Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - The Wingless Wonders

The Wingless Wonders

After the defeat by Hungary in 1953 English football remained in the doldrums for much of the fifties. They weren’t helped of course by the Munich air disaster, which killed such greats as Edwards, Byrne and Taylor, but nonetheless the period remained a barren one. Alf Ramsey had played in the crushing defeat by the Magyars, indeed he scored England’s third goal, and from that experience he would go on to build a team to restore football’s inventors to the pinnacle of the sport.

Ramsey began his managerial career at Ipswich in 1955, a team at the time in the Division Three South, but by 1962 they were champions of England. The secret to Ramsey’s success was based around two key tactical changes. The first was the he focused on playing a direct game, with little time for intricate passing. Although this was a far cry from Arthur Rowe’s famous “push and run” Spurs team of which Ramsey had been a member, he recognised that less passes meant less opportunity for something to go wrong, and that when working at a lower level it was important to keep the game simple.

Ramsey’s second great change was perhaps a precursor to Mario Zagallo’s with Brazil, as he asked Jimmy Leadbetter to play in a withdrawn left-midfield position. Leadbetter had previously played as an inside-forward and was less than blessed with pace, but he had excellent delivery and by starting in a deep role he could draw the opposing right-back out of position. Once he had done this Ipswich’s centre-forward, Ted Phillips was allowed masses of space to move into, and he exploited this to full effect.

In an era in which television coverage of domestic football was minimal, and scouting was still not at the level of today, Ipswich were able to surprise many of their opponents with these tactics. Having won promotion to the first division in 1961, they were champions the following season, but in the 1963-3 season their tactics were found out and they could only finish 17th in the league. Fortunately for Ramsey he had already left, having been appointed the England manager in autumn 1962, in recognition of his success.

With England Ramsey demanded a level of authority that the role had not previously commanded. Walter Winterbottom, the previous England, manager had been forced to allow a committee to select the players, and he was content to manage them. Ramsey felt that in order to succeed he had to pick the players as well as the system. This he was granted, but he enjoyed limited success in his early days.

In a preseason tournament in South America, England beat the USA, drew with Portugal, but lost to both Brazil and Argentina. This sparked a realisation in Ramsey that England would not win the World Cup playing a 4-2-4 formation. Instead he decided that it was necessary to have one player sitting in a holding role, and that to do so in a 4-2-4 put too much pressure on the other midfielder, as the sole playmaker in the team. As a result he initially started to play a lopsided formation with a defensive midfielder, an attacking midfielder, an out and out winger and one midfielder tucked in from the flank to give extra solidity to the team.

After a series of experiments, it was not until the 1966 World Cup campaign was underway that the wingless wonders were born. The new system dispensed with the out and out winger and used another midfielder tucked in from the flank to give in effect a midfield diamond. England used Nobby Stiles as the anchor, Bobby Charlton at the head of the diamond, with Martin Peters on the left and Alan Ball on the right. It had taken England over a decade to recover from their defeat to Hungary, but at home they returned to their position among the game’s elite as they defeated Argentina, Portugal and West Germany to be crowned World Champions.

England (below) v. W Germany, 1966

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