads here I didn't know about.  The significance of Austrian Football in the early days, the innovations of Soviet Football under Maslov and Lobanovskyi,  the fact that English Football through the  FA institutionalised their approach to football tactics (basically a disdain for the passing game) : incidentally explains the appointment of Erikson and Hodgson both of whom used similar methods in Scandinavian football for years.

Wilson is now my favourite football writer - not least because he can make me an even greater pub bore, if anyone was listening to me which they probably aren't... It allows me to nod sagely when Michael Owen announced his retirement - Wilson explains why Owen and his type of player have no future at the top end of football anymore.

I have a bit of a sad addiction to Talksport which endlessly dissects English football from a position of defiant lack of knowledge.  If one more pundit says "It doesn't matter what the boss says once the players step over the white line it's up to them."  I can throw this book at the radio.  Even when a Spanish manager who can't speak a word of English can come into Southampton and turn their results around with instilling a tactical discipline no lessons are learned.

A great book and luckily (from a Scottish perspective) one which the upper echelons of English football will always be dismissive of if they read it at all.

1 comment:

  1. Great article ...Thanks for your lovely post, the contents are quiet interesting. I will be waiting for your next post.
    Pub licence