Inverting the Pyramid

Week 47.  Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics.  2013.

Back in 2008, Harry Redknapp had just inherited the reigns as coach of my beloved Tottenham Hotspur.  At the time, Spurs were languishing at the bottom of the English Premier League and in serious risk of being relegated at the end of the season.  (For the uninitiated, in English soccer, the bottom three teams of each division are at the end of the season dropped down to the division below, while three teams move up to take their place.  It would be like the worst three teams in Major League Baseball dropping to AAA.  For reasons of both pride and finances, it is a devastating blow to be relegated and adds a fantastic drama to the season.)  Redknapp is a wonderful personality who makes for great media fodder.  Born in London’s tough East End and with the lingering Cockney accent (and allegations of corruption) to boot, he is a former player, adored by journalists for his ability to quip one-liners, and known as an excellent man manager who gets the most out of his players.  He is not, however, known for his tactical acumen.  In his second game in charge of Spurs, in a quote that would fill the English sports tabloid journalists with utter glee, Redknapp’s pre-game instructions to Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko were to—wait for it—“fucking run around a bit.”  Kind of like a baseball coach telling his struggling hitter to “just swing hard” without much concern about how he holds the bat, his motion, the kind of pitches he swings at, etc.

Nevertheless, for a while, it worked.  Spurs soared up the Premier League standings, finishing that season in 8th place.  The year after, Redknapp led the team to a record-high 4th place finish and a coveted spot in the Champions League, an annual tournament for the top teams from across Europe.  The year after that, the 2010-2011 season, Spurs swashbuckled their way in fairytale/underdog fashion with fun, attacking soccer to the Champions League quarterfinals before losing to Spanish giant Real Madrid.

Despite the massive success, there was always a sense that Redknapp was a short-term solution, and that the Spurs’ hierarchy wanted someone younger, more forward-minded in his thinking about the game.  There was also a nagging belief that being a good motivator and a “player’s coach,” as Redknapp was, had its limitations, and that true, long-term success in the game necessitated a careful eye to creating a system of play, acquiring players who fit that system, and doing so in a financially viable fashion.  In 2012, when Redknapp was brought up on charges of tax evasion and Spurs went on a slump in their play, the writing was on the wall: he was released at the end of the season.

In Redknapp’s place, Spurs brought in Andre Villas-Boas.  The comparison between Villas-Boas and Redknapp could not have been starker.  Redknapp is English, a former player, has working-class roots, and is in his mid-60s.  Villas-Boas is Portuguese, in his mid-30s, born to an aristocratic family, and never played the game of soccer professionally.  Rather, his meteoric rise to the very heights of soccer coaching started when, as a spunky teenager living in Portugal, he would stuff the mailbox of legendary English soccer coach Sir Bobby Robson (then coaching Portuguese powerhouse FC Porto) with thoughts on proper team formations.  Robson took notice, and took Villas-Boas under his wing, guiding him through the early stages of earning his coaching badges.  From there, Villas-Boas apprenticed for Jose Mourinho, arguably today’s most successful active coach, following Mourinho for spells at noted clubs Porto, Chelsea, and Inter Milan.  In 2010 he branched out on his own and, solidifying his wunderkind status, led Porto to the Portuguese title and the European championship that same year.  After a brief but unsuccessful stint of his own at Chelsea in 2011, Spurs brought him on for a shot at redemption in 2012.  He was 34 years old.

Harry Redknapp was known for an intrinsic feel for the game, relying on his own instincts as a player and a fervent desire to not overcomplicate matters; in other words, just put your best players on the field and let professional athletes do their jobs.  Andre Villas-Boas (AVB), on the other hand, is known for an intense amount of preparation leading up to a game, including notorious Power Points presentations outlining how to break down an opponent and a rigid formation he expects his players to adhere to.  Over the past two years, he has sold most all Redknapp’s favorite players—almost all of them the quintessential English players known primarily for strength and speed—and brought in a host of young foreign flair.   In two years, it’s a wholly new team and system.

