Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson (Orion 2008) by Mouth of the Mersey

"Riquelme has become less a player than a cipher for an ideology". This elegant biography in a sentence turns up on page 326 of "Inverting the Pyramid - a history of football tactics". If you're even mildly engaged by those twelve words, the 351 pages that surround them will reward you with an extraordinarily rich rollercoaster ride through what is less a history of football tactics, more a history of men thinking about football.

Fortunately our guide, Jonathan Wilson, presents his history in an orthodox chronological structure as we flit from continent to continent, looking on, as the pyramid (the formation in which a team is set up) is not so much inverted as perverted from 2-3-5 to 3-2-2-3 (the classic WM) to 4-1-4-1 and all points in between. Tantalisingly, a possible future of 4-6-0 is mooted - indeed Sir Alex Ferguson's Champions League winners may well have played this formation without us realising.

But it would be a huge disservice to the writer to give the impression that this is a technical theoretical treatise - like the best popular history, the writer wears his learning lightly without ever talking down to his readers. And, also characteristic of the genre, the narrative is packed with unforgettable portraits of extraordinary men. Wanderers like Jimmy Hogan embedded football thinking in central Europe and Bela Guttmann proselytised his 4-2-4 gospel from continent to continent. Great teams, as well known as Hungary's 1953 vanquishers of England and as forgotten as Austria's inter-war Wunderteam, are brought to life as if they were playing last week. Influential players, like the tragic Matthias Sindelar and coaching innovators like Arrigo Sacchi are placed within the wider ebb and flow of football thinking and given due credit for their willingness to theorise, then practise new ways of playing football.

One puts the book down with two overwhelming feelings. Firstly, that the game is so very much richer than is generally perceived in Britain - never mind 6-0-6 callers pleading for a "bit of passion" as the panacea for all English footballers' shortcomings, how about the sheer blinkeredness of those paid to explain the game, from TV pundits to writers in the Press Box? Secondly, that the game is evolving more rapidly than ever before and that British managers and coaches (one florid-featured Manchester-based pensioner excepted) are as emotionally and psychologically distant they have ever been from such developments. If I live thirty more years, I am more convinced than ever that I will not see England win a World Cup.

Oh, just one last thing. On page 284, Watford didn't beat Everton 5-4, they lost 4-5. I know - I was there and nothing quite beats that, even if Wilson's book comes mighty close.

65 comments:

bluedaddy said...

Thanks for this Mouth. The big question is: will JW's book help me play better at five aside? God I felt my age tonight. I can shoot with better technique than at any time in my life, but it is so knackering. I can see or sense an opponent's or team mate's run, but my effing legs won't move quick enough. If I only knew then what I know now!

Mouth, have you read Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie? Not a football book, rather a book about the north, and being a northerner (actually it's more being a north-westerner as the bit on the north east seems tagged on). Just finished it. I found myself nodding and laughing in agreement every couple of pages. As a northerner in exile I think you'd like it (if you haven't already read it). For non-northerners I'm not so sure it would work.

munni said...

I was considering ordering this bookthe other day (not out in the US yet, don't want to pay shipping), so thanks for the enticing preview, Mouth. Only men thinking about football though?

I think Arsenal played 6-4-0 for a game late in the o6/07 season, and that's a formation I never want to see again - but I can't actually remember what game it was at the moment, I just remember ranting about it at the time. And I think it was only because we ran out of fit strikers.

BD, my tactical and positional awareness are excellent when I'm watching other people play, they just abandon me when I'm on the pitch. Same with chess.

MotM said...

Bluedaddy - I shall seek out the Maconie.

Re five a side, I recall having the brain to play well, but the body to play badly. These days it's a bit of a challenege getting up the steps to the seat to watch! Stay at it.

Munni - Try second hand (don't tell Jonathan!). Being attuned to the need to be inclusive in language, I am used to including women (and other, er, communities) in anything that I write, but the fact is that this is a book entirely about men thinking about football. There are women thanked in the acknowledgements, but after that point, it is just men. What women would have made of the puzzle of football tactics at the highest level is a story yet to be told since it appears women have not yet had the chance to try it. I hope they will soon.

guitougoal said...

munni,
I.m pretty sure you could get the book through Amazon.com and ask the men to pay for shipping.
motm,
No mention about the eleven left- wingers strategy by any chance?

