Book Review: Inverting the Pyramid

Posted by on Aug 17, 2009 in Book Review, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Inverting the Pyramid: the History of Football Tactics
By Jonathan Wilson
Published by Orion Books
May 2009, £8.99, ISBN: 9781409102045

Back in 2006, I wrote a slightly pernickety review of Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain, a superb overview of the history and current state of East European football. His latest offering, published in paperback earlier this year, could be contender for the best book about soccer ever written. It’s a monumental achievement; a book that leaves you thirsting for more information with every page.

Wilson’s selected topic for analysis this time out is the history of football tactics. Over 350 pages, he charts the development of the various systems that have shaped the game, and although the subject is exhaustively researched, one gets the feeling that Wilson drew as much on his memory of watching matches live and on television over the past thirty years. That’s what makes the book special: there is a real enthusiasm that shines through. My own memories of classic sides were brought back in torrents : the Brazil of 1982, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, the Menotti-Bilardo power struggle for the soul of Argentine football; and further back; the Mighty Magyars, Austrian Wunderteam and Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal and Huddersfield — none of which I had the pleasure to experience at the time, but all of which have their place in footballing folklore. Eric Batty’s legendary tactical analyses in World Soccer in the 1980s are also strongly evoked.

It is interesting to note that the majority of the tactical innovations of the past have occurred on the grand stage of World Cups and European Championships, although in recent times, the Champions League has tended to provide their spawning ground. The final chapters of Wilson’s book are especially fascinating as Wilson gazes into his crystal ball — will 4-6-0 become the new orthodoxy?: teams without strikers as we know them?

So what are the implications for the Championship? Unsurprisingly, few breakthroughs have originated in the second tier. Graham Taylor’s Watford started lower and saw the second division as a mere staging post on the way to higher glory. Certainly, the current craze for 4-5-1 has percolated down in a big way, with some of the more effective sides of the past eighteen months adopting a lone striker and a packed midfield — Swansea under Roberto Martinez and Gary Johnson’s Bristol City spring to mind.

It would be quite wrong to draw the conclusion that the Charles Hughes-inspired long ball is the only method that works at this level. Recent title winners West Bromwich Albion, Fulham and Reading have all been easy on the eye and if the Championship can be defined by one tactical constant, it is that wingers continue to flourish. The combination of prosaic midfield water carriers with speedy wide men was developed by the Danish World cup quarter finalists in 1998: a perhaps effective line up for sides lacking the resources and talent of their rivals. Last year, Michael Kightly and Matt Jarvis drove Wolves to promotion from the flanks as Karl Henry mopped up in the middle of the park — will this year’s title winners have opted for the same tactic come May?

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Frank Heaven
    August 17, 2009

    I can't say I'm overwhelmed with Roberto Di Matteo's tactics to date for WBA – but his signings to date suggest he agrees with your final paragraph.

    Reuben Reid and Jerome Thomas are both pacy and attacking, and fit the striker-cum-winger brief for the wide men in a 4-5-1.

    And yesterday I was impressed with last season's Championship runners-up who were playing a similar system – Cameron Jerome and James McFadden caused the champions unexpected problems.

  2. Frank Heaven
    October 28, 2009

    Thought I'd add a more extended comment now that I've finished the book. A fascinating and illuminating read, which made me look at great teams from the past in a new light. A few of the points that struck me:

    1. The romantic, though maybe apocryphal, tale of Salernitana manager Gipo Viani inventing the sweeper system after observing local fisherman using a 'reserve net' when hauling the morning catch ashore, to (literally) catch any fish which slipped through the net. Somehow I can't imagine Harry Redknapp being similarly inspired.

    2. His criticism of the long-ball game, Charles Hughes, and Wimbledon. This was, I thought, the only part of the book where he allowed personal views to get in the way of cold facts and analysis. Sure, Dave Bassett's Dons were physical – but six-times champions in the '80s Liverpool had Graeme Souness and Steve McMahon kicking lumps out of the opposition. Also, not that I was a supporter of Hughes's coaching system, but to blame it for England's Euro '92 failure ignores the fact that the same system was surely responsible for the (relative) success of Italia '90?

    3. The importance of players being athletes. From the development of pressing as a tactic, through the brief flowering of wing-backs and the 3-5-2, to the present-day emergence of the 4-6-0 – or more accurately, the 4-2-4-0 – the demands on players' fitness levels, their physical strength, their pace, have never been greater, nor more intrinsic to the way teams play. And yet how often do you still see players carrying weight, or not bothering to close down an opponent? Step forward Mr Luke Moore.


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