Book review: A very smart book, on a passionately entertaining subject

“Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics” by Jonathan Wilson

This is the fascinating long history of the Great Game, from the tactical perspectives and the philosophies that come with them.

The book began right from where it all started: the meeting organised by H.C. Malden of Godalming, Surrey, in his Cambridge rooms in 1848, which summons university representatives of Harrow, Eaton, Shrewsbury, Winchester, Rugby, and 2 non-public schoolboys, to create the first unified Laws of the Game, the “Cambridge Rules.” The rules then spread around the world in the next few decades via British men of various occupations, blended in with the local culture and create distinctively local style of play, until it became a truly global phenomenon in the 20th century.

The title of the book brilliantly captures this phenomenon, through the evolution of its formation from the pyramid-like shape 2-3-5 in the early days, to 3-2-5, 4-2-4, 4-4-2 to the inverted pyramid shape 4-5-1 and even 4-6-0 that several teams use today, complete with all the advantages-disadvantages, blank spots, and all the major incidents that colour the many transformations.

Within this long tactical evolution the author, Jonathan Wilson, demonstrates a very thorough research down to the smallest incidents on any match played, such as a big match in 1890 or 1953 when there weren’t even a television coverage. And he can describe the socio-cultural influences of every team thoughout history. For instance, the style of play of a football team is apparently largely influenced by the contemporary political system and economic condition, like in Italy and Spain in 1930s and Argentina in 1960s when they were under military dictatorship they played a tough, muscular, and pragmatic football.

The book also delightfully gives small trivial facts every now and then, such as the first man to be caught offside after the 1866 law change was Charles W. Alcock. Or how the father of modern football, Viktor Maslov, was the first to use 4-4-2 formation. Or that time Louis Van Gaal dropped his troussers in Bayern Munich’s dressing room, to literally show that he “has the balls” to drop star names.

As football evolves, so do the chapters in the book. And we’ll move forward from the likes of the day rugby separated itself from football to the most exciting part for me, the tactics that differentiates modern football from the old: pressing.

And this is where it really gets down to business. The book gives the technical explanations of a lot of matches and team set-up, a lot of which gives a whole new angle on the matches we thought we knew when we watch them. Such as how Greece can (deservedly) won Euro 2004, by controling matches without even controling the ball. Why Sergio Busquet was the most vital player in Guardiola’s Barcelona. And why Arrigo Sacchi had to instruct Carlo Anchelotti to train an hour early with the youth team to make sure his playmaker understands his specific tactics.

Jonathan Wilson declared right in the beginning that he loves Bielsa-esque style of play, with high speed passings and high pressure. And it shows. The discussion of modern football evolve mainly on the style of Bielsa, Sacchi and Cruyff and their descendants like Guardiola and Van Gaal, and not so much on the style applied, for example, by Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi, or Jose Mourinho, although their styles (and many more modern managers’ styles) are still analysed albeit not as thorough.

Just like when watching these fast-paced footballing style, reading the analysis of the tactics, in almost scientific approach, is just downright exhilarating. It gives a bright shining light on how the modern game is really constructed, and makes Marcelo Bielsa in particular – and his protégés – looks nothing short of a genius. A very enjoyable reading!

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