Friday, 26 August 2011

Plea For Help

As some might be aware, since the 1950s German magazine Kicker has prepared a ratings system to evaluate the performance of domestic players throughout the year. For some time I've been thinking about how useful such a system would be for non-German or Bundesliga based players. Sadly there is no such ratings system for world players, so I thought I'd try to create my own.

In order for the ratings to be worth while, they need to be based as much as possible on fact and in order to obtain it I'm going to need as much help as I can possibly get from anyone who has any time or resources to contribute. If you have access to any useful information or are willing to put in some time to help me compile these rankings then please let me know, either by adding a comment or messaging me on twitter (@ademir2z).

My intention is to limit the listing to European based players and create a ranking for each season (rather than twice yearly as Kicker do). I am starting with last season and working backwards as far as I can with the information available. Ideally I can go all the way back to 1956 when Kicker started their system (helpfully also the first year of France Football's Ballon D'Or).
This will be a mammoth undertaking, so any help that I can receive will be hugely appreciated.

If you're unfamiliar with Kicker's system then please see the amazing thread that a friend of mine created summaring all the rankings they have ever produced.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - Brazil and the five "10"s

Brazil and the five "10"s

Having won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, Brazil had been looking to complete a hat-trick in England. Instead, their ageing side was unceremoniously dumped out in the group stage, courtesy of some terrible tackling which went unpunished. They would look to make amends four years later in Mexico.

Going into the tournament Brazil were far from favourites. Poor results and the threat of dropping the untouchable Pele had put an end to the tenure as manager of Joao Saldanha, and into his place came the inexperienced Mario Zagallo. Zagallo had of course played a major part as a player in the development of the 4-3-3, and as a manager he would also be a part of a key tactical moment.

Like Ramsey, Zagallo recognised the need for an anchor in midfield, and also like Ramsey he knew the burden of acting as the sole playmaker was too great for one man. However, Brazil had rather a greater abundance of riches among the playmakers than England. First among them of course was Pele, an inside-left but also the player that defined the role of number ten. Zagallo also had Gerson, a fabulous passer, though less than mobile, who he wished to use as a deep lying playmaker. In addition there was Tostao, a young forward from Cruzeiro, who was also more used to creating goals than scoring them. The key was the players to play around these.

On the left of midfield, Zagallo selected Rivellino, essentially a central playmaker himself, but possessing one of the sweetest left foots in the history of the game. Then on the right they used Jairzinho, himself a creator at club level and possessing blistering pace that would give fullbacks nightmares. The front five players were all essentially creators, and as such became known as the five 10s, in reference to the traditional number for an inside left.

Remarkably the system worked, with each of the players continually moving and occupying the space another had left. Rivellino would frequently drift inside to assist Gerson, who would himself occasionally move to the left. Both Pele and Tostao would come deep in search of the ball, while Jairzinho acted on many occasions as the team’s striker, despite being nominally asked to occupy the right wing. Brazil’s opponents in the 1970 final, Italy, had two sublime playmakers of their own in Rivera and Sandro Mazzola, but took the opposite approach. Each player was given half a game, and it was felt the two could never feature together. How different managers had different approaches.

Brazil (below) v. Italy, 1970

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 20

Germany 8-0 Denmark (16 May 1937) Breslau

Despite their dominance of European football in the post-war era it took Germany quite some time to impose themselves on the international stage. Less than a year after Germany played their first international (a 5-3 loss to Switzerland in Basel) the national team took on England’s amateurs, at the time Olympic champions, and were soundly thrashed 9-0. Brief highlights followed, such as the 16-0 victory over Russia at the Stockholm Olympics, but by and large the Germans trailed the best of the continent until well into the 1930s.

While neighbours Austria wowed spectators with their unique brand of passing football most of Germany lagged behind in terms of development. The one place where football to match the best of Europe was being played was in Gelsenkirchen. For at Schalke 04 a special team was being built that would change the status of German football forever.

Gelsenkirchen was a city at the heart of Germany’s industrial and mining industries, providing the coal to fuel Germany’s re-emergence from the Great Depression. The city and the club were founded on the area’s working classes, with the team drawing their players from the mining and industrial communities. Yet Schalke (named after an area of the city) played the football of aristocrats, with their stylish passing game and individual excellence.

