Inverting The Pyramid

The History of Soccer Tactics


By Jonathan Wilson

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“An outstanding work the [soccer] book of the decade.” — Sunday Business Post

Inverting the Pyramid is a pioneering soccer book that chronicles the evolution of soccer tactics and the lives of the itinerant coaching geniuses who have spread their distinctive styles across the globe.

Through Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant historical detective work we learn how the South Americans shrugged off the British colonial order to add their own finesse to the game; how the Europeans harnessed individual technique and built it into a team structure; how the game once featured five forwards up front, while now a lone striker is not uncommon.

Inverting the Pyramid provides a definitive understanding of the tactical genius of modern-day Barcelona, for the first time showing how their style of play developed from Dutch “Total Football,” which itself was an evolution of the Scottish passing game invented by Queens Park in the 1870s and taken on by Tottenham Hotspur in the 1930s. Inverting the Pyramid has been called the “Big Daddy” (Zonal Marking) of soccer tactics books; it is essential for any coach, fan, player, or fantasy manager of the beautiful game.



Many of those who helped with the first edition were of great assistance also with this revised version so, again, I owe a debt of gratitude to them. But I must also thank Alexander Jackson of the National Football Museum for his wisdom on all things pre-war and his generosity in sharing research; Martin Cloake for his help with the additional material on the Spurs teams of Peter McWilliam and Arthur Rowe; Esteban Bekerman, Ed Malyon, Martin Mazur, Ezequiel Fernández Moores, Joel Richards, and Pablo Vignone for their advice in Argentina; and Tim Vickery for sharing his vast knowledge of the Brazilian game.

Additional thanks are due to Rob Smyth for his obsession with the Denmark team of the eighties and his generosity in sharing his analysis of them.

And thanks to Nick Wehmeier for coming up with the “Total Recall” chapter title.

I should, of course, reiterate my gratitude to my agent, David Luxton. At Orion, my thanks to Alan Samson and Paul Murphy for their help with this edition, and of course to my editor Ian Preece and the copyeditor John English. Thanks to Carl Bromley at Nation Books and to copyeditor Carrie Watterson and project editor Melissa Veronesi for their help with the US edition.

And huge thanks, as ever, to Kat Petersen, for her help and support and for essentially seeing subediting as a way of life.



In the beginning there was chaos, and soccer was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analyzed it. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognized or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgment that the arrangement of players on the field made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In its earliest form, though, soccer knew nothing of such sophistication.

Various cultures can point to games that involved kicking a ball, but, for all the claims of Rome, Greece, Egypt, the Caribbean, Mexico, China, or Japan to be the home of soccer, the modern sport has its roots in the mob game of medieval Britain. Rules—inasmuch as they existed at all—varied from place to place, but the game essentially involved two teams trying to force a roughly spherical object to a target at opposite ends of a notional field. It was violent, unruly, and anarchic, and it was repeatedly outlawed. Only in the early nineteenth century, when the public schools—their thinking shaped by advocates of muscular Christianity—decided that sports could be harnessed for the moral edification of their students, did anything approaching what we would today recognize as soccer emerge. Before there could be tactics, though, there had, first of all, to be a coherent set of rules.

Even by the end of the nineteenth century, when the earliest formations began to emerge, it was rare to subject them to too much thought. In soccer’s earliest days, the notion of abstract consideration of tactics, of charts with crosses and arrows, would have been all but inconceivable, and yet the development of the game is instructive in what it reveals of the mind-set of soccer, the unseen, often unacknowledged hard wiring from which stemmed British conceptions of how it should be played (and, for forty years after the rules were first drawn up, there was nothing but a British conception).

The boom came in the early Victorian era and, as David Winner demonstrates in Those Feet, was rooted in the idea that the empire was in decline and that moral turpitude was somehow to blame. Team sports, it was thought, were to be promoted because they discouraged solipsism, and solipsism allowed masturbation to flourish, and there could be nothing more debilitating than that. The Reverend Edward Thring, headmaster of Uppingham School, for instance, insisted in a sermon that it would lead to “early and dishonoured graves.” Soccer was seen as the perfect antidote, because, as E. A. C. Thompson would write in The Boys’ Champion Story Paper in 1901, “There is no more manly sport than football. It is so peculiarly and typically British, demanding pluck, coolness and endurance.”

There are very good politico-economic reasons for the coincidence, but there is also a neat symbolism in the fact that, after soccer had been used to shore up the empire, Britain’s ultimate decline as an imperial power coincided with the erosion of the home nations’ dominance in soccer. Soccer soared in popularity through the first half of the nineteenth century, but in those early days rules varied from school to school, largely according to conditions. At Cheltenham and Rugby, for instance, with their wide, open fields, the game differed little from the mob game. A player could fall on the ground, be fallen upon by a great many of his fellows, and emerge from the mud relatively unscathed. In the cloisters of Charterhouse and Westminster, though, such rough-and-tumble play would have led to broken bones, so it was there that the dribbling game developed. That outlawed—or at least restricted—handling of the ball, but the game still differed radically from modern soccer. Formations were unheard of, while the length of the game and even the numbers of players on each side were still to be established. Essentially, prefects or older pupils would run with the ball at their feet, their teammates lined up behind them (backing up) in case the ball bounced loose in a tackle, while the opposition players—or, at certain schools, fags (that is, younger pupils who were effectively their servants)—would try to stop them.