MotM said...

Gitou - The eleven left-wingers? That formation was tried by the Labour Party in 1983 against Thatcher's 2-3-5 and it didn't work.

I once saw Everton play Crystal Palace with 6 full backs, one of whom (Steve Watson) played centre-forward.

MacMillings said...

Mouth,

Lovely piece - the perfect review, as you wrote little, but said much. As a newcomer to this site, I have been mighty impressed by the standard of writing. I was thinking of putting together a little something for submission myself, but am now greatly intimidated...

MotM said...

Mac - Thanks for the kind words.

I'm sure I speak for all pseuds when I encourage you to submit something. I hope to see it soon!

Ebren said...

Now, now Mouth. British sides have led a series of tactical innovations.

WM was Mr Chapman - that ruled the world for a decade or more. Then the pesky Hungarians piped up with 4-2-4 which the Brazilians used for years until 4-4-2 won the Cup for England in 66.

That's been orthodox over here for 30 years or more now.

You could even argue Mourihno's 4-3/5-3/1 was copied from Bolton.

But it's not really the point - you are always better off winning than drawing in the league/group stage - so have to score.

In many ways the logical response to 4-5-1 is 3-5-2 (two full-backs, one centre-back).

If 4-6 takes off, you could respond with 0-6-2 and bugger the oppositon. (I am very against the idea of men marking no one while midfields are overrun).

RE five-a-side. I moved my team from a 1-3 formation to a 2-2 once and we got slaughtered by a team below us in the league. The experiment did not last long.

Ebren said...

oh, and Mac, send on - articles are always welcome.

ebren said...

One day I will learn to count, and on that day my post will read 0-6-4

MotM said...

Ebren - British teams and British managers have led innovations (as Jonathan's book makes clear) but they are not doing so now. I suggest we're in a Catch 22 situation now: British managers (say Moyes) won't have the players available to him to show his tactical ability beyond fifth in the league and a UEFA Cup run (on the back of 4-1-3-1-1), but he won't get appointed to a job which gives him those players to show what he can do!

If Mark Hughes finishes sixth with Man City this season, does that tell us anything about his readiness to take over at Old Trafford?

So, we're stuck.

Capello may get the England team sorted out and make the most of the players, but I don't think they're good enough - and which youngster has shone since Rooney what 6 years ago?

Margin said...

That is quite an introduction for a book that is now well and truly added to my reading list for the year.

It will be interesting to read how much of the innovation we think came from England might have developed elsewhere either first or as well.

--

And in terms of Hughes et al not getting a chance to show their tactical innovation at the top - they don't have to stay in England. Second Choice Steve has moved to FC Twente, a side that could well qualify for the champions league.

MotM said...

Margin - An excellent point re McClaren. The book makes it absolutely clear that innovators were usually prepared to work in other countries - a truth as strong today as ever.

guitougoal said...

Margin,
Twente to qualify, are you serious?

pipita said...

Nice review Mouth, and glad to hear Jonathan's book is out. Had lunch with him a couple of times in BA, he contacted me via Marcela off course, to talk about the legendary River Plate "maquina" team of the forty's and their 2-3-5 formation. Any of that in the book?? Sad to hear theirs mention of Riquelme...Off course it was Everton that won it 5-4, 1984-84 perhaps?? think gray, heath, sharp and sheedy all scored. Sniff sniff, what nostalgia

pipita said...

That was supposed to read 1984-85 off course

munni said...

The problem (a problem, I should say) with the current England squad is they look completely baffled when asked to play a formation other than a straight 4-4-2. Even 4-5-1 looks a bit too daringly innovative for them. I'm not sure Fabio is the man to solve this, though I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.

Re. Hughes, he won't stay at City long, in any case.

MotM said...

Pipita - your BA time was not purely social. There is mich in the book concerning Argentian football and its somewhat isolated development. The maquina is discussed at length - an absolute joy for anyone (like me) unfamiliar with this history.

I think they all scored at Watford yes. That Everton stood up to be counted that day against a big, powerful team on a poor pitch. A young John Barnes was superb, but we won!

It looks like a struggle to get 11 on the pitch for Saturday - times change.

pipita said...

Glad to hear that Mouthy. He definetly seemed captivated and had clearly grasped the essence of argentine football tactics in those years.Really anxious to get hold of that book. Wasn't their also a 4-4 between Watford-Everton the season before or after?? It was quite a classic in those days. Apart from Barnes they also had a powerful strike force with the likes of Blisset, Jenkins and Callaghan. The 84 FA cup final between them was definetly not a classic however, but who cares..We won it, thats all that matters

andrewm said...

This would make a good regular feature for the site - Pseuds review their favourite sports books. It could be a great starting point for discussions.

Or how about What I've Been Up To This Week by Mouth? That would be ace.

MotM said...

Pipita - it was 4-4 the previous season!

Andrewm - I'd like to see more book reviews, but I don't know whether others find them as devilishly difficult to do as do I.

I've done a couple of cricket ones too

http://nestaquin.wordpress.com/2008/03/25/what-sport-tells-us-about-life/ and http://nestaquin.wordpress.com/2008/04/28/supercat-a-literary-review/

What I've been up to this week? Playing cribbage with the kids and looking out for bears whilst walking through Swedish forests! And lots of cooking. Not very interesting alas.

offsideintahiti said...

Superb writing, Mouth, thank you. Jonathan Wilson's blog article on the subject sparked one of the best GU threads of recent memory (on-topic threads, that is). A fascinating subject.

Now, I don't have to check to know that the book is not on the shelves at my local bookstore, so Munni, when you're finished with Mouth's second hand copy, could you mail it to me please? Offside, P.O. Box 3338, Temae, Teavaro, 98728, Moorea, Polynésie Française. Cheers.

BD, I had a game of "baby-foot" a couple of weeks ago and I haven't lost my touch. The 2-5-3 formation is a bit rigid, but the younger generation couldn't cope with my high-speed swivelling, I thrashed them. At least, that's something we can excel at for another couple of decades...

andrewm said...

Mouth, not exceptionally interesting when you put it like that; but put it in article form, or email it to the OBO, and I guarantee it will be dynamite.

offsideintahiti said...

If I knew anything about swimming, I'd write a fine article right now, but since I don't I'll just request a round of applause for the big man from Antibes, Alain Bernard!

47"21 of pure adrenaline, woohoo!

offsideintahiti said...

And apologies to Mouth for a whole swimming-pool of off-topic there, but wow.

MotM said...

Offie - I don't mind raising a glass of off-topic to the Antibes swimmer (if you aren'y keen on swimming when you grow up there...)

And thanks for the kind words.

byebyebadman said...

I've seen all of United's games either in person or on TV for years now and I must say the idea that they currently play without a centre-forward is sheer fantasy. 4-6-0 is a myth.

Jonathan's book is a good read but his chapter on that issue and the theory they stumbled across a plan to play a formation they never have is I think quite flawed and factually inaccurate in a lot of places.

In any case, formations are for restarting the game from kick-offs or goal kicks and, in the very loosest sense, defending in. When a 4-4-2 or whatever is written down on paper it can't do the one key thing the players do - move around.

I liked this review Mouth but can't agree that football writing in Britain is somehow intellectually lightweight, for my money there's far, far too much (not including Jonathan Wilson here, his articles on all things Eastern European are brilliant) pseudo-intellectual posing when people write about how the game is played.

MotM said...

Badman - Interesting stuff. I don't see all Man Utd games, but when I do, I can't spot a centre-forward in the way that Yakubu acts for Everton or Drogba does for Chelsea. It looks to me as if there are players available to pass the ball to, but neither centre nor forward.

Football writing does include pseudo-intellectualising, which is why it is lightweight! I'd love to read more of the "why" a match was won / tournament won rather then the mere "how". The sort of thing I would like to read is an analysis of Spain's Euro 2008 campaign, particularly with and without David Villa. He seems to have enhanced his reputation, but my feeling was that Spain were a much better team without him - why was that?