***

The Redknapp-AVB divide perfectly epitomizes the Old and New schools of how to understand the game of soccer.  Take ESPN’s write-up on AVB’s managerial philosophy: “Almost obsessed with tactics, he holds special 30-minute tactical teach-ins the day after every match—plus sessions after each training stint.”  Now compare that to this quote from Dutch midfielder Rafa Van der Vaart comparing his time under Redknapp to that under AVB’s mentor Mourinho at Real Madrid:

It feels like I’m back on the street. There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid. There is a clipboard in our dressing room but Harry doesn’t write anything on it! It’s very relaxed. The gaffer gives us the line-up 20 minutes before we go out to do our warm-up. And the only words he speaks to me are, ‘You play left or right, work hard, have fun and show the fans your best.’  Then the defenders get an instruction about who to mark at corners and free-kicks—and that’s it.

At the heart of the Redknapp-AVB divide is a belief in the role tactics play in the game of soccer.  “When, in 2005, I wrote the article” British journalist Jonathan Wilson writes “that would lead to the thoughts that led to the pitch that led to Inverting the Pyramid, tactics were on the periphery of British soccer coverage.  Eight years later, as I write this, they have moved to the mainstream…Inverting the Pyramid has been part of that movement.  It didn’t, as some have suggested, cause it; rather the book caught a wave that was rising anyway and perhaps helped provide a historical context for those with an interest in analyzing what they were watching.”

Wilson’s humble explanation for Inverting the Pyramid downplays the book’s true import.  It is one of the most significant books—certainly about soccer tactics, but also about the history of the game in general—currently in print.  Studying soccer tactics—the formation, structure, and playing style of the players on the field—is relatively new in mass popularity and subject to inherit limitations in comparison to other sports.  Unlike baseball, there isn’t quite the wealth of data available to make rational decisions.  And unlike football, the ball is constantly in play, without unlimited substitutions and thick playbooks for every possible scenario.  If American football is like a carefully planned state-run economy, soccer is the free-flowing world of capitalism.

And yet within that free-flowing nature, the most brilliant soccer strategists have found ways to line-up and instruct their players to maximize their usefulness, create scoring opportunities, and frustrate opponents.  Undergirding this is a set of core beliefs: one, that space matters and the best teams can exploit the field to their advantage, and two, that what players do off the ball is as important as what happens when a player has the ball.

As simple as this sounds, if Wilson’s account is reliable, soccer has long been adverse to major tactical changes.  This is especially true in England, long-hampered by notions of the “correct” way to play the game that leaned on what Wilson derisively calls “physicality, and courage, and pride—all these ludicrous English terms.”  It might just be a bit of characteristic English self-defeatism, but Inverting the Pyramid could be subtitled “How England Is Constantly Behind the Times.”   Most of the great tactical revolutions have come, Wilson argues, from somewhat isolated visionaries—often from South America or the continent; England, the inventor of the game of soccer, is left to mourn its dying empire.

First, a bit of basics: a soccer formation presents the field players (everyone but the keeper) in reverse order from defense to midfield to forwards.  So the popular 4-4-2 is 4 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 2 forwards.  A 4-3-3 would be 4 defenders, 3 midfielders, 3 forwards.   A 4-2-3-1 would be 4 defenders, 2 “holding” midfielders typically more defensive in mindset, 3 more attacking midfielders, and a sole forward.  And so on.  Of course, even within these basic formations players can be instructed to operate in certain ways based on the coach’s desires or the player’s own dispositions.   For example, traditional wingers (the outside midfielders) in the 4-4-2 played on their dominant side—left-footed players on the left side, right-footed on the right—and were told to race down the field and whip crosses into the box for the 2 forwards to try to score.  More recently, the fad has been “inverted wingers” whereby a left footed player operates on the right side, and vice versa, and instead of crossing the ball tends to cut in so he can shoot off his dominant foot.  As with any system, there are pros and cons to either approach.  The classic wingers give the field a lot of width, but don’t usually score; the inverted wingers crowd the middle of the field by constantly cutting in but offer more of a goal-scoring threat.  The trick, with anything, was setting up the proper system, finding players to fit that, and adjusting as necessary as injuries, a tricky opponent, or circumstance dictated.

