Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - The Danubian School

The Danubian School of Football

On the continent it took much longer for the significance of the changes to the off-side rule to be understood. While in England most clubs followed Chapman’s lead within a few years of his innovations, the majority of Europe remained married to the traditional pyramid formation. Ironically it was two of the continent’s greatest anglophiles who most resisted any move to the “third back” system.

Hugo Meisl of Austria was arguably the most significant figure in helping to develop continental football in the pre-WW2 era. Acting as a referee, and administrator and a coach his love for the game showed itself in a desire to be involved in every facet of its organisation. It was as the manager of the Austrian Wunderteam though that his impact was most keenly felt.

Football enjoyed a popularity in Austria in the 1920s which matched that of any nation outside the British Isles and under the guidance of Meisl they constructed a fantastic attacking team. Although they retained a broad allegiance to the classic 2-3-5 formation, their use of centre-forward Matthias Sindelaar in a slightly withdrawn position was extremely effective. Having destroyed Scotland 5-0 in Vienna (admittedly the Scots fielded a weakened team and were badly affected by injuries) they embarked on a string of results which shocked the rest of Europe. Such was the movement of the team (and in particular Sindelaar) that their system became known as the “Danubian whirl”. Indeed the progress of the game in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (all quarter-finalists at the 1934 World Cup) gave this school of football its name.

At the heart of the rise of the Danubian school was the influence of English coach Jimmy Hogan. Having left England he coached in Switzerland, Hungary, Holland, Germany and Austria and everywhere he went he instilled in his players the importance of passing and movement. His emphasis on technique was far more welcome on the continent than it was back in England, where the emphasis remained more on stamina and physicality than it did on prowess with the ball. By incorporating Hogan’s teachings, the Danubian school were able to make up for any physical weakness with superior skill.

Austria (below) v. England, 1932
The other great anglophile operating in Europe at the time was Vittorio Pozzo of Italy. Having lived in Manchester during his youth he was hugely impressed by the play of Charlie Roberts, Manchester United’s attacking centre-half. This had great influence on Pozzo’s footballing philosophy and he was never fully converted to the merits of the third back despite his great friendship with Herbert Chapman. Instead Pozzo looked for a compromise between the systems. Rather than playing with a genuine third back, Pozzo moved his centre-half deeper, but still had him play in front of the full-backs. In order to make up for the withdrawn centre-half, he moved his two inside forwards deeper so that rather than playing with a WM formation he effectively played a WW.

The success of this system was evident at the 1934 World Cup where Italy ended as champions, with Luis Monti, the naturalised Argentine, playing as the centre-half. Although numerous complaints could be made over Italy’s victory at home in 1934, there were few faults with their 1938 victory as Pozzo’s formation triumphed over the Danubian school.

The one place in Europe which was torn between the movement of the Wunderteam and the effectiveness of the WM was Germany. Schalke 04 were the dominant side in German football in the 1930s with a style that mimicked that of the Austrian Wunderteam. Their team was known as the “Spinning Top” on account of the constant movement of the players. As with the team managed by Meisl, the Schalke side’s greatest attribute was not what it did with the ball, but the movement of its player off it. Their greatest strength lay in finding space to receive possession, and then looking for a better placed teammate. Their coach, an Austrian named Gustav Wieser, based his team around two star players, Fritz Szepan and Ernst Kuzorra, but it was the understanding among all his players that led to such electrifying football being played.

Given their success domestically one might have expected the German national coach Otto Nerz to have modelled his own team on Schalke’s successful style. Instead he was a great advocate of the WM. Nerz saw the Spinning Top as a pretty style, that ultimately went nowhere. Chapman had shown in England that it was not necessary to have a lot of possession, but it was what you did with the ball when you had it that really counted. Not only did Nerz adopt the WM for the 1934 World Cup in Italy, he took the inconceivable step of playing Schalke’s greatest attacking star, Szepan, as the stopper centre-back! In fairness to Nerz the system proved highly successful for Germany, as they reached the semi-finals where they lost to Czechoslovakia, and then beat the Austrian Wunderteam 3-2 in the third-place play-off. 

No comments: