Friday, 5 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - The Magical Magyars

The Magical Magyars

When England played Hungary at Wembley on 25 November 1953 football changed forever. Hyperbolic as that sounds it really is true. Until that date England had never before been beaten by Continental opposition on home turf. Yes, there had been defeats on foreign soil, starting with Spain in 1929, but they had always been avenged and at home England remained seemingly unbeatable. At the time Hungary were the Olympic champions and had not lost a game themselves in 3 years. That day they shattered forever the image of England, the game’s motherland, as an unstoppable force. 

At the heart of Hungary’s victory was unquestionably the quality of players, but of significant influence were the tactics employed by their coach Gustav Sebes. The tactics themselves were not new, but they were more than enough to bamboozle an England team high on energy and brute force but lacking in tactical awareness and innovation.

Hungary’s tactical revolution was begun not with the national team but at club level. Marton Bukovi, the manager of MTK, responded to the loss of his own powerhouse centre-forward, Norbert Hofling, by making a key tactical change. Lacking a player of the traditional type he instead moved wing-half Peter Palotas into the centre-forward role. Palotas was not a typical centre-forward, nor did he play like one. Palotas took Sindelaar’s withdrawn centre-forward role, and went even further. He now operated almost as an extra midfielder and provided another link between the defence and attack.

Such was Palotas’s success for MTK that Sebes naturally took on the innovation to the national team. At first Palotas himself was the man chosen for the role, and indeed played as centre-forward in the 1952 victory, but by the time that Hungary met England, his clubmate Nandor Hidegkuti was the man in possession.

England’s defence and in particular, their centre-back Harry Johnston, were absolutely baffled by the Hungarian innovation. The English were used to facing teams whose numbers reflected their position on the pitch. Yet Hidegkuti wore number 9, the traditional number of a centre-forward, and played essentially as an attacking midfielder. Johnston was thus unsure whether to stick in his position in central defence and mark nobody or follow Hidegkuti into midfield and leave a gap in the middle. He regularly found himself in no man’s land, neither protecting the defence nor close enough to limit Hidegkuti’s play and the Hungarians ran riot. Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis both enjoyed the space that Hidegkuti’s movement created and England were humbled on their own ground. Although the score ended 6-3 it could have been many more, and when England played a return game in Budapest the following year they were thrashed 7-1.

Hungary’s innovations though were not limited to the centre-forwards. As Hidegkuti dropped deep to join the midfield, so Hungary now had an extra man in the middle. Jozsef Bozsik was the chief playmaker of the Hungarian side and along side him sat Jozsef Zakarias as the left-half. With Hidegkuti added to the midfield Hungary came close to playing a new formation, the 3-3-4, but Zakarias would often drop deeper still and act as a shield to the defence. This was the start of a movement towards a flat back four defence.  

Hungary (below), v. England, 1953

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