Did Chapman really introduce a new playing formation in 1925?

Did Chapman really introduce a new formation?

The way in which teams line up in formations that we today call 4-3-3- etc etc emerged from the original rules of football, and to how matters led up to what we now celebrate as the WM formation of Herbert Chapman can only be understood in the context of both the rules and the evolution of the game.

During the early 1860s, there were many different versions of football around, and the Victorians did what they always did – they tried to unify things.  The Victorians were  in fact the great rule makers – as they had to be because technology was exploding around them and it needed controlling.

In 1862, J. C. Thring, one of the greatest educational reformers of the century, and indeed of all time in English history, taught at Uppingham School in Rutland, not far from Rugby.  He drew up a set of rules which then led on to further amendments which were eventually presented at a famous meeting at the Freemasons Tavern in Great Queen Street London on October 26, 1863.  It was the start of the Football Association.

There was a series of meetings and at the third the first set of rules of football were published, although in many regards they were as much about what we know now as rugby as football.  It was not for another couple of months before running while carrying the ball was banned, and on 8 December the first rules of football were published.  But they still contained the ability of players to catch the ball and interestingly there was no rule that actually said how many players there should be in each team!.

Gradually the rules developed, although one variation on the current game continued way into the 20th century – the keeper could carry the ball out to the half way line (although the fact that players could charge and tackle him while doing so meant most of them got rid of the ball as fast as they could.)

Because of the roughness of the play and the fact that holding onto the ball by and large put one’s body in danger, the main notion was to hoof the ball up the field and run towards it as fast as possible, and then show personal skills in dribbling the ball around the few defenders present.  In effect most of the team were forwards, with just a couple holding back to support the keeper and the notion of passing took a long time to evolve.

The first real formation of players was the classic 2-3-5 which started in the 1870s and is now known as the Pyramid.  It was successful and it spread because it worked, and few felt like changing it.  Forwards still held sway, but there were three midfielders linking the play – and thus encouraging passing rather than hoofing.

However by the 1920s in central Europe an alternative approach evolved in which the remaining notions of the hoof up the field out of defence was abandoned and the role of the midfield further developed.  What happened was that the forward line of five, instead of playing as five across the pitch, allowed the 2nd and 4th players to drop back in order to link with the three midfield players.

This meant that the three midfielders could drop back to help the defence and make short pass to the inside forwards who had also dropped back, and who could then get the three remaining attackers moving.

However there was one further impetus to change.  In 1925 offside law was changed.

At first clubs didn’t really know what to make of this, and there was little thought of changing tactics to accommodate the change in the law.  The change reduced the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two.

The story is that after Arsenal were thumped 7-0 by Newcastle on October 23 1925, Chapman and the club captain Buchan got together to discuss the game afterwards, as you might expect.   The idea then emerged that instead of play three in midfield, there should only be two, with the extra player being placed as a central defender. In effect this gave us

3 (the left and right back with the central defender between them)

2 (the defending midfield)

2 ( the attacking midfield)

3 (the forward line – an outside left, an outside right and the centre forward at number 9.

The formation worked – at least in the extent that Arsenal rose up the league and came second in 1925/6 – their highest point ever – although it took Arsenal a number of years to get the players that could really make this system work.  But it was gradually adopted, although there was little agreement as to how the formation should be signified and many programme sheets listed the players in the traditional 2-3-5 style.  WM was another name (the top of the W being the three defenders, the bottom the two defensive midfielders.  The M was the reverse – the top of the M were the attacking midfielders (inside forwards) and the bottom of the M the wingers and the centre forward.

However what is sometimes forgotten is that this was effectively a counter attacking formation, that allowed the  counter-attack to move at great speed.  This meant however that you needed a playmaker in the team as one of the two attacking midfielders – and this was a new concept.  As we come to apply Chapman’s use of players we can see his search for just the man to play this role.

Indeed when we come to look at the players Chapman used and how in certain positions he moved players around freely, while in others he worked endlessly to have the exact right player to make the formation work.

WM was not the only new formation around – it is just the one that we remember in England because Arsenal introduced it and Arsenal were the most successful team in the 1930s.   Other alternatives included WW (2-3-2-3) and a variant on that as 2–3–1–4.

Basically managers found that there was no one specific approach that beat all others – although there were fads. Two factors constantly dominated the thinking of managers:

a) the players available

b) what the other clubs were doing.

One of these later developments was 3-3-4 which was used by Tottenham when they won their Double, and was beyond doubt built because of the skills of Blanchflower and Mackay.

In the next article I will look at the key players who were used by Chapman to move over to the WM formation.

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