By Tony Attwood
Throughout the history of football there are beliefs which are handed down, repeated and repeated, and so become part of the way the story is told.
Because these tales are so strongly believed no one actually bothers to go back and check the basic facts. The myth lingers on, simply because it turns up in every book.
We’ve uncovered a whole range of such issues in writing this site and the books that have gone with it – not least Andy Kelly’s and Mark Andrews’ extraordinary work on the end of the Royal Arsenal club and the early days of Woolwich Arsenal FC in Woolwich Arsenal the Club that Changed Football.
Remember the oft quoted story that Arsenal almost went bust in the early days of professionalism, because the club were refused permission to play amateur clubs in the south east? All nonsense, as we now know.
Or think of the way in which a few Tottenham supporters have hijacked Arsenal’s history by suggesting something was amiss with the election of the club to the first division in 1919. Not a shred of evidence – and indeed Andy has gone so far as to offer a donation of £100 to charity to anyone who comes up with any evidence. No one has. (We’ve written a lot about what happened in football in 1919. There’s an index to articles on that page here).
But nowhere are there more “misunderstandings” than with Herbert Chapman. I can’t go through them all here – but you’ll recall the stories that the great man changed the name of the club… we’ve undone those tales as well, once more through the patient and detailed research by my colleagues in the Arsenal History Society.
So now it’s time for another bombshell. And it’s another Chapman myth. The story that Chapman invented the WM system of playing which transformed both English football, and in particular Arsenal.
(To be clear, WM is the system of having three defenders, two defensive midfield players, two attacking mid-fielders, and the three forwards – two on the wings and the famous bustling number 9 in the middle. We might call it 3-2-2-3. Prior to that 2-3-2-3 was more common – itself an evolution from the original 2-3-5 approach from which names such as “left half,” “centre half” and “right half” emerged, for the three midfield players).
Chapman’s first season at Arsenal started in the worst possible way – a 0-1 home defeat to Tottenham on 29 August 1925. But that was followed by four wins and three draws. Not bad for a team that had finished 20th in the league the previous season, and which played with much the same personnel as in that last disastrous season.
Then on 3 October Arsenal lost 7-0 away to Newcastle. The story goes that after the game Chapman and the recently signed club captain Charlie Buchan sat down to discuss the defeat and Chapman invented the notion of pulling the central midfield player back to play in between the two full backs – thus creating the WM formation.
I just thought that I’d like to read up what those involved in the meeting said. Chapman, as we know, left no biography, and his only writings was a series of articles in the sunday papers. But Charlie Buchan did write an autobiography, “A lifetime in football”.
Buchan was a literary man – he trained as a teacher, and ended up publishing his own monthly football magazine. So as we might expect, this is a clear, well-written volume, without any of the tell-tale signs of editorial interference, or demands from headline writers to “spice it up a bit”, which can be seen throughout the Leslie Knighton volume.
Buchan doesn’t get to 1925 and the events that concern us here until half way through his book, but when he does he drops a bomb shell.
As we know, the off side rule was changed in the summer of 1925 so that only two defenders needed to be between an attacker and the goal. As Buchan says (page 95) as a result of this “New methods were required and Arsenal were the first to exploit them”.
It is probably this phrase that has led to commentators believing that Buchan was talking about the WM tactical formation – but it turns out he wasn’t, for he subsequently says,
“It has many times been said that the change in law brought into operation the ‘stopper’ centre half, but there were many such ‘stoppers’ long before that eventful day.” He then proceeds to mention four of the most famous centre halves who played in the final line of defence between the two full backs.
On page 97 Chapman moves on to the post-match meeting after the 7-0 defeat on 3 October 1925, held in the Newcastle hotel. Buchan reports that he had been pressing for a change to the way Arsenal lined up since he was transferred to the club in the summer of 1925 and says that finally, after this game, Chapman asked him to explain his views more fully.
Buchan’s first point was not to have a centre half playing between the full backs, and marking the opposition’s number 9, but rather to have him guarding the edge of the penalty area. Buchan was, in fact, inventing zonal marking for this player, leaving the others free to cover the flow of the play.
Now that notion of the centre half patrolling zonally does give us a “W” defence. Moving across the W from left to right we have the left top of the W as the left half, the left bottom as the left back, the midpoint neither as high as the left half nor as low as the left back – that is the new “centre half position”, and then the right side of the the W – the right back and the right half.
So here is the invention of WM, and it was (it seems) the invention of Buchan not Chapman. But we must be clear, WM does not mean pulling the centre half back to play between the two full backs, because other clubs were doing that already. Instead it means playing the centre half further away from the goal line he is defending than the full backs.
But that was not all. What Buchan also wanted was that the centre half should be a “dominating personality around his own goal. And he should not be content just to get the ball away anywhere, but to send it, with head or feet, to the roving inside-forward”.
So, an end to the big man hoofing it up the field.
Thus now comes the next part of the equation: the “roving inside forward” – part of the “M” in the equation. Buchan nominated Andy Neil – a man who could receive the ball with either foot and pass it on quickly to get the counter attack going, resulting in a goal from three or four touches out of defence.
This is much more than WM – this is zonal marking with a centre half who would always find one particular player who had the skill to move the ball on at once for the counter attack. It was a system ultimately perfected with Herbie Roberts at centre half, passing to Alex James who moved the ball instantly on to Joe Hulme or Cliff Bastin.
The new system was tried just two days later in an away game at West Ham on 1 October 1925, and the new Arsenal system was born. Arsenal won 4-0 and as Buchan says, “the novelty of Arsenal’s new methods took the other League clubs by surprise,” and by Christmas Arsenal were top of the league. Indeed but for illness and injury Arsenal would probably have won the league in Chapman’s first season. As it was they had to settle for second.