Schalke’s team was founded on the brilliance of Fritz Szepan. An inside-forward possessing tremendous technical ability, Szepan made his debut for Schalke at just 17 and would continue with the club until the start of WWII. As a playmaker Szepan was unrivalled in Germany at the time, given the breadth of his passing and the imagination to spot passes that others simply missed.

Ernst Kuzorra and Fritz Szepan

Szepan’s chief support in the stellar Schalke side was his brother-in-law, Ernst Kuzorra, himself an outstanding forward and German international. Together Szepan and Kuzorra led a team which came to dominate Germany football in the 1930s, winning four domestic championships and a multitude of regional trophies. The basis of their success was the key to almost all outstanding teams: movement.

The pass and move philosophy, which has won success at the top level since the beginnings of football, left Schalke’s opponents in tatters. Such was the speed of movement shown by the Schalke team that opponents were left dizzy as they tried to follow the ball. No wonder therefore that the style of play became known as the “Spinning Top”.

Schalke’s intricate passing game won them many admirers (and almost as many trophies!) but German coach Otto Nerz was not among them. Nerz, as with so many on the Continent at the time, looked upon English football as being the pinnacle of the game. For Nerz the physicality, pace and organisation of English teams, most notably Arsenal, was the route to success in football.

Otto Nerz

Rather than mimicking Schalke’s glorious style Nerz opted to use Arsenal’s WM formation for the 1934 World Cup in Italy. Most shocking was his choice of centre-back. For where Arsenal had deployed Andy Neil (a technically limited player) at centre-back, Nerz chose to use his most talented creator, Szepan. In fairness to Nerz the system proved far more effective than might have been anticipated as the team reached the semi-finals before losing to Czechoslovakia. Szepan’s doubts about the system had, for the time being at least, proved unfounded.

It was a markedly different story at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. An ignominious defeat at the hands of Norway in the competition’s second round was a calamitous blow to Germany’s footballing prestige, as well as to the pride of the watching Adolf Hitler. Despite their complete dominance of the game, the Germans were unable to breach the Norwegian defences and so hopes of a home victory quickly evaporated.

Out of such a painful defeat there was though some salvation. With the humiliation still fresh, Nerz began the slow process of handing control of the national team to his previous assistant Sepp Herberger. By the time Germany lined up to play Denmark in May 1937, Herberger was nearing complete control.

Sepp Herberger
The team that faced Denmark that day have entered German folklore as among the greatest sides that Germany has ever produced. For a nation that has won three World Cups and as many European Championships that takes some doing. Yet the margin of victory, the style of performance and the technical mastery all marked the “Breslau Elf” out as something special.

Looking back it appears obvious, but this was a remarkably balanced German side. For Herberger had taken the team built by Nerz and improved. The addition of Adolf Urban and Rudi Gellesch of Schalke to the team alongside Szepan provided more dynamism, interplay and understanding than any of Nerz’s sides had possessed. At full-back Paul Janes was easily among the finest players in Europe, Kupfer and Katzinger were outstanding wing-halves, while Otto Stiffling of Mannheim was a prolific striker.

Following the debacle of their Olympic failure Germany had strung together a number of good results. Defeats in Scotland and Ireland apart, the Germans had drawn with Italy and Holland, and then beat France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland in succession prior to facing Denmark. All the time the team was improving as the core of player grew to understand each others’ style of play.

The match with Denmark itself was, on paper, far from a formality. The Danes had beaten Sweden, Poland and Finland, as well as drawing with Norway in their last four games. In reality though the teams were utterly mismatched. Ernst Lehner opened the scoring with a volley after just seven minutes before Otto Stiffling imposed himself on the game. His five goals in rapid succession ripped the Danes apart, before Urban and Szepan rounded off the rout.

