Monday, April 12, 2021

Inverting The Pyramid- The Incredible Evolution Of Football Tactics

“In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without any form. Then came the Victorians who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analysed it. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognized or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgment that the arrangements of players on the pitch made a significant difference to way the game was played. in its earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication.” – Jonathan Wilson (Inverting the Pyramid)

In the early days, football formations had completely different shapes to the ones we know today. When all out attack was the order of the day and ultra attacking formations like 2-2-6 or even 1-2-7 were preferred. Lets take a look at the different stages of advancements and progression in the footballing formations to make you realize and wonder how far we have come.

  • Preston North End- The Original Invincibles

The Double Winning Preston team of 1888-89
The Double Winning Preston team of 1888-89

Did you know that Preston North End became the first and the only football team to go an entire season unbeaten in both League and FA Cup in 1888-89?

It was during the inaugural league season under head coach William Sudell that the team from Lancashire won the league with 18 wins, 4 draws and 0 losses out of the 22 games they played. This was accompanied with a stunning run in the FA Cup where they won all five of their games without conceding a single goal.

They also defeated Hyde with a scoreline of 26-0 in the first round of FA Cup with Preston forward Jimmy Ross scoring 8 goals in the game.

Interestingly enough, they deployed a rather unusual 2-3-5 formation as shown below. The Centre-Half had all the running to do, shifting from midfield to defense and the other way around as per the situational demands. In this way, William Sudell had the classic Centre-Half acting as a pivot between the defense and attack.

  • Herbert Chapman- The Man who made Arsenal

Herbert Chapman

With football evolving into the 1920s and a change in the existing offside rule where you now only needed two instead of three players between the attacker and the goal when the ball is played, it became a lot more easier for teams to score goals.

To combat this, Herbert Chapman came up with the W&M formation with the team starting out with a 2-3-5 formation. The third defender accommodated as a fullback from the midfield and two of the five forwards falling back in the pyramid to make it 3-2-2-3 making a W in the defense and an M in offense as illustrated below.

The result was an incredible 5 League triumphs over a span of 8 years in charge as the North London club made their name immortal in footballing folklore.

  • Hungary National team- Gustav Sebes, Ferenc Puskas and The Miracle of Bern

The Hungary National team of 1954 will go down as perhaps the greatest team to have not lifted the world club, much to the surprise, agony and astonishment of football fanatics across the globe. Head Coach Gustav Sebes developed his team into a striking example success through sheer innovation during the build up to the 1954 World Cup.

Deploying an increasingly attacking formation with a high number of forwards, Hungary infamously humiliated England by beating them 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 prior to the World Cup. They went on to beat West Germany by 8 goals to 3 in their Group fixture. They also handed a defeat to the mighty Brazilian team by 4 goals to 2 and inflicted first ever defeat on the Uruguay team in World Cups to book a place against the West German outfit in the finals.

Gustav Sebes played 3-2-1-4 formation with the four forwards shrewdly interchanging their positions (illustrated below) during the game to bombard their opponents with goals galore.

The Hungarians were heavy favorites to repeat the mauling handed over to the German team in the group stage albeit the great Ferenc Puskas starting the game carrying an injury. Two goals ahead in under ten minutes and the final looked over already, only to be defied and denied by the resilient West German fightback as they went on to come back and win the fixture by 3 goals to 2, crashing all the hopes of Hungary lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy what came to be known as “The Miracle of Bern” (German: Das Wunder von Bern).

  • Ginga Style and Beyond- The Golden Age of Brazilian Futbol

Pelé or the Black Pearl is arguably the greatest football player to have walked on this planet and is often associated with the golden era enjoyed by Brazil which saw the South American outfit lift the Jules Rimet Trophy on 3 separate occasions (1958, 1962, 1970) in the span of 12 odd years.

The secret of their success relies not only over the genius of Pele, but the introduction and implementation of the 4-2-4 formation that involved an increasingly innovative use of attacking fullbacks (Djalma Santos and Nilton Santos) that provided magicians like Garrincha Mané and Vavá with plenty of freedom up front, simultaneously adding solidarity at the back. (See illustration below)

It took until the start of 1970s for the rest of the world to come up with an antidote to counter the Brazilian footballing prowess and it had to be a classic breakthrough.

  • Emergence of Dutch National team- Johan Cruyff, Total Football and the legacy that lives on

It was Johan Cruyff along with his Head Coach Rinus Michels who developed the spectacular concept of Total Football in the early seventies with the Holland National team that went on to reach two World Cup Finals and famously lost both of them to West Germany (1974) and Argentina (1978).

The beautiful concept was then worked upon and perfected at club level by the man himself, achieving unmatched success with 3 successive European Cups with Ajax (1971,1972,1973) and later won Barcelona their maiden European Cup in 1992.