Anyway, thanks for troubling to read the piece and comment - always most welcome.

guitougoal said...

Mouth,
I have mixed feelings about intellectualization of football because the dominant factors of this sport are essentially, creativity, improvisation, natural skills etc... all illogical or difficult to analyze.
ps..to a certain extend of course because good strategy is also essential. However I don't find as much rational as we like to see in the game.

MotM said...

Guitou - A good point. There's perhaps a parallel with films. I like to read reviews which say, "Great film, sparkling dialogue, funny scenes etc etc" because cinema is entertainment (mostly). But I also like to read deeper analysis of the film-maker's intention, the placing of the film within its culture / context and its links to past films and possible future developments.

I feel both these viewpoints are equally valid and equally interesting. One of the virtues of the book is that it explains the depth and complexity of the thinking required to set free the creativity of the great players (eg Cruyff or Maradona). The more I think about it, the more that I think the game is infinitely complex for those off the field in pursuit of making it so simple on the field (to which my earlier piece here on Southall and Robertson alluded).

Not all the coaches fitted that template (especially Sacchi) but plenty developed systems to make it easy for defenders to defend and attackers to attack. But they had to think very hard to do that.

MacMillings said...

guitou - creativity, improvisation, natural skills, etc., are what we LIKE about the game, but they are, to a large extent, subject to the formations they are in and against.

I recall a recent-ish article by Phil Ball on Soccernet; he went to see his kid play, and the opposition, chiefly in the form of one super-talented kid, were taking them apart. At half time, team Ball's coach put someone on the creative lad, who didn't know how to respond, and the pattern of the game completely reversed. The minor tragedy of the story was, scouts from professional teams had come to see the skilled kid, and left when it became apparent that he couldn't adapt.

Of course, the borrowed anecdote above is only kid-football, but my point is that kids learn early that creativity can be stifled, and freeform football is over once that discovery has been made. Simplistically put, the right tactics, well executed, will trump almost any amount of skill (Maradona and very few others excepted). And I think Mouth has it right when he talks about the amount of "thinking required to set free the creativity of great players."

guitougoal said...

Thanks guys, both of you are absolutely right about
the amount of thinking into the creativity but isn't what coaches are supposed to provide mostly.Don't they have a key role to play in developing and inspiring natural talents.
-I was thrilled to watch last night Ben Arfa, and how he is now blossoming with Marseille under Gerets supervision after being wasted with a dumb manager at Lyon for so long-
Robinho as well could explode at Chelsea with Scolari, the same way Messi did it with Barca.
Mouth, it's basically the same with the movie industry, the actor is as good as the director and the material allow him to be- Sadly enough it's also an industry where the economics dictate the choice of material and we all know how much it affects the quality of the product.

guitougoal said...

Thanks guys, both of you are absolutely right about
the amount of thinking into the creativity but isn't what coaches are supposed to provide mostly.Don't they have a key role to play in developing and inspiring natural talents.
-I was thrilled to watch last night Ben Arfa, and how he is now blossoming with Marseille under Gerets supervision after being wasted with a dumb manager at Lyon for so long-
Robinho as well could explode at Chelsea with Scolari, the same way Messi did it with Barca.
Mouth, it's basically the same with the movie industry, the actor is as good as the director and the material allow him to be- Sadly enough it's also an industry where the economics dictate the choice of material and we all know how much it affects the quality of the product.

guitougoal said...

sorry about duplicating, can't find a way to delete-

munni said...

Completely agree with the above few comments, but the fundamental technical skills need to be in place first, before creativity is allowed free rein. If the foundation is solid, you can do whatever you want on it. I firmly believe that's true of acting, football, any skilled industry.

I also think it's too easy for observers/critics to impose layers of meaning and interpretation that were never there in the first place. Often things are deceptively complex, but sometimes they really are as beautifully simple as they appear.

Gui, I hope you're right about Robinho - I remember watching him in the 2005 Confederaciones and thinking he was just on the verge of something, and that going to Real was a terrible mistake for him.

pipita said...