In the late 1800s, as the rules of the game were being codified in Oxford and London and soccer separated from rugby (including the 1865 debate that outlawed the use of hands), the “correct” line-up in England was to a 2-3-5—that is, a mere 2 defenders and 5 forwards.  The game relied on speed and strength and an excessive use of dribbling; the team’s best player, usually the center forward, would try to dribble past the entire opposition almost literally by himself.   The first great innovation was in Scotland, at a team called Queen’s Park, who had the startling insight that by passing the ball, a team could exploit space more easily than dribbling.  The English press was aghast—it conflicted with their notion of the right way to play, and not for the first time.  Later, when London club Arsenal started the next great revolution, the more defensive WM formation, in the 1920s by dropping 2 of the front 5 forwards and 1 of the central midfielders deeper, the same outcry occurred.  The set-up was too “negative,” the press declared; one journalist accused Arsenal’s coach Herbert Chapman of acting as “a great spoiler” and the English Football Association, the sport’s governing body, censuring Chapman for his insights.  Myriad innovations and tweaks later, combined with the general increase in athleticism of modern players, made line-ups typically more defensive still—usually involving at least four players in defense via popular combinations like 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, and 4-3-3.  The “pyramid,” or how the players looked lined up on the field, had been inverted—as the two teams on the cover of Wilson’s book makes clear.

I didn’t know much about these developments.  I was familiar with bits and pieces—the Dutch Total Football in the 1970s, for example, and modern-day Barcelona—but knew almost nothing about the development of the game in Brazil, Argentina, and Eastern Europe.  I knew about Johan Cruyff the player, but underestimated his staggering influence as a coach.  I had heard about tiki-taka, but didn’t know about the catenaccio, the libero, the regista, or the trequartista.  As such, the book would likely be a bit too heady for the casual fan and better served for someone with more background knowledge and interest in soccer strategy.  But as a primer for the evolution of the game, it is superb.

And prescient.  Ultimately, tactics have held sway.  Despite their wonderful soccer, when Redknapp’s Spurs ran up against a truly world-class opponent in Real Madrid in the Champions League, they were crushed 5-0 over two games with the feeling that Redknapp had no idea how to stop the bleeding.  Today there are more AVBs than there are Redknapps; Redknapp himself, long considered a shoe-in to coach the England national team, was overlooked in favor of the brainy Roy Hodgson (who features in Inverting the Pyramid).  Similarly, Germany’s national team coach, Jogi Low, was the tactical genius behind Germany’s consecutive semifinal World Cup appearances in 2006 and 2010.  Winners of the last eight Champions League finals have all been coached by system-minded managers with a set tactical framework (with the possible exception of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United).  One freelance journalist, Michael Cox, was so successful with his blog on tactics that his services and insights were bought, at a premium, by ESPN and The Guardian in England to educate the masses.  Debates over line-up and formations rage on blogs and in the studios of major press broadcasting the games.   The science of the sport has trickled down to advances in training techniques, nutrition, and medicine—all with an eye to getting a slight edge over the opposition.

Have we reached saturation?  After-all, there are only so many different formations a team can reasonably play in.  Wilson seems to admit as much in the end of Inverting the Pyramid:  “Soccer is a mature game that has been examined and analyzed relentlessly for almost a century and a half, and, assuming the number of players remains constant at eleven, there probably is no revolution waiting to astonish the world.”  Perhaps this is true.  And at the end of the day, it seems likely that a mix of tactics and structure, on the one hand, and flexibility on the other is the right approach.  I think of my marathon training: in an attempt to keep running a hobby, I never wear a watch and do very few hard training runs; it’s okay if I miss a day for travel.  And yet I’ve likely reached the peak of what I can achieve without greater attention to my pace and more speed training.  Too much of that, though, risks both injury and mental burnout.  Again, it’s likely the hybrid approach is best—structure and flexibility, methodology and looseness, discipline and pure enjoyment.  The same is true of soccer.

Update: on December 16, Villas-Boas and Spurs parted “by mutual consent” in the wake of a 5-0 loss to Liverpool.  Despite some growing pains in the style of play, I think this was a massive mistake, and have spent the better part of the past two days lamenting its occurrence.  It also renders null just about everything I wrote above.  So much for the victory of tactics.

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One thought on “Inverting the Pyramid

  1. Pingback: Quarterly Musings, Vol. 4 | Take and Read

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