Total Football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is roughly the 4-3-3 formation wherein any player could play any position so long as the team’s overall shape was maintained.

In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can successively play as an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player who must stay in a specified position is the goalkeeper. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them.

An illustration of the 4-3-3 Dutch Lineup in the 1974 World Cup Finals is shown below. Watch how Cruyff himself is playing the role of centre-forward alongside the wide forwards, forming a diamond in the midfield courtesy sheer mobility and flexibility in the formation.

Fun Fact: Cruyff’s mother was a cleaner at Ajax and persuaded the club to take her 12-year-old son into their youth system. And rest as they say..

  • The Fabled Italian Defense- Catenaccio, Zona Mista, The libero and The regista


Group C in the second round of the 1982 World Cup was the definitive Group of Death. It contained just three teams: Argentina, the reigning world champions; Brazil, the country that had won the World Cup most often; and Italy, who would win their third World Cup that summer.

In one of the most remarkable turn of events, Italy went past Argentina (2-1) and Brazil (3-2) to book a place for themselves in the Semi Finals of the tournament and finally went on to lift the coveted FIFA World Cup for the third time and first time since 1938.

It was in this World Cup that the Italians deployed the catenaccio or The Door Bolt style of play which can be roughly translated into a 1-3-3-3 formation with Head Coach Bearzot believing in the basic principle that “You cannot lose if you don’t concede”.

He deployed Gaetano Scirea as a deep lying purely defensive sweeper (libero) who would replicate the heights achieved by Bobby Moore (for England) and Franz Beckenbauer (Germany). The libero would transform into a playmaking midfielder as soon as his team had the ball possession on the attack. (See Illustration below)

Regarded as the tactical evolution of catenaccio, zona mista (see illustration below) requires each outfield player to perform, systematically and simultaneously, the zonal marking and continuous attack on the spaces characteristic of totaalvoetbal, but also engaging in the defensive individual marking characteristic of Italian football.

Several players, such as the libero, the wing-back (terzino fluidificante), the winger (ala tornante) and the box-to-box midfielder (mezzala) simultaneously played roles in both defense and attack, while the playmaker (regista) (e.g. Michel Platini (France), Lothar Matthäus (Germany) or Roberto Baggio (Italy) regularly made runs to the opponents’ box to try and score.


  • Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona- The False Nine, Tiki-Taka and Death by Possession

Pep’s Barcelona started out playing the 4-3-3 which was always fluent. They often played without any traditional striker with the game predominantly built on sheer hard work, high intensity pressing and relentless passing that later came to be known as the Tiki-Taka.

Pep Guardiola’s Catalan team believed that attack is the best form of defense with emphasis laid upon having majority of the possession, thereby limiting the opponents’ chance to score. They went on to enjoy unprecedented success by winning 14 of the 19 competitions in which they featured with the Spanish National team also chipping in with a couple of Euros (2008,2012) and The FIFA World Cup 2010.

In an interesting anecdote shared by Pep himself in his book Pep Confidential, it was revealed that having watched a video analysis of a previous El Clasico, Pep noticed how much pressure Real’s midfielders Guti, Fernando Gago and Royston Drenthe put on his own players, Xavi and Yaya Touré. He also noticed the tendency of the central defenders, Cannavaro and Metzelder, to hang back near Iker Casillas’ goalmouth. This left a vast expanse of space (The Messi Zone) between them and the Madrid midfielders. He sat in that dimly lit room (on the night before the El Clasico) imagining Messi moving freely across that enormous empty space in the Bernabéu.


His instruction for the 21 year old winger was, “Tomorrow in Madrid I want you to start on the wing as usual, but the minute I give you a sign I want you to move away from the midfielders and into the space I just showed you. The minute Xavi or Andrés Iniesta break between the lines and give you the ball I want you to head straight for Casillas’ goal.”

Just minutes before kick-off, Guardiola took Xavi and Iniesta to one side and told them, “When you see Leo in the space between the lines down the middle, don’t hesitate. Give him the ball. Like we did in Gijón.” That day in May 2009, the strategy worked perfectly and Barça destroyed Real Madrid, winning the game 6-2 with Messi scoring twice and Xavi going back home with 4 assists to his name.

Messi had become a false 9 and the rest they say is history.



Honorable Mentions:

  • Jurgen Klopp’s Heavy Metal Football at Borussia Dortmund.
  • Jupp Heynckes’ Balanced approach at Bayern Munich.
  • Ancelotti’s thrilling counter attacking play at Real Madrid
  • Barcelona’s resurgence under Luis Enrique playing more direct and utilizing the attacking prowess of Messi-Suarez-Neymar.

Thank you for reading, please feel free to comment below and tell me how you imagine the formations will evolve in future. Cheers!



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