Guitou, Mouth et al

Re intelectualized football journalism I must say that, in spite of being somewhat arrogant and ambitious, i've always been very much attracted to football commentary in the english newpapers. Difficult to explain but, in contrast, written football journalism here in Argenitna is usually pretty pompous and archaic. It would be interesting to hear what Marcela has to say about this.
As for the talent factor in football, I'm well aware that I've personally not been graced by this, but I'd be more than proud of myself if I were still to be regarded as a "thinking footballer" as one of my high school reports once read....
Lastly, I'm startled by your enthusiastic expectations on Robinho's future at Chelsea. Has he not done enough yet to prove he's a total fluke??? What is it that attracts him to so many european fans and coaches??? Obviously it must have to do with his usually ineffective skillls and fancy footwork movements, but as for consistent influence on the game, I think he still has a long way to go.

NEVERMISSPENS said...

Hi PSeuds
Interesting how the validity of analysis in Football journalism comes up on this thread. I made a concerted effort to influence the Grauniad's pod and reportage and was literally mocked for it. (Having made several critical analysis of Robinson's goalkeeping over two years & outlining some reasons why, I suggested the pod, who finally discovered his problems when it was obvious, ask Ray Clemence - Spurs goalkeeping coach - for his perspective. The pod next opened with "This week Ray Clemence..." etc then "not really". Not funny, just lazy.

Reportage has its place, but not in match reports that simply put into text what is printed in the Match stats next to the text! On the Pod, McCarra is next to useless simply trotting out the sequence of events and what the managers said afterwards. Better to 'report' (describe) elements those who were not there couldn't know - the influence of certain players, how many of which type of move were tried, what kind of movement did the players make etc.

Ingle, the editor, never responds to questions, suggestions, criticisms.

Maybe I'll check in here more often.

offsideintahiti said...

Nevermiss,

I think you'll find the editor here is even worse. For one thing, I'm still waiting for the refund of my expenses for my latest reportage. The worst, though, is that he pretends to be knowledgeable about football when everybody knows he is, in fact, a rower. A rower! I ask you...

By the way, good to see you here.

MotM said...

Pipita / Nevermiss - That's pretty much why I chose that quote to start the review. More than most, JRR sparks the kind of debate that leads to analysis of the impact of different players / formations / philosophies on the game. There's plenty of this goes on in the pub after the game, and it should be in the Press.

My favourite stat is that last season Everton took 40 points from the 18 games Tim Cahill played - that's Man Utd / Chelsea form! Why was this? Over five games, it could be form, but 18?

byebyebadman said...

One thing that really disappoints me about modern football writing is this obsession with statistics, either Opta stats or games/goals records, which are used as show-stopping argument winners, particularly in the blogosphere. Whatever happened to watching the game? What about the 99.99% of the match where the ball isn’t being kicked into the net? And yet armed with these stats the writer thinks his argument is bullet proof enough to dismiss any player they like as a fraud, a chancer, a big game bottler etc. It’s becoming an epidemic.

It is perhaps the fantasy football/championship manager generation getting to write about a sport they play on computers or in spreadsheets. Football is not a branch of mathematics (or science, if anyone remembers Jossie’s giants). Where has the pure love of the game gone?

The lack of humility of a lot of writers, be it bloggers or posters, is also a shame. All the ‘Here’s my f*cking opinion’ type pieces draw a very predictable response.


MOTM - I don't know of the 18 games mentioned who Cahill was playing with/against, but can one man, any man, make that much difference in an eleven man team sport? I would guess Everton would still have finished fifth last year - an Evertonian mate of mine pointed out that they gained more points last season than when they finished in the 4th Champions League spot in 2005, which I believe Cahill played a full season in.

MotM said...

Badman - I agree re stats to some extent, but I do find them intresting as the start of a discussion rather than the closing of one.

Cahill does make a big difference because he fills three roles: midfield spoiler, playmaker / passer and goalscorer. I had to work out that stat from teamsheets and results and was amazed that it equated to a 82 point season.

