Thursday, January 8, 2009

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson



"In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form"

The opening words of Jonathan Wilson's gripping book on the evolution of football and its tactics set the stage for his argument: that the game has not only become more organised and structured but, as the title suggests, progressively less reliant on a mass of forward players.

Tracing the development of football tactics across time, Wilson's arguments draw as much from sociology and history as from archived match reports to illustrate that football is more than twenty-two players kicking a ball around. The arrangement of the players, their movement and style of play draw from fascism, poverty, music and physics as they do from the imperative of simply putting the ball in the net. How the Austrian coffeehouses of the interwar period, Isaac Newton, and comedy-musicals all seem to make sense in footballing context is testament to the complexity of the game.

From the rugby-like anarchy of the early English game to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League, Wilson also searches for an English style of football. He finds a deep pragmatism but also the impact of re-imported foreign influences onto a game that England had originally exported to the world. Wilson tends to credit decisive matches for much of the game's evolution and shows how the supposedly "English" 4-4-2 was, more accurately, a Hungarian innovation, famously shown to the world in England's landmark 3-6 defeat to Hungary at Wembley in 1953. The English pragmatism is one of many responses to the ages-old debate between beauty and efficiency (a debate Wilson leaves wide open) which houses both the flowing Brazil team of 1972 and Helenio Herrera's catenaccio-playing Inter of the 1960s.

Not only has the game itself evolved, but the key figures in tactics increasingly became the managers themselves. Wilson sees Herbert Chapman, Arsenal manager from 1925-1934, as the first "modern" manager - with shirt numbers, floodlighting, and improved physical fitness as his contributions to the increasing professionalisation of the game. Valeriy Lobanovskyi's scientific mindset brought Dynamo Kyiv great success but clashed with the romaticism of Eduard Malofeev's Dinamo Minsk. Silvio Berlusconi's decision to bring in the unknown Arrigo Sacchi as manager thankfully killed off catenaccio once and for all with a European Cup-winning team containing Marco Van Basten, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni (all of which are now grey-haired managers) and Paolo Maldini (who somehow still starts for Milan). The names get progressively more familiar as the book goes on - which really shows that today's football is only a product of yesterday's.

As football becomes more organised and media more sophisticated, Wilson foresees less of the tactical surprises which drove the evolution of football. As 4-2-3-1 has become the new formation of choice in Western Europe, precision, fitness and flexibility may be the only new evolutions - but Wilson, sounding more and more like a historian, rightly warns against forecasting the end of progress.

Published by Orion Books, June 2008
ISBN 9780752889955
384 pages
£18.99

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