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Historical Formation Charts

Football match at Harrow School, 1887. Via Wikimedia Commons
Football match at Harrow School, 1887. Via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently football did exist before Chelsea started playing in the mid 1990s. Apparently, it emerged in the 1800s so there were all sorts of games to be played before we came onto the scene and started winning trophies left and right. Who'd have thought?

All joking aside, I like looking at different formations, and it's cool to see how some of them have developed over time. In Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson's excellent book on the history of football tactics, there's all sort of cool discussion on how we got to where we are today, with different parts of the world doing their own thing and often coming up with completely different interpretations on what is on paper the same shape. I can't do it justice, but I'd highly recommend you take a read if you're at all interested in formations - which you should be, since the interaction of shapes dictates space, and space dictates the whole game.

Anyway, there were a couple of requests that I adapt the diagrams in Mr. Wilson's book to my Tableau formation visualisation tool, so here it is:

Figure 1: Historical formation visualiser. Powered by Tableau.

I guess these probably need a little bit more explaining than the modern systems. I'm no expert by any means, so if I've got something wrong, please do jump in and say something! Oh, and if you're looking for the modern formations, go here.

The Pyramid (pgs. 22-23)

Originally, football was a confusion of the modern game and rugby - there was very little forward passing, all sorts of mischievousness was allowed, and handballs were more or less acceptable. The current incarnation of the sport would have been more or less unrecognisable to the good folks playing that then. Slowly, however, things started changing. The biggest innovation was the legalisation of the forward pass, which was balanced by the offside rule (although the first version of offside used three defenders, not two, as the limiting line). Previously, the inclination of teams was to swarm forward in great number, as carnage was bound to happen no matter what and you might as well pack as many people into the scrum as possible. 2-2-6 (possibly 0-4-6) was the format of the day.

That changed with the advent of the forward pass. Passing means the possibility of a playmaker, and the central forwards tended to fill this role. However, they were more or less right on top of each other, so one of them dropped back into the second band, becoming the centre half and creating the 2-3-5 pyramid. It's somewhat astonishing to us now that a 2-3-5 represented a weakening of the forward line and shored up the midfield, as we're used to fielding just one or two dedicated strikers in our current systems, but the 2-3-5 was a much more midfield focused scheme than had been seen before, and the centre half was the focus of the play. 2-3-5 would dominate English football for the next few decades.

W-M (pgs. 50-51)

However 'advanced' 2-3-5 was, it's still quite clearly an unbalanced system and vulnerable to attack. When 2-3-5 meets 2-3-5, the midfielders have to assume more defensive responsibility and the forwards must then drop back to cover the space left  in the central third. The solution was to go to four bands, and the man to do it was Henry Chapman with a team you may have heard of: Arsenal.

In the W-M, the centre-half drops back between the fullbacks to create a three-man back line. The wing-halves would drop slightly deeper to protect their defenders, and the inside forwards (i.e. the second and fourth players in the five-man attack) would withdraw from the forward line to become what we would now call attacking midfielders. This is a 3-2-2-3 system (an M for the defensive half and a W for the attacking), and it served Arsenal well in blunting opposition attacks without compromising their own ability to go forward. The centre half lost most of his prestige in this shape, turning from the game's premier all-rounder to a destroyer - by and large the modern centre back.

1953 Hungary (pg. 87-90)

If the W-M restored balance to the game, it came at a price. Systems in equilibrium are resistant to change by their very nature, and a W-M against a W-M will get you nothing but more of the same. Each player knew who he was to be marking, every player archetype slotted neatly into the system, and everyone got used to the status quo. Then, for England, disaster arrived in the form of Hungary.

They barely played by the rules. Instead of a static game, they moved out of position. Hungarians ran up, down, left, right, frustrating their markers who had no idea whether to stay and close down the players they were supposed to be dealing with or hold position to deny yet more space for a Hungarian to run into. The static game met a fluid one and was washed away - 6-3 in a scoreline that flattered the English. Mr. Wilson did his best to depict the Hungarian shape for this game, and I've done likewise without the benefit of movement arrows - but as you can see it's almost as though someone took Chapman's W-M and twisted it around the centre. It looks rather like a little spiral galaxy, and I think it's quite pretty.

Catenaccio (pgs. 184-186)

How do you deal with a fluid attack that drags your defenders around into a confused mess? Get a better, more disciplined defence and draw the opposition onto yourself, then hit them on the counter while they're exposed. Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan were the masters of this technique, and the style has gone down in history: Catenaccio (door-bolt).

What people most remember about this style is that one of the defensive midfielders is moved behind the defensive line - a sweeper to clean up whatever gets through the first net. The system is best remembered as being sublimely negative, but there were impressive attacking elements too - it features, perhaps for the first time, an attacking fullback, who overlapped on the left as the left winger cut inside. The wide players provided an outlet for the defence, which enabled the side employing Catanaccio to move the ball forward whenever they broke down an opposing attack.

1966 England (pgs. 148-149)

As we all know, 1966 was England's great triumph, the first and only time they've lifted the World Cup. What's less widely known is the novel tactical approach used by Sir Alf Ramsey in reaching the finals and beating West Germany. Given a 4-2-4, he tore the wings off and added extra midfielders instead, packing the side with players who could help on both attack and defence. The English, who played a system not so very far from a 4-4-2 diamond, refused to accept the luxury of having wide players who stood around and did nothing while the team was on the back foot.

This is the first formation that we see that's really recognisable as a modern system. A back four, a central defensive midfielder, three central midfielders, and a front two. England were solid in defence and penetrative enough in attack. The four-man back line nullified opposition wingers and the packed midfield gave the team a huge advantage in the middle of the pitch, which left at least one of the midfielders able to firefight wherever they were needed. Oh, and check this out - spread the second line of midfielders out. Voila! You have 4-4-2.

Total Football (pgs. 224-227)

What do you do when you have more skillful players than positions that require them? Let everyone play anywhere and everywhere. That's the idea behind Total Football. Every player in the system is capable of playing anywhere else in the system, and the idea of a completely interchangeable team drove the opposition berserk. The chaos Hungary imposed on England in 1953 was re-invented in a 4-3-3 where any one player could move out of their position and be replaced by another. If defenders followed, a Dutch player exploited the space, and if they didn't, their mark exploited that space.

There was also by now enough conditioning in football for the team to instantly switch from attack to defence - or, more aptly, attack to attacking defence. There was no time off for the opponents of this side. Whenever they had the ball, they were hounded back and forth until possession was once again coughed up. The high line and offside trap was also introduced and systemised, adding a further element to this new, more aggressive defence. There was an intense manipulation of space in both attack and defence that allowed the Dutch to thrive, reaching two World Cup finals in a row in the 1970s.

What I find most interesting about total football is how it represents a beautiful dead-end. Given enough opportunities, a generalist will lose out at a specific role to a specialist - it's the nature of the distribution of human talent, sporting and otherwise. Certain roles on the pitch favour certain skill and certain styles of play, and as the game brings more and more players into the fold, we see certain players very good at certain elements of the game arise - and the generalist, who might be a better all-rounder, is powerless to stop them. You need the very best generalists in the world to deal with a team of complementary specialists, and those players are generational talents. Thus fell Total Football.

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