Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - The WM

The WM

One of the sharpest tactical practices of the early 20th century was the creation and perfection of the offside trap. With three players needed to be between the goal and the opponent (as opposed to two in the modern game), it was very easy with the pyramid system to catch attackers offside. The first team to realise this was Notts County whose defenders Montgomery and Morley would use the trap to prevent opposing attacks. The masters of the trap though were Newcastle, with Bill McCracken and Frank Hudspeth as full-backs.

The result of the offside trap was a decease in the number of goals, and to remedy this the International Football Association Board (IFAB) took action. In 1925 they made the change to the modern offside law under which only two players (including the goalkeeper) need to be between a player and the goal for a player to be onside. Not only did this make it harder for a team to catch players offside as it needed greater coordination of the defensive line, it also made it much more risky as a failed attempt would see an attacker clear in on goal.

In the years after the change the number of goals rocketed. In the 1926-7 season George Camsell of Middlesbrough scored 59 goals in the league in just 37 games, the next season Dixie Dean scored 60 league goals in 39 games. Clearly the actions of the IFAB worked, but for coaches it presented a new problem: how to stop the opposition scoring.

Herbert Chapman was the greatest manager of his day. At Huddersfield he had created a team which would win 3 league titles in a row, with a system which seemed to run counter to all footballing orthodoxies. In the past the league’s best teams had been those who enjoyed the majority of possession and made this pressure count by converting it into goals. Chapman turned this thinking on its head and became the first manager to use counter-attacking as a genuine strategy rather than a mere response.
Chapman’s Huddersfield would defend deep and then launch quick counter attacks, before their opponents could reorganise their own defence.

In 1925 Chapman accepted the chance to move south and manage an Arsenal team who were less than successful at the time. In exchange for leaving the best team in the country Chapman requested full control of the team and warned chairman Henry Norris that he would not win anything for 5 years. Chapman’s pedigree forced the normally overbearing Norris to agree, and there began the beginnings of Arsenal’s success.

Chapman’s first signing at Arsenal was the great Sunderland inside-forward Charlie Buchan, a man who himself had a definite opinion on the impact of the new offside Law. What Buchan realised was that to combat the new Law it would be necessary to move the centre-half into defence and slot him between the two fullbacks. This new centre-back would provide much greater cover for the full-backs and give the team a stronger base from which to build. If Chapman was to continue his counter attacking policy it would be necessary to have a strong defence on which to base it.

The WM system though did not see just one radical change, but two. In order to make up for the loss of creativity suffered by the withdrawal of the centre-half, it was necessary to force one of the inside-forwards deeper to link the play between defence and attack. Buchan himself was too valuable a goalscorer to allow to play in such a deep position, so at first Chapman tried Andy Neil in the role with significant success. It was in 1928 though and with the arrival of Alex James from Preston that the withdrawn inside-forward really came alive.

Arsenal (below) v. Huddersfield, 1930

By 1930 the system was fully evolved, and it marked some radical changes for each position. With the arrival of the centre-back he was now charged with marking the opposing centre-forward, the full-backs now marked the opposing wingers, while the wing-halves would mark the inside forwards. For Arsenal, both inside-forwards were now playing in deep positions as David Jack arrived to play alongside Alex James.

The results were remarkable, as Arsenal won 3 titles in a row (though Chapman died suddenly mid-way through the second season) and dominated English football in the 1960s. As he had at Huddersfield, Chapman relied on counter-attack and made special use of his wingers, Joe Hulme and Cliff Bastin who were expected to score plenty of goals in contrast to the majority of wingers in the league.

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