‘Inverting the pyramid: A history of football tactics’ was written by football journalist Jonathan Wilson. It was published when Jose Mourinho was in his first spell as manager of Chelsea This review, unpublished at the time, has been updated as part of a study of Jose’s second spell at Chelsea
Inverting the pyramid has the scholarship of an academic reference text, complete with rigorous indexing and reference sources. It traces how the early leisure-time occupation of football in the public schools of England became systematized and spread around the world to its present form. Rules were needed to permit fair contests, fairness being particularly valued throughout the far-flung British Empire.
The amateur football contests of the nineteenth century produced rudimentary tactics to gain one side an advantage. Inter-passing between players emerged later, as did skills of running forward while controlling the ball, later known as dribbling. Above all, the romantic idea of all players attacking was replaced with allocating a few players to defend against attacks.
The emerging rules had established eleven as the number of players in a team. From this, the original great pyramid of football became established, with five players as an attacking line closest to enemy forces, (the forwards) three players behind them (midfielders), and the two defenders or full backs ahead of the goalkeeper.
The newer systems were mostly ways of strengthening the defense at the expense of the numbers of attacking players. Various versions were tried. A system of numbers came into use to differentiate the variants, based on how the players were arranged in the different steps of the pyramid.
Enter Chapman’s MW system
The great pyramid, you will know or will have worked out, was originally the 2-3-5 system, with its two defenders or backs, three midfielders and five forwards. The labeling ignores the poor goalkeeper as he (or she, when football got round to accept women’s teams) is a constant and ignored in the labelling of the other ten player in a team.
The 2-3-5 system was still around at the highest levels of the game, long after the tactical innovation developed by Herbert Chapman of Arsenal in the 1930s had produced kinks in the classical lines, looking like a ‘W’ in defense behind an ‘M’ in attack.
Confused? Yes it looks like a M in defense and a W in attack, but that’s the goalkeeper’s view. Anyway, the English football establishment which had codified the game in the 1890s had assumed football would always be played in the 2-3-5 arrangement and introduced the useful innovation of allocating numbers for positions on the field of play as well as on shirts. The numbering of players by location on the field stayed, even when the formation changed. In time players were allocated squad numbers published in the club’s programmes. The pyramid was on its way to being abandoned along with the numbers on the player’s backs and in the programmes.
Chapman’s W M system was a 3-4-3 formation. Already two forwards players were moved back from the line of forwards. Purists in England brought up on flying wingers did not appreciate the disappearance of the flank excursions and the set up was seen as a move away from an era of attacking play. The game that shook the traditionalists of out of nostalgia and complacency was a crushing loss by England to a Hungarian international team in the 1950s.
Enter the Magyars
The Hungarians had brilliant individual players one of whom, Puskas , was to became an legend in the world of football. England, the spiritual home of Football, had to take seriously more radical possibilities emerging than the tinkering with the traditional pyramid that the W M system offered. The Hungarians played as if they came from a different planet, indicating the potential for creating new ways of attacking through complex structures. But the pyramid had been loosened rather than inverted. This was also the case with the ideas re-imported from Brazil and the other Latin American teams who were deploying structures which encouraged individual flair.
The fluidity appealed, but the wider European change had already come with the development of the controversial ‘lock down’ system in Italy known as Catenaccio, the chain or as the English traditionalists thought of it, the ball and chain shackling attempts to break a defense.
Catenaccio, according to Wilson had four defenders, a line of three midfielders, and three forwards, ‘similar to the modern 4-3-3 as practiced by, say, Chelsea in Jose Mourinho’s first two seasons at the club’. The system was clearly giving the old pyramid a tilt toward its inverted form.
Incidentally, another reference source describing football formations also mentioned Jose’s system at Chelsea (in his first and highly successful time there) as a more defensive 4-5-1
Catenaccio was first deployed as ‘the right of the week’ a way of countering superior opposition. The first major team to embrace it effectively was Internationale in Milan, where Mourinho was to become so successful many years later, with a style identified by author Wilson as Jose’s system subsequently at Chelsea.
As football became more global, attacking systems encouraging individual flair clashed with defensive ones like the stifling Catenaccio.
According to Wilson, the invincibility of the latter was eventually overcome by crushing defeats from attacking systems such as the fondly-remembered win by the Scottish team Celtic against Inter in the European League cup final of 1966, and subsequently by the great Liverpool teams of the era.
The pyramid reversed
The final chapters of the book take the reader to the late 20th century and beyond. The classic pyramid of attack is now well and truly dismantled. The simple basic premise of the book is justified. Formations indicate the dominance of one attacker ‘up front’ with help from an attacking midfielder (usually described as a 4-2-2 formation).
Wilson is wise enough to recognize the diversity of structures in today’s total football. Perhaps he could have examined more the phenomenon of globalization and the various innovations connected with technological and medical advances. He can hardly be criticized for failing to anticipate the corruption scandals that would bring about the disruption and possible destruction of the great power pyramids of FIFA and its European subsidiary UEFA.
Watch this space
The contents of this review are being updated with advice from subscribers and colleagues who are refining my understanding of today’s football formations and tactics. The results will appear in a book, Mourinho Matters, to be published later this year.