While the match did not herald a new age of German footballing dominance, it established Germany as one of the games leading forces and illustrated the merits of Herberger’s approach. Following the Anschluss with Austria of 1938 the unified Germany would suffer a disappointing first round exit at the hands of Switzerland. Yet their failure could now be perceived as an aberration, rather than the norm. With Herberger in place, Germany would soon take up their place as footballing masters of Europe.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 19

England 3-2 Italy (14 November 1934) Highbury, London

After Italy’s victory in the 1934 World Cup a match with England provided an opportunity to determine the unofficial “world champions”. Recent form for England had not made them obvious candidates for such a title (they had lost 2-1 against both Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the May of 1934), but their position as the game’s inventors served to provide the necessary prestige for the match. Furthermore England had managed a 1-1 draw in Rome in 1933 and so remained one of the few top European sides that the Italians had never defeated. Victory in this game would give even greater validity to their claims as the best in the world.

The match also provided a chance for Vittorio Pozzo to prove himself in England. Pozzo was a tremendous anglophile who had spent a number of his formative years in the North of England and had come to gain a real passion for the English game. While in England he developed a deep admiration for Manchester United and in particular their attacking centre-half Charlie Roberts. Roberts was instrumental in the formation of the Professional Footballers Association, to the detriment of his international career, but he was most notable for his ability to start attacks from deep positions in the United midfield. When Pozzo became a manager a Roberts-esque centre-half was mandatory for any of his teams.

Vittorio Pozzo (left)

The other Englishman that inspired Pozzo was Herbert Chapman. Along with Hugo Meisl the trio formed a lasting friendship, built on a mutual respect and love for the game. Although Chapman had died in the January of 1934 the match against England at Highbury (the home of Chapman’s Arsenal) was a fitting place for Pozzo to attempt to conquer the English game. What’s more, Arsenal provided an unprecedented seven players for the match against Italy, while Tom Whittaker of Arsenal acted as trainer (the England team was still selected by committee at this stage).

Prior to the game the Daily Mirror (rather implausibly) suggested that a “ten goal victory must be our aim”. Against a team as strong as Italy that was always a pipedream yet they suggested “if we could beat the Italians by ten goals and on the day deserve such a margin, the stock of England, not just English football, would jump as it has not jumped for years”. Whether this was anti-Fascist sentiment (the game took place four years before an England side gave the Nazi salute before a game in Germany) or not is unclear, but it was never likely to come to pass.

What did take place was a game as fiercely contested as any in the pre-war era. Before the match the England side had been referred to as (Ted) “Drake’s armada” in anticipation of the ferocious way they would challenge the Italians.  It was no hyperbole for the press afterwards to dub this match “The Battle of Highbury” given the intensity with which the two teams fought for victory.

Ted Drake

The game started at a remarkable pace, with enough controversy and action to fill a handful of games in the first fifteen minutes. Within a minute Ted Drake had been put clean through on goal, only to be hauled down in the area before he could shoot by Italian keeper Carlo Ceresoli. Up stepped Eric Brook, but Ceresoli made a miraculous save to turn his shot over the bar. Seconds later the first major injury was suffered. As Luis Monti went to clear the ball Drake blocked his kick, forcing the Italian from the field with broken bones in his foot.

Shortly after, England’s sustained pressure was brought to bear. Another foul led to a free-kick for England to be taken by Cliff Britton. His whipped delivery was headed in by Eric Brook to make amends for his missed penalty. Five minutes later and Brook scored again. This time he took a free-kick from the age of the area and blasted it past the diving Ceresoli. Had he not missed the penalty he’d have had a hat-trick within ten minutes. England though did not have to wait long for more goals. Drake scored a header after 15 minutes to put the home team in a commanding position.

As the half progressed it became more and more violent. Wilf Copping was noted as the hardest player of his day and was not a man to shy away from a confrontation. Copping once observed that it was “easier to play against ten men than eleven, even easier against nine”. As the Italians sought revenge for the injury to Monti they soon found that Copping was unlikely to be a pliant victim.

Ted Drake was soon off the pitch following a series of brutal challenges. Such was the use of studs from the Italian players and the height of their “tackles” that they had managed to rip through his socks and split open his leg! Italy’s half-backs resumed their assault in retribution for Monti’s injury as Luigi Bertolini elbowed Eddie Hapgood in the face off the ball and broke his nose.

Wilf Copping

Monti’s return to the pitch after his injury was brief. Stanley Matthews later remembered “Just before half-time, Wilf Copping hit the Italian captain Monti with a tackle that he seemed to launch from somewhere just north of Leeds. Monti went up in the air like a rocket and down like a bag of hammers and had to leave the field with a splintered bone in his foot.” At half-time Copping asked the England team doctor “How’s that Eytie?”, “Oh! He won’t come back!” was the response. “Bloody good job! He’d soon be back in the dressing room” Copping replied.

In the second-half the Italians were able to stage a brief come back. Giuseppe Meazza scored two and hit the woodwork. The Italians were denied repeatedly by Frank Moss, the England goalkeeper. England though clung on to record a memorable victory over the world champions, albeit in regrettable circumstances.

After the game the Daily Mirror set out the injuries suffered by the England players: “Hapgood – broken nose; Brook – arm x-rayed; Bowden – injured ankle; Drake – leg cut; Barker – hand bandaged; Copping – bandaged from thigh to knee.” One newspaper reflected the level of violence in their byline: “By our war correspondent”.

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

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - Catenaccio


After Karl Rappan and his Verrou the system that came to be known as Catenaccio was the next logical step. If his boasts are to be believed the man that formulated the system was Gipo Viana, the manager of Salernitana in the late 1940s. What the system involved was the moving of one of the wing-halves to drop into the back line, with then the stopper centre-back moving deeper still and acting as the sweeper or libero (free man).

The actual variance of this system from the Verrou was minimal in terms of formation, but was more of a change in terms of attitude. The system that Salernitana used was far more defensive that that of Rappan and its primary purpose was to avoid defeat. Salernitana used it to good effect as they won promotion to Serie A in 1947 with the league’s best defensive record, but the next season they were poor and failed to win a single away game as they were relegated.

Nereo Rocco, the great Milan manager, was the first though to popularise the system, when he worked at hometown club Triestina. Remarkably for a side of such limited means, Triestina managed to finish second in Serie A and were unbeaten at home all season. Given the resources he had to work with Rocco had achieved a miracle, and while he unquestionably possessed excellent motivational skills, no small part of their achievement was attributable to the defensive solidity provided to them by the Catenaccio system.

When Rocco eventually did take charge of Milan, he deployed a form of Catenaccio there and again found significant success. Their style of play though was far less defensive than he had used at Triestina or Viana had at Salernitana. Indeed Milan won the Scudetto in the 1961-2 season as top goal scorers in Serie A with eighty three goals. Rocco was though always suspicious of the less workmanlike players. Jimmy Greaves was quickly packed off back to England despite his prolific record at Milan, and there were times that even the Golden Boy, Gianni Rivera, was out of favour. Milan though stormed to victory in the European Cup in 1963 and established just how powerful the formation could be.

No team are more associated with Catenaccio though than Inter. Under Helenio Herrera, the Nerazzuri defined Catenaccio and were largely responsible for the negative image that it retains to today. Rather than playing with one sweeper behind three defenders and then having a centre-half or centre midfielder act as playmaker, Herrera opted for the added security of using an anchor in midfield to give a further line on protection. Gianfranco Bedin was the man charged with the role and he would sit deep and screen the defence of attackers, leaving Luis Suarez in front of him as the midfield playmaker.

In the defence, Armando Picchi acted as Libero, but he was a far cry from the traditional idea of a cultured sweeper bringing the ball out of defence. Picchi was effectively a stopper who played as the free man, and was very much a safety first defender. In front of Picchi played Aristide Guarneri as the centre-back and to his right was Tarcisio Burgnich, playing somewhere between centre-back and a right-fullback.

On the left of the back line was Giacinto Facchetti, who offered much of the attacking verve of the team. Arguably the first wing-back in the game Facchetti was happy to bomb up and down the left touchline and offered support to the attack. This allowed Mario Corso,  the nominal left-winger, to drop inside and assist Suarez in his playmaking role. The team was naturally unbalanced due to Jair’s willingness to drop deep on the right side of midfield which allowed Bugnich to shuffle inside, but it was certainly effective. Inter won Serie A in 1963, 1965 and 1966, and won the European Cup in 1964 and 1965. In addition they were beaten finalists in 1967 to Celtic.

Inter (below) v. Benfica, 1965 

Herrera always maintained that his was not a defensive side, and that it was only low quality imitators who gave Catenaccio a bad name. However, the negativity of Inter’s team in a number of their clashes, most notably the European Cup final of 1967, left fee neutrals as great admirers of the system. Bill Shankly hailed Jock Stein as “immortal” for defeating Herrera in that game and proving to the world that more positive play could gain success.    

Monday, 8 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - Brazil and The Flat Back Four

Brazil and the Flat Back Four

At around the time that Hungary were making their move towards playing with a withdrawn centre-forward Brazil were also in the process of tweaking their formation. The small team of Vila Nova had also adopted a similar system in the early 1950s, and Flamengo won three Carioca championships between 1953 and 1955. 

For the national team though, and the rest of the world, the first time they saw the new Brazil was in 1954. In the World Cup of that year Didi, Brazil’s inside right, began to drop deep to join in the midfield, but his influence was overshadowed by the changes of Hungary who swept Brazil aside in the infamous Battle of Berne.

The first time that Brazil unveiled their back four on the international stage was at the World Cup of 1958. Although they still were not playing what would in modern parlance be termed a flat back four, it was clear that Bellini had been moved from playing a midfield role and covering for the defence, to joining the back four but with license to get forward. This gave the backline, already formidable with the likes of Nilton Santos, Di Sordi and goalkeeper Gilmar, an extra solidity.

In midfield Didi had now dropped fully back into the centre to dictate play and Dino Sani acted as a minder to protect him. It is often suggested that Brazil switched at the 1958 to a 4-2-4, but in reality it was still a hybrid system. The team was fundamentally unbalanced due to the difference of the two wingers in the team, Mario Zagallo and Garrincha. Garrincha was a traditional outside right, an attacker with no defensive responsibilities who could beat any defender with his supreme dribbling. Zagallo on the other hand was known as “The Ant” on account of his industry, and would regularly drop deep in order to track back and help out his midfield teammates.

Brazil (above) v. Sweden, 1958

As a result Brazil’s formation at the 1958 and 1962 World Cup’s can’t really be called  a 4-2-4, a 3-3-4 or even a 4-3-3. It remained a mixture of styles, but was unquestionably effective. Brazil stormed to victory in 1958, and retained their crown in 1962. While their outstanding players were certainly important, tactics again gave them an advantage over their competitors.

Brazil (above) v. Czechoslovakia, 1962

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

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A History of World Football in 100 Games - Part 18

 Italy 2-1 Czechoslovakia (10 June 1934) Stadio Nazionale PNF, Rome

In 1934 the World Cup arrived in Europe. Having been denied the opportunity to host the finals in 1930, Italy were awarded the rights for the second tournament ahead of the rival Swedish bid. It was a notable coup for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, keen to use the competition to demonstrate the strides that his Fascist party had made since taking power in 1922. As a symbol of their willingness to make a good impression on the wider world the Italian FA subsidised travel for foreign visitors throughout the country.

As well as providing an illustration of the Fascists’ achievements in the cities of Italy, the tournament also offered a platform for the nation to demonstrate its strength and virility through the performance of the national team. Italy had made notable strides in recent years and now possessed a side that was a match for the best in the world. Victory in the inaugural Central European Cup in 1930 had displayed the progress that Italy had achieved and if anything the team was even better in 1934 than 1930.

In no small part this continuing improvement was due to the arrival of the Oriundi (foreigners of Italian descent). Italy had noted the significant success enjoyed by the South American nations and with the coming of professionalism in European football a number of the finest players were tempted to move on lucrative contracts. Raimundo Orsi was the most high-profile of the early Oriundi, moving from Independiente to Juventus in 1928, after helping Argentina to a silver medal at the Amsterdam Olympics.

After Orsi many more followed. Luis Monti, Argentina’s star centre-half at the 1930 World Cup, had joined Orsi at Juventus to much success. Atillio Demaria had also played a minor role in Argentina’s route to the final in 1930, participating in the 6-3 thrashing of Mexico, before making the move to Inter Milan. Enrique Guaita had barely featured for the Argentine national team prior to switching from Estudiantes to Roma, but he quickly became a part of the Azzurri squad for 1934.

Raimundo Orsi
 Unsurprisingly given the plundering of their prized possessions, the South Americans were less than fully committed to the 1934 World Cup. Argentina, partly due to disputes within the national association and partly to avoid further losses of top class players, chose to send an amateur team. Uruguay, still angered by the failure of the leading European powers to attend in 1930, boycotted the tournament. Brazil did send a team, but they were still some way off the best sides of the continent. The Selecao would have to improve some more before they would make an impression on a World Cup.

The final saw hosts Italy take on Czechoslovakia, further evidence of the rise of the Danubian school of football, as Central Europe became the focal point of the game’s development. The two teams had taken strikingly different routes to the final, but were united by the similarity of their play. The chance to be the first European World Cup winners awaited them.

Italy began the tournament in style with a 7-0 humbling of the USA. Although not a country associated with a rich history in the tournament, the Americans had been semi-finalists in 1930 and had defeated Mexico in a preliminary match in Rome prior to the tournament to secure their berth. The onlooking Mussolini was satisfied with the comprehensive nature of such an opening victory.

That first match would be the only easy game Italy enjoyed in the whole competition. Their quarter-final saw them matched with Spain in one of the most controversial encounters in World Cup history. Spain took the lead in the first half with a fortunate miskick from Luis Regueiro which wrong-footed Combi, but Italy were level before half-time via Ferrari. In the build up to the goal Schiavio was seen to be clearly blocking Ricardo Zamora in the Spanish net but the referee awarded nothing. The two teams could not be separated in either the second half or extra-time and so a replay would be needed the next day (there were no penalty shoot-outs at the World Cup until 1982).

Such was the level of brutality that had marred the first game (as well as the natural fatigue caused by playing on successive days) that Italy were forced to make three changes for the replay. They were lucky, Spain had to make seven, including in goal where Juan Nogues won his only cap after injuries to Zamora. The second match was (if possible) even more violent than the first. The Spaniards finished the game with eight men while referee Rene Mercet was suspended by the Swiss association for his poor performance. The only goal came via the head of Giuseppe Meazza who leapt highest at a corner to snatch the game.

Giuseppe Meazza
Just two days later the Italians were back in action in their semi-final, and it was no small task given that their opponents were the Austrian “Wunderteam” of Hugo Meisl. The Austrians had enjoyed an extra day of recuperation and had the psychological advantage of having recently beaten Italy 4-2 in Turin. Doubts existed over the side though and most (Meisl included) considered them to have gone past their best. The Austrians were certainly not helped by the conditions, pouring rain in Milan left the pitch a bog and far from conducive to the intricate passing game of which the Austrians were masters. The game’s only goal was scored by Guaita in a frenzied goalmouth after the ball rebounded off the post.
Czechoslovakia had a far from routine route to the final themselves, yet they managed to avoid many of the tournament’s most challenging opponents. They trailed to both Romania in the first round and Switzerland in the quarter-final before coming back to win, and only made their victory against Germany  in the semi-final secure in the 80th minute. Neither team looked like obvious world champions based on their early games in the competition, but had showed dogged determination to make it through to the tournament’s climax.

When the final came it appeared that the Italian public had not made the emotional investment in the tournament that Mussolini might have hoped for. Sections of the stadium in Rome were empty, leading some to question whether a venue in the North (the traditional footballing heartlands) such as Milan or Turin would have been more suitable. Regardless, the 40,000 or so fans who did pack in to the PNF stadium created a cacophony of noise to greet the players.

Italy (below) v. Czechoslovakia
 The Italians were unchanged from the team who beat Austria, while Czechoslovakia brought Zenisek back in place of Burgr. For the only time in World Cup history both finalists were captained by goalkeepers, Giampiero Combi for Italy and Frantisek Planicka for Czechoslovakia. Suggestions were made that referee Eklind of Sweden was personally requested by the Italians after his performance in their semi-final victory over Austria, but these allegations were unproven.

The game took a long time to get going, with few clear cut chances in the first half as neither side committed the men forward to trouble the opposing defence. With twenty minutes remaining the match sparked into life. Antonin Puc, who had been off the field receiving treatment minutes earlier, took a corner and when the ball returned to him he beat Monzeglio and fired a low shot past Combi at the near post. Minutes later the Czechs almost made it 2-0 as Sobotka went close and Svoboda hit the post.

