Queen Elizabeth presents England captain Bobby Moore with the World Cup trophy in 1966National Media Museum / Flickr (Licensed under CC)

Over the Easter vacation I read Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid, a History of Football Tactics. I know right, what a social life this guy has. Viewed by many as the Rosetta stone of football tactics, and actually used in the UEFA coaching badges course, it’s an unapologetically niche deep dive into the history and current state of football around the world. While there’s very little editorialising from Wilson in the book, reading it did leave me with some lasting impressions on how we discuss football in the modern era.

One thing that’s clear is how reductive formation is as a tool to talk about tactics. Heat maps or average position markers after a game, for instance, very rarely resemble the team sheet a side sends out. Wilson charts this trend back almost a century, starting with the great Hungarian team of the 50s, who refused to stay in a rigid attacking pattern and hence bamboozled the English defence. It has become even more pronounced in the modern game as teams regularly deploy different shapes in and out of possession. A great example of this is Nagelsmann’s Bayern Munich, who switch from a 3-4-3 in possession to a 4-2-3-1 out of possession fluidly. This duality of system allows Alphonso Davies to push higher and get at teams more with great effect, and subtleties like this are totally missed by our obsession with formation.

“Early attempts to pass the ball were viewed not just as a less efficient way to attack, but unsportsmanlike and morally wrong”

It’s also repeatedly brought up how players can play wildly differently in nominally the same roles. In a 1966 World Cup meeting between England and Argentina, both sides lined up with a theoretically identical 4-1-2-1-2, yet the more defensive nature of Nobby Stiles’s positioning, as well as the wider position taken up by Alan Ball, allowed the eventual tournament winners to control the game and come out on top. The best modern example of these sorts of tweaks within a formation is probably Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, who line up nominally in a 4-3-3, but with Bukayo Saka (playing on the right) as the furthest forward player, with Martinelli and Lacazette deeper. This lopsided attack is supplemented by the central midfielder Martin Ødegaard playing much further forward and much further to the right, almost a counterpart to Martinelli. With Saka dragging his full back high and wide, there’s plenty of space for Ødegaard to operate in, proving integral to a high proportion of Arsenal’s attacks.

“It is fascinating how in our increasingly homogenised and globalised world, football is still able to provide such a rich variety of styles, philosophies and cultures”

There’s a real lack of willingness in English football to discuss details such as this. Discourse is instead dominated by ex-Manchester United players insisting that if only Scott Mctominay wanted it more, he might magically turn into a prime Patrick Viera. Where Wilson’s book really shines, as well as amusing anecdotes of various ecclesiastical figures down the years, is through the links he is able to draw from the foundation of football in a country, and how that still affects the culture surrounding it today. This might explain trends like English media’s disregard for complex tactics over digestible and viral morsels like arguing about VAR. In the early days of football in England, for instance, the sport was seen as a test of moral fibre and players were expected to run at defences no matter what; early attempts to pass the ball were viewed not just as a less efficient way to attack, but unsportsmanlike and morally wrong. While we’ve moved past that stage, it’s hard not to see at least echoes of that attitude in English football culture, made even starker by such a globally oriented book. In one remarkable anecdote, Wilson recounts a pub outing between journalists at the 2006 World Cup, in which a debate emerged about how best Sven Goren Eriksen could play Gerrard and Lampard in the same team. One English journalist slammed the table and exclaimed “oh what does it matter, they’re all on the pitch, who cares where they play”, a statement that caused an Argentinian journalist to almost keel over out of shock. Not only does this represent a reasonable proportion of the English populace, but it’s also alarming that senior football correspondents are peddling this worldview to their readers.

These links are fantastically threaded through the book, be it the birth of individualistic Brazilian football, or the cautious, win at all costs, Catenaccio of Italian football, still on full display at the Euros last year. It is fascinating how in our increasingly homogenised and globalised world, football is still able to provide such a rich variety of styles, philosophies and cultures.


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In all honesty, the book is not a page-turner. It does read more like a genuine history book, about football, rather than a footballing book. Perhaps some of the best moments are in the less dense introduction and afterword, where Wilson is more free to riff on various conclusions as we’re so used to seeing him do in his genuinely excellent and ground-breaking articles. It’s also not totally what I expected - while the book purports to be about tactics, it’s more about the development of football around the world than merely explaining how to counter-press properly. That’s not a criticism; tales of Celtic’s Lisbon Lions or the introduction of Total Football are brilliant if you’re a bit of a nerd like me. Ultimately it is still a book that helps you understand the game you love a bit more, and makes you excited to see what tweaks managers are going to start making next. After all, as Wilson writes, many have heralded the end of history, but none have ever been right.