Chapman’s real innovations as a football manager

By Tony Attwood

This is an article in our series on Herbert Chapman.  The full index of the series to date is to be found in the Chapman page of the Managers’ Index

We have heard so much about how Herbert Chapman revolutionised Arsenal, introducing the WM formation after being beaten 7-0 by Newcastle, how he introduced the white sleeves, renamed the Gillespie Road station, added the clock and changed the name of the club.

Some stories are true, some untrue, and some maybe – as we are learning by digging ever deeper into Chapman’s life at Arsenal.

But here is something else – something that rarely gets much of a mention.

Chapman believed fervently in have a close bond with his players – most particularly his captain.  Indeed the story goes that Chapman and Buchan hatched up the WM formation together after that Newcastle game.

But Chapman went further.  He believed that players could become better players than ever if you can communicate ideas with them – get them inside the psychology of the team.

His view was that while players would argue about the playing of a hand of cards they didn’t want to argue or debate a game of football, and he found them shy and nervous about talking about football.  They just did it – it was natural to them – so they didn’t feel able to explain quite what they had done.  As he said in one article “They say ‘yes’ to everything!”

So he decided to take matters into his own hands and had the diagram of a football pitch marked up on a table in his office, facing the players as they came into the room.  Chapman’s view was that it was of incredible use to him.

Of course today with Sky’s strange digital analyses, and all the stuff that newspapers and other TV channels throw at us, with a billion lines travelling in each direction showing complete and incomplete passes, a single board with a few marks on it seems almost bizarre.   But we are talking of 100 years ago as Chapman tried the idea out at Leeds, Huddersfield and then at the Arsenal.

The other problem he found in this area of work was that of getting the players to talk constructively about each other’s performance.   Chapman insisted that for each home game, the Arsenal team would assemble at a hotel, have a light lunch, and discuss the tactics and approach of the opposition.

The most amazing thing of this revelation is that no one else was doing it at the time!   We don’t now see it listed as a Chapman innovation, and yet that is exactly what it was.

His central point here was that there was no value in the manager doing all the talking.  What he needed was to have the players open up – something they were very reluctant to do.

Included in these discussions – and another major step forwards – was that Chapman made sure that the Arsenal players knew exactly where the opposition as weakest.   What’s more, if the master plan was not working, because the opposition had sensed what Arsenal might do, he had no hesitation in turning the game around at half time.

Finally Chapman reported that he learned more from these open and frank team talks with the whole team – with everyone chipping in with their own ideas – than he ever did from any other situation.

How strange it is then, that these true innovations, that Chapman himself wrote about, are now set aside, and we speak instead of stories such as the changing of the club name – which have been shown to be quite untrue.

Tony Attwood


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