Chapman’s real secret: how the club was organised during his reign

By Tony Attwood

A little while ago I wrote up an analysis of how Herbert Chapman, over a period of years, built a great team, working on each position in turn until he had the definitive player for the role.   Then as that player’s ability declined, or if he suffered a really bad injury, he already had the next player coming through.

Sounds simple – and in many ways it was.  But there was more.  Here I outline some of his philosophies which bolstered that simple approach.  Today, many of these comments will seem commonplace, but you must recall these notions were being talked about by Herbert Chapman 80 to 90 years ago.  As such they are incredibly telling.

1.  Play the same system throughout the club.

This is what we expect today.  Arsenal’s under 21s and under 18s play in the same style and format as the first team.   But in the 1920s we were only about 20 years into the notion that clubs should have a recognised format at all, and in the immediate post-war years there were still many matches in which the team talk was little more than suggesting that one particular player played out wide and another in the middle.  Chapman stressed that the London Combination (ie reserve) team played in the same style as the first team.

Chapman also added that players with outstanding individual flare and skill were never hampered by the system – but even this had a caveat for he wrote in one of his Daily Express articles, “It is only when the team are, say, two goals up that they may claim the licence to be spectacular.”

2.  Players should watch football.

This again was not the norm when a player was injured or out of favour and there was no reserve match.   What’s more, Chapman argued that players who watched the game from the stands should not “eat sweets and chain smoke cigarettes” – watching matches was an important part of their job.  Smoking however was never banned.

After the game Chapman also asked players to give their views on what they had seen, what went right, what wrong.

Further all the juniors at the clubs would also be expected to attend games and go through the same ritual of answering questions.  Everyone had to know their football.  No one was accepted because of talent alone.

3.  Discipline is fundamental

“I will never tolerate slackness,” Chapman wrote.  “I can’t be bothered with any man unless he is prepared to give his whole mind to his job.”

The job in this case was the success of the team – not just in doing his bit, but in watching the whole process of the game and he argued that players should be made to take a course in mental training, so that they could see the whole flow of the game, and pull their weight for the whole team.

4.  Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork

Even the great stars were told over and over, they were members of the team.  OK, again you would expect that today – but think back to the stories of clubs in the 1910 era and this was nothing like the style, for then players were individuals.  Chapman’s view was, “No player can be worth his price unless he becomes a team man.”

Chapman used Alex James as his prime example.  At Preston, his previous club, he played as an individual and would hardly ever be seen running back to help the team out in defence.  Many therefore suggested that he would never make it as part of the Arsenal Collective.  But Chapman got James to change his ways.

Thus the star player would never dominate the team, and never be so great that his loss would destroy the team.  Chapman compared the Arsenal way with that of Tottenham (for whom he played) pointing out that Arthur Grimsdell was such a major influence on Tottenham that when he dropped out of the side, Tottenham were relegated.

5.  Finding new players

This is one of the most interesting points, because we know from his autobiography that Chapman’s predecessor at the club as manager claimed he was restricted in who he could buy – and (he alleged) the whole scouting network was wound up.

That Chapman had a reverse experience once more puts the views of that notorious autobiography in question.

Chapman wrote: “Ever week the club representatives engage in trying to find players. … Every Monday morning I receive the reports from the Arsenal scouts, and the information is reviewed and filed.   “If a player should suddenly be needed I do not want to be in the position of wondering where he can be found,” he wrote.

And, he added, “the most familiar report I receive is: “Not good enough for you”.

I’ll continue the series of ways in which Chapman transformed the club in the next article


One Reply to “Chapman’s real secret: how the club was organised during his reign”

  1. Wenger’s approach is not too far away from that of Chapman’s, the only definitive different in the area of training a player for a particular position and also replacing a player lost to injury or out of form is that I didn’t read in the article that Chapman would train a super star and sell him at the peak of his career. That has been Wenger’s weakest point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *