From Failure to Excellence: moving from Knighton to Chapman

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The big difference that Chapman made in his first season.

By Tony Attwood

Leslie Knighton – Arsenal’s first manager after the first world war, lasted six years at Highbury.  He started his final season on a high, with three successive wins and not a goal scored against the club.  Sadly it did not continue like this and a run of six successive defeats and elimination from the FA Cup in the first round (the notorious drugs games against West Ham) through January and February took Arsenal perilously close to relegation.

In the end Arsenal ended 20th.  The 21st and 22nd clubs went down.  Sir Henry Norris put his famous advert in Athletic News and in came Herbert Chapman.   Having missed relegation by one place, Chapman took much the same team and then ended the season missing the Championship by one place – it was Arsenal’s best season ever thus far in their 31 year League history.

It is sometimes assumed that Chapman did this by bringing in a huge number of new players – despite the warning in the famous job advert that managers whose main preoccupation was for the paying of huge transfer fees for established stars.   But as this table shows this was not the case.

Manager > Knighton Chapman
Season > 1924/5 1925/6
Baker 32 31
Blyth 17 40
Brain 28 41
Buchan   39
Butler 39 41
Haden 15 25
Hoar 19 21
John 39 29
Kennedy 40 16
Mackie 19 35
Milne 32 5
Neil 16 27
Ramsey 30 16
Robson 26 9
Rutherford 20 3
Toner 26 2
Woods 32 19

There is only one player who played over 20 games for Chapman in his first season who was new – Charlie Buchan.  All the rest of the team that played a significant number of games under Chapman in his first year played a fair number under Knighton.

Not all were major players throughout the season, but I have included in the above list all the players who played 20 or more games for Chapman in his first year and all the players who played 20 or more for Knighton in his last year.

Clearly Chapman was not a fan of some players – Milne, Robson, Rutherford and Toner all dropped out of significant contention, although they were still used on occasion.

But even so the fact remains: Chapman used the resources that he had.

So what turned a relegation threatened team who won just four out of their last 19 games under Knighton into a team that could become runners up?

The improvement started at once: after eight matches Arsenal were third having won four, drawn three and lost one.

Then came match nine – away to Newcastle United, which Arsenal lost 7-0.  The team for the eighth (a 4-1 home win against Leeds) and ninth game was identical.  Newcastle were hardly a threat – they were lying 17th in the table at the time.  But just take a look at their early results.

1 29.08.1925 Bolton Wanderers away D2-2
2 05.09.1925 Notts County home W6-3
3 09.09.1925 Blackburn Rovers home L1-7
4 12.09.1925 Aston Villa away D2-2
5 16.09.1925 Leeds United away L0-2
6 19.09.1925 Leicester City home W3-2
7 26.09.1925 West Ham United away L0-1
8 03.10.1925 Arsenal home W7-0

How can we explain a 6-3 win followed by a 1-7 defeat at home again  Blackburn – a team who had themselves already lost 6-2 to Sunderland.

The answer must come with the change in the off side law which saw the need for only one outfield player to be behind the attacker for the attacker to be on side.

It is often said that Chapman and and Buchan sat down after the Newcastle game and between them invented moving the central midfield player – the number 5 – back to play in a backline of three: the right back, the centre half and the left back.

I am struggling to find clear proof of this change, but I am sure it must be recorded in some match reports of the era.  But what is rarely said is that tactical analyses were going on all over the place as clubs tried to get to grips with the new approach.

Certainly if we look at the end of season tables for 1924/5 we can see that 1192 goals were scored that season compared with 1703 in 1925/6 – the first year of the new rule.  In 1924/5 Huddersfield won the league scoring 69 goals, while in the following season they won the league with 92 goals.  In the 1925/6 season top scorers were Sheffield United with 102 and the worst defence was that of Burnley with 108 goals.

In the last season with the old rules the best attackers were Bolton and Manchester City with 76 each, the worst defence was Preston with 74 goals let in.

Thus it is clear that the change had a profound effect with many more goals being scored, and clubs naturally took a while to get used to the notion.  Arsenal for example went up from 46 goals scored to 87.  But we must also note that the defence was worse.  The relegation threatened defence of 1924/5 let in 58.  The runner-up of the following season let in 63.

We remember Chapman today for the story of what happened after the Newcastle victory, but we don’t have clear insight into what other clubs were doing – but they must all have been considering the situation.  My suggestion is that the Chapman Buchan approach of pulling back the central midfield player into a deeper role was just one change among many.  Some managers would have been stick-in-the-muds, others would have tried difference approaches. The difference was, however, that the new Arsenal method worked a treat.





2 Replies to “From Failure to Excellence: moving from Knighton to Chapman”

  1. The name Milne crops up a lot in Arsenal’shistory. I would be very interested in info regarding players with this name who played for Arsenal and were on the staff in other roles.

    The change of the Law and the resulting new tactics don’t in my opinion anwer the question you ask and all who are interested in the club’s history ask.
    How was virtually the same team changed from losers to winners in the following season?

  2. Billy Milne was another of Arsenal’s long servants. He joined the club as a player shortly after the end of the First World War. When he retired from playing he became assistant trainer to Tom Whittaker. He eventually retired in 1960 succeeded by Bertie Mee.

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