5 Greatest Tactical Innovations in Football History

5 Greatest Tactical Innovations in Football History

By Amogh Sahu

Tactics have always been a subject for football analysts to feast upon. Looking at the nuances of the beautiful game and the tactical  fumblings of football managers enchants many of us who watch.

Managers come and go, but some leave a lasting legacy, mostly based on success, but sometimes, a manager brings about a tactical revolution, which leads to a widespread assessment of how professional football is played.

1. Herbert Chapman’s W-M Counter-attacking style at Arsenal

In 1930, Arsenal manager and visionary Herbert Chapman won the FA Cup against his old club Huddersfield Town, 2-0. This was the crowning glory of Chapman’s reign, where he cemented his legacy in the history of Arsenal and football. He created a side that boasted the likes of Ted Drake, Alex James and Eddie Hapgood among others. His “Invincibles” were to be defeated by Wallsall, a lowly Third Division side costing only £69 in total.

Chapman is remembered more for his  tactical innovations than the great side he created. He introduced floodlights, physiotherapy and passing play as well as encouraging the creation of the first European competition. Chapman’s main invention however was the 3-2-2-3 formation, aptly named the W-M for the way players line up in a formation which spells out the two aforementioned letters. This was a variation on the 2-3-5 formation of the time, which entailed getting a player from the midfield to help the defence and pushing the inside left and inside right back to the area which we would now call attacking midfield.

To accomplish his ideal, Chapman bought Alex James from Preston North End and deployed him as a creative inside left. He then brought in David Jack from Bolton Wanderers to play alongside him. He already had Hulm and Cliff Bastin to use as wingers. He told his players to sit deep and allow them possession in the Arsenal half, but never let them make any headway. This was very effective against the style of play most English clubs favoured (the emphasis then being on dribbling and beating people and crossing, which Chapman’s counterattacking system did not allow to happen). After quickly dispossessing the opponent whilst they were still forward, his Arsenal side went up the pitch with pace and quick passing techniques. This was the first prototype of a counter-attcking system which was to be used thousands of times in the future and won more trophies that Chapman could ever have imagined – his greatest legacy.

2. Catenaccio and Herrera’s Inter

Catenaccio is a tactical system associated primarily with Argentinian tactician Helenio Herrara of Internazionale and Barcelona. However, it was first dreamed up by Swiss coach Karl Rappan, who called it the Verrou, referring to the Verouilleur, or sweeper, who played as the 1 in his 1-3-3-3 formation, in the 1940s and ’50s. Rappan’s Verrou was the modern 4-3-3, except one center-back played as a sweeper and one winger dropped off slightly to the wide attacking midfield role, making it sort of like a 4-4-2. The first true form of Catenaccio was in fact used by  then-Padova coach Nereo Rocco during the ’50s. The first display of Rocco’s Catenaccio was at Triestina in 1947, where he managed to get the club to second place playing Catenaccio.

Helenio Herrara came to Internazionale to find a team already equipped with great talents. Sandro Mazzola, their talisman, was a great creative midfield talent to rival Gianni Rivera from up the road. Giacinto Fachetti was a great attacking left-back, who pioneered this role, in fact. The tricky Brazilian winger Jair also formed part of this side. With him, Herrera brought Spanish midfield maestro Luis Suarez of Barcelona fame. He had formed La Grande Inter. With Jair as the winger in the front three who dropped off, Mazzola acting as an early type of support striker and Suarez marshaling the midfield, Herrara had his great system. He went on to win three Serie A titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental cups in his Inter tenure.

Herrara’s system drew attention. Now managers alll over the world were looking to counter it. In 1970, Inter reached the European Cup final again, this time facing Jock Stein’s Celtic, a team which had  wing wizards Tommy Gemmell and Jimmy Johnstone. This time, Catenaccio did not pay off. Although Mazzola converted a penalty which put Inter in the lead before half-time, Stein’s hitherto considered primitive provincial approach paid off as Gemmell equalised and Johnstone won it for Celtic. However, this was considered a freak result rather than a tactical victory.

But Herrera’s shrewd system was ripped to shreds by a new style that came along in 1971 …

3. Michels’ Total Football

Like many other tactical systems, this idea is not completely unique to Rinus Michels, the one who popularised it. A very early prototype of his idea originated from legendary English coach Jimmy Hogan.

This idea was taken up and developed by his protege, Hugo Meisl, who used it to develop his Wunderteam with Matthias Sindelar as the heartbeat of the side and Bican in attack. Another of Hogan’s pupils (and perhaps his most famous), the Hungarian Gustav Szebes, put this into practice as coach of the Hungarian “Mighty Magyars.”

The Magyar’s defeat of Hogan’s countrymen in 1953 at Wembley highlighted the power this system had and how variations and further development of it would bring about more such humiliations to opponents. The Hungarians’ off the ball movement, switching of positions and their trickery of passing left the opponent dumbfounded (Stan Cullis was at his prime then in England, so long-ball was still prevalent). England were beaten 5-3. Although Honved (containing many of the “Mighty Magyars”) were defeated by Wolves later in the year, the Magyars almost completely dominated their era, finishing runners up at the World Cup to underdogs Germany in 1954.