Does one player make that much of a difference? Depends on the team I suppose, but there are matches when they do.

guitougoal said...

Pipita de oro,
french journalism, l'Equipe, it's as bad -Not to mention TV it's pathetic.
I agree with you about English football journalism being so much better-Why do you think a frenchman living in the US got lost on the gu blog a couple of years ago?
To learn about Russel Brand sexual addiction or to rediscover the joy of reading about football through Marcela's articles?
Having said that, I am tempted to agree with
Badman and Motm about stats. In the past we had a very interesting debate over this point with Ebren and Margin on Pseuds.

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable reading, Mouth - thanks!
I'll have the book when Offie has finished with it.
Tactics?
When I was a child, I was a big lad - thus I was always stuck at left-back and told to "give it some welly!"
I was regarded as a clumsy bugger.
One day, I got a game at centre-forward and was told to "give it some welly!".
I scored loads of goals and was regarded as a success.

greengrass said...

Anonymous was me!

gg

offsideintahiti said...

Munni, will you hurry up with the reading, please?

munni said...

offie, I haven't started reading yet, I'm still waiting for some mysterious men to send me the book.

greengrass said...

munni,
would you mind reading it aloud for us?

offsideintahiti said...

Ah yes, every night between 10 and 11 pm, Polynesian time, would be perfect.

mimi said...

Hoy and Vicky. Gold.

munni said...

I'm very good at reading bedtime stories, but you'll have to listen closely if you expect to hear me all the way from Sweden and Tahiti.

well done cyclists.

offsideintahiti said...

munni,

podcast? ask Ebren.

greengrass said...

Ebren -
can we have a dogcast?

guitougoal said...

Gg,
since you are only for I suggest a forcast.

offsideintahiti said...

Well, munni's in L.A. so maybe she can start by giving us a smogcast.

greengrass said...

offy, guitou -
you're deliberately enticing me to the point of actually tapping-up, but I steadfastly refuse to make that "frogcast" comment you're angling for.

guitougoal said...

Bingo!

guitougoal said...

gg,
I think you just scored big time:the reward?
you won a free tour of the M/S /Sterjnop-a steamship from 1870 (actually the oldest in Europe)-built originally in Norway as a cargo and passenger ship-
He has been entirely renovated to a 1920 look it's a very cool thing to visit and to spend time in, since she is in Stockholm (skeppsholmen)-They probably use her for special occasions-
Anyway the co-owner Gordon Cyrrus is a 1/2 swedish 1/2 african american musician, is a friend of mine-If you care for a visit, let me know may be you end up going down the Nil with us-

greengrass said...

guitou,
I think you will find that when it comes to ships, a "he" is usually a "she".
Your confusion is, however, excusable - you HAVE spent many a taproom hour in our Ingrid's company.
I don't know this friend of yours, but would be interested in a visit. Maybe he can explain how to make money playing music.

guitougoal said...

gg,
SHE is a lady regarding my sources-Check out -more luv .com- you can see her from inside and outside..
HE is broke like most of the music editor and that something else we have in common -
I thought with your lighthouse experience you'll be interested to look at "Vintage Marine'-I am trying to persuade Gordon to take the steamer down the Ni, we could shoot a remake of "deaf" on the Nil.l

offsideintahiti said...

Guitou,

since you're in the mood for organising, get all the bloggers on board, and sail her to Tahiti.

guitougoal said...

offie,
I think de should ask professor gg to check
It out first

greengrass said...

I would be very happy to check her out:
If I find her seaworthy. it's "Deaf on the Nile" first, then we'll hula our way across to Moorea.
I don't fancy Panama, so we'll pick up a dodgy crew in Buenos Aires then nip across to do an Atahualpa ukelele concert in Port Stanley.
The next gig will be a Burning Love Memorial do at Tierra del Fuego, then we'll sing "Heart of Stone" at the Henry Moorea Sculpture Park on Easter Island (sorry, no admission for flesh and blood - statues only!).

Flynnie said...

Just found this blog from GU. Awesome stuff, gents. Hope to post more soon.

guitougoal said...

gg,
I'll email you the infos, seriously.

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