Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Out of Shape: Football Teams No Longer Turn Up at an International Tournament and Trounce the Opposition with a Daring New Formation. When, and Why, Did the Game Lose Its Tactical Innovation?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Out of Shape: Football Teams No Longer Turn Up at an International Tournament and Trounce the Opposition with a Daring New Formation. When, and Why, Did the Game Lose Its Tactical Innovation?

Article excerpt

When Hungary came to Wembley in 1953, England had no idea what to expect. They knew Ferenc Puslas's side were Olympic champions, unbeaten in three years, but they had little idea of how they played. That was partly because that sort of thing tended not to interest British football then--the notion of tactics still being scorned by many as pseudo-intellectualism that would collapse in the face of British pluck and partly because the technology didn't exist to allow coaches to pore over videos of previous games. England lined up in the W-M (or 3-2-2-3) formation that had been the default for zs years or so but Hungary did something shocking (at least to those who hadn't seen them play in the previous three years): they pulled the centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti back into a playmaking role at the front of the midfield.

From that unfamiliar, undefended space, Hidegkuti picked England apart. He scored a hat-trick, making late, unchecked runs, and was the centre of a whirl of passing and movement that left England bewildered. "What do I do, Billy?" Harry Johnston, England's central defender, asked his captain, Billy Wright. "I don't know, Harry," Wright replied. "I don't know." Follow his man and he left a space in the defensive line; stay back and Hidegkuti had space to run the game. England were extremely fortunate to lose only 6-3, their first defeat to Continental opposition on home soil.

International tournaments used regularly to throw up such scenarios. World Cups served not merely as competitions but as conferences for the exchange of ideas. For a time, World Cups were won by countries that best executed a new way of playing the game, taking on ideas current in their club football and presenting them to a new audience.

Brazil won in 1958, for instance, not just because of the ability of Dida and a 17-year-old Fele but also because they employed a 4-2-4 system that liberated the fullbacks--Nikon and Djalma Santos--to attack, creating an unanticipated point of assault. That 4-2-4, though, had become increasingly familiar in Brazilian club football since the Paraguayan coach Fleitas Solich had used it to win three successive Rio state championships with Flamengo between 1951 and 1953. (Arguments still rage in Brazil over who actually "invented" the system: while it clearly evolved from the ideas brought to Flamengo by Dori Kurschner, who fled anti-Semitism in Hungary in 1937, and was developed by his successor, Flivio Costa, the man who first self-consciously fielded a 4-2-4 seems to have been Martini Francisco at Vila Nova, a small side from Nova Lima near Belo Horizonte).

By 1962, as the rest of the world came round to the benefits of a back four, Brazil had evolved, pulling a winger back to make a 4-3-3, giving them an extra man in midfield and allowing them to dominate possession. Four years later, England won the World Cup by doing away with wingers altogether, a 4-4-2, giving them control of midfield. In 1974, came the Dutch and "Total Football", the first great embodiment of systematised football. They didn't win the World Cup but it was their rigorous pressing, high offside line and regular interchange of positions that caught the global imagination.

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That was probably the last great innovation to come to the world's attention at a World Cup (and even then it was familiar to anybody who had watched Ajax, whose players formed the bulk of the Netherlands side, winning the European Cup three times in a row between 1971 and 1973). To an extent, that's because these days we know more. Even without internet--streaming or bespoke satellite dishes, it's possible in Britain to watch league football from England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Argentina, Brazil and the US. Unless North Korea suddenly do something extraordinary, it's just not--possible for a team to stun the world with an entirely new incarnation of football--and even North Korea would become familiar through Asian World Cup qualifying. …

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