The Hungarian system was a 3-2-3-2, similar to the 5-3-2 system in use almost 40 years later. Szebes pioneered the use of the deep-lying forward with the star of his team, Ferenc Puskas, and introduced to the world the idea that players could play in more than one position. Also, most of the Hungarian players had played with each other from a young age (for Honved) and so they knew each other’s game perfectly. Sound familiar?

Following the ’60s (The Catenaccio decade), a new team came to the fore: Ajax. This side, coached by Rinus Michels, played a kind of football that had only been played by the Mighty Magyars before. However, Michels added discipline to the Total Football template and introduced the concept of a hard-working pressing game. He used a 4-3-3 formation at Ajax with Cruijff, like Puskas before him, the centre point of the side. With this side, he won three European Cups in a row as well as several domestic trophies.

In 1974, Michels took over the Dutch national side, where he molded his talents into a total football unit like his club and brought onto the world stage the idea of Total Football. With Cruyff as the talisman, Neeskens and Haan in midfield and Krol and Suurbier as the fullbacks, Holland entranced the world with their total football, only to lose to Germany in the final of the 1974 World Cup.

Michels’ protege Johan Cruyff then took up management and instituted Michels’ philosophy at Barcelona, his former club. He created the Dream Team, which in 1992 won the European Cup playing Total Football. It had Koeman in defence, Laudrup in midfield and Romario and Stoichkov in attack. His midfield water carrier was a young man called Josep Guardiola, who seemed destined for greatness on and off the pitch. But more on that later.

As for Michels: he took over the Dutch national reins again in 1988 and won the European Championships with Holland.

4. Guardiola’s Total Football

Josep Guardiola attained fame as a great defensive midfielder in Johan Cruyff’s “Dream Team,” composed mainly of Catalan/homegrown players who had played together for some time and were used to each others playing style. With this philosophy in mind, Guardiola took over Barcelona in 2008, replacing Dutch manager Frank Rijkaard.

Since the time of Cruyff, Barcelona had started working on the cantera vs. cartera philosophy (academy vs. wallet; a nod to Real Madrid’s spending sprees). They had invested heavily in La Masia, and since the days of Guardiola’s playing career, players like Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol replaced Ferrer, Bakero and Guardiola. They were all educated in the Cruyff philosophy, or, perhaps now better referred to as, the Barcelona philosophy.

Upon taking charge, Guardiola quickly noticed the strength of the La Masia academy and started to give homegrown players a chance, all the while dismantling Rijkaard’s side of  International stars. Soon, players like Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodriguez were in the first team. He integrated then rising star Lionel Messi into the team as well, all the while following the Cruijff template. He bought international talent as well, signing Daniel Alves from Sevilla and David Villa from Valencia.

His trophy cabinet now has two Champions Leagues and his team now regularly proclaimed as the best team ever to play football. This may be true, but tactically, he uses (mostly) the same Michels tactics which were brought to the fore by Ajax in the early 70s (allowing for today’s different rules, of course) but do so to such a high quality, otherwise-unmatched level. His team combines supreme technical quality with unwavering discipline; their pressing rivalling that of Ajax and their statistical dominance unparalleled.

This team is the culmination of Hogan’s vision all those years ago.

5. The 4-4-2

Last but not least comes the 4-4-2. The lingua franca of the football world. So common they even named a magazine after it. The simple system of four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers has been used by many teams all over the world and has been subject to many variations.

 Josh: Figured I would expand this last point a little as, although a little outdated now, the way Alf Ramsey created the most classically English formation by getting rid of the most classically English of players – the winger – is pretty genius. He made his England side more solid defensively by dropping the lazier dribblers in exchange for runners like Alan Ball, who Kenneth Wolstenholme described as “running himself daft” in the 1966 World Cup final, and fielding them in deeper positions. This also worked offensively as although they didn’t have the touch of the greats like Stanley Matthews, they could find more space deeper, which would allow them to build up speed running forward to take them past the full-backs to whip in their cross.

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5 thoughts on “5 Greatest Tactical Innovations in Football History

  1. The causes for these changes are just as important but not mentioned. For example, Chapman’s WM was brought about via 7-0 defeat at Newcastle. The train ride back to London Chapman and his captain, Charles Buchan debated the need for change. Plus the change in the offisde law from 3 to 2 players had a dramatic effect on the tactics of the day and was the “standard” way of playing for the next 40+ years.
    And what about Tele Santana’s 4-2-2-2

  2. That logic only applies to the Chapman philosophy, while Herrara and Hogan were ideological revolutionaries.

    Tele Santana’s 4-2-2-2, was just a further refinement of the 4-2-4 previously used by Brazil. see. Mario Zagallo.

    Referring back to Brazil’s football history, it came with the Diagonal, at Flamengo, introduced by the Hungarian, Dori Kruschner.

  3. Ferenc Puskas was not the main playmaker in the Hungariam W-W formation, it was Nandor Hidegkuti who dropped into midfield. And I believe you missed out on Lobanovskiy, who was the first to use technology in the game, and Arrigo Sacchi who brought on the modern game by reintroducing pressing as an integral part of the game. Almost every team presses now, whether it be 40 yards from goal or at the opposition’s penalty box.

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