Combi (left) and Planicka
These near misses jarred Italy into action and minutes later they were level. Ferrari appeared to have handled in the build up, but the referee ignored it, and Mumo Orsi fired in a swerving right-footed effort from the left-wing which deceived Planicka and floated into the net. The following day he attempted to repeat the feat for a group of photographers but could never recreate the swerve.
In extra-time Vittorio Pozzo, the Italian manager, instructed Guaita and Schiavio to switch wings and confuse the Czechoslovakian defenders. His tactics quickly had the desired effect. Meazza was over on the right-wing suffering with injury when the ball came to him and he fed Guaita. The winger crossed for Schiavio to shoot low past Planicka and into the net. Luis Monti, who had been on the losing side four years earlier, was now a World Cup winner for Italy and Pozzo’s team were the champions. After the game Giampiero Combi, the Italian goalkeeper, announced his immediate retirement from football, he could not have gone out on a higher note.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

A Brief History of Tactics - The Verrou

The Verrou

With the rest of Europe making clear tactical progress, it fell to the Swiss to find a way to combat the WM and the Danubian school. The Swiss players were not generally as gifted as their European counterparts, or as physically fit as the British, and so they needed tactics to overcome the superiority of their opponents. The system the Swiss designed was aimed to get the very best out of more limited players.

The man that came up with the plan, Karl Rappan, was not actually Swiss himself but Austrian. He had enjoyed success as a player with Rapid Vienna, and had been capped for the Austrian national team but he moved to Servette in Switzerland to take up the position of player-coach. While there he created a system which built on both the pyramid and the WM, which became known as the Verrou (or the bolt in English).

The bolt retained the use of an attacking centre-half which had been the cornerstone of the pyramid and also lined up the two full-backs one behind the other as had often taken place under the classical 2-3-5 formation. The greatest innovation though was to withdraw the two wing-halves into a deeper role, responsible for marking the opposing wingers. Although wing-halves had been charged with this role under the 2-3-5, less emphasis was placed on their attacking duties under the Verrou. By lining up the full-backs one behind the other, it allowed one to go to the ball and challenge, while the other acted as a spare man, sweeping up behind him.

This was in effect the first use of the verrouller or libero in football, a position that would continue to evolve in the coming years. Rappan enjoyed a great deal of success with the system as he won two league titles with Servette, and five more with Grasshoppers. It was in international football that it would have it’s greatest impact. Using the Verrou the Swiss defeated England in a friendly and knocked Germany out of the 1938 World Cup, showing quite how difficult a system it could be to face.

Switzerland (below) v. Hungary, 1938

The great difficulty of the system, particularly when played by a more ambitious side than Switzerland, came in the distance between the defence and attack. Although under the Verrou the inside-forwards were expected to drop deep (arguably even deeper than Alex James did for Arsenal), there was a tendency for large gaps to open up between the defence and attack, due to the withdrawn position of the wing-halves and the out-right attacking placement of the wingers. The key therefore was in finding a centre-half with the quality to command the entire midfield, acting as a true link for the entire team. Fortunately for Rappan he had Verneti, one of the world’s finest centre-halves at the time.

The Swiss may have invented the Verrou, but it was Uruguay who won football’s greatest prize with it at the 1950 World Cup. Hosts Brazil had crushed all opposition in the build up to their deciding World Cup match against the Uruguayans, with one notable exception: Switzerland. Brazil had won their other 4 games by a total margin of 17 goals, but the plucky Swiss held them to a 2-2 draw. Knowing this Juan Lopez Fontana, the Uruguayan coach, chose to mimic the Swiss system for the vital clash. Pulling Gonzalez into the sweeper position with Tejera just in front drew the half-backs, Schubert Gambetta and Victor Andrade, back into defensive slots and left Obdulio Varela, the black chief, as the classic attacking centre-half. If Verneti had been a fine centre-half, Varela was a sensational one, and against all odds Uruguay defeated Brazil to capture the World Cup in the Maracana and cause the most painful defeat in Brazilian football history.  

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.