Interplay among forwards, if it happened at all, was rudimentary, and from that sprouted certain fundamentals that would shape the course of early English soccer: the game was all about dribbling; passing, cooperation, and defending were perceived as somehow inferior. Head-down charging, certainly, was to be preferred to thinking, a manifestation, some would say, of the English attitude to life in general. In the public schools, thinking tended to be frowned upon as a matter of course. (As late as 1946, the Hungarian comic writer George Mikes could write of how, when he had first arrived in Britain, he had been proud when a woman called him “clever,” only to realize later the loadedness of the term and the connotations of untrustworthiness it carried.)

The differing sets of rules frustrated efforts to establish soccer at universities until, in 1848, H. C. Malden of Godalming, Surrey, convened a meeting in his rooms at Cambridge with representatives of Harrow, Eton, Rugby, Winchester, and Shrewsbury—and, remarkably, two nonpublic schools—at which were collated what might be considered the first unified Laws of the Game. “The new rules were printed as the ‘Cambridge Rules,’” Malden wrote. “Copies were distributed and pasted up on Parker’s Piece [an area of open grassland in the center of the city], and very satisfactorily they worked, for it is right to add that they were loyally kept and I never heard of any public school man who gave up playing for not liking the rules.”

Fourteen years later the southern version of the game took another step towards uniformity as J. C. Thring—the younger brother of Edward, the Uppingham headmaster—having been thwarted in an earlier attempt to draw up a set of unified rules at Cambridge, brought out a set of ten laws entitled “The Simplest Game.” The following October, another variant, the “Cambridge University Football Rules,” was published. Crucially, a month later, the Football Association was formed, and it immediately set about trying to determine a definitive set of laws of the game, intending still to combine the best elements of both the dribbling and the handling game.

It failed. The debate was long and furious but, after a fifth meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, at 7:00 p.m. on December 8, 1863, carrying the ball by hand was outlawed, and soccer and rugby went their separate ways. The dispute, strangely, was not over the use of the hand but over hacking; that is, whether kicking opponents in the shins should be allowed. F. W. Campbell of Blackheath was very much in favor. “If you do away with [hacking],” he said, “you will do away with all the courage and pluck of the game, and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice.” Sports, he appears to have believed, were about pain, brutality, and manliness; without that, if it actually came down to skill, any old foreigner might be able to win. A joke it may have been, but that his words were part of a serious debate is indicative of the general ethos, even if Blackheath did end up resigning from the association when hacking was eventually outlawed.

The dribbling game prevailed, largely because of Law 6, the forerunner of the offside law: “When a player has kicked the ball, anyone of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal-line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play.” In other words, passes had to be either lateral or backward; for Englishmen convinced that anything other than charging directly at a target was suspiciously subtle and unmanly, that would clearly never do.

Dribbling itself was rather different from modern conceptions of the art. In his history of the FA Cup, Geoffrey Green, the late soccer correspondent of the Times of London, quotes an unnamed writer of the 1870s:

A really first-class player… will never lose sight of the ball, at the same time keeping his attention employed in the spying out of any gaps in the enemy’s ranks, or any weak points in the defence, which may give him a favourable chance of arriving at the coveted goal. To see some players guide and steer a ball through a circle of opposing legs, turning and twisting as the occasion requires, is a sight not to be forgotten.… Skill in dribbling… necessitates something more than a go-ahead, fearless, headlong onslaught of the enemy’s citadel; it requires an eye quick at discovering a weak point, and nous to calculate and decide the chances of a successful passage.

In terms of shape, it sounds rather like an elementary form of modern rugby union, only without any handling.

Tactics—if that is not too grand a word in the circumstances—were similarly basic, even after the number of players had been fixed at eleven. Teams simply chased the ball. It wasn’t even until the 1870s that the goalkeeper became a recognized and universally accepted position, not until 1909 that he began to wear a different colored shirt than the rest of his team, and not until 1912 that he was restricted to handling the ball only in his own box—a rule change implemented to thwart the Sunderland goalkeeper Leigh Richmond Roose’s habit of bouncing the ball to the halfway line. If there were a formation at all in those earliest days, it would probably have been classified as two or three backs, with nine or eight forwards.

Even when Law 6 was changed in 1866, following Eton’s convention and permitting a forward pass provided there were at least three members of the defensive team between the player and the opponent’s goal when the ball was played (i.e., one more than the modern offside law), it seems to have made little difference to those brought up on the dribbling game. As late as the 1870s, Charles W. Alcock, a leading early player and administrator (and the first man to be caught offside after the 1866 law change), was writing evangelically of “the grand and essential principle of backing up. By ‘backing up,’ of course, I shall be understood to mean the following closely on a fellow-player to assist him, if required, or to take on the ball in the case of his being attacked, or otherwise prevented from continuing his onward course.” In other words, even a decade after the establishment of the FA, one of the founding fathers of the game considered it necessary to explain to others that if one of their teammates were charging head down at goal, it might be an idea to go and help him—although expecting to receive the ball from him volitionally seems to have been a step too far.

That, at least, is how it was in the south. The north was making its own advances, particularly in south Yorkshire, where a combination of Old Harrovian teachers at Sheffield College and the traditional folk games of Holmfirth and Penistone led to the establishment of the Sheffield Club on October 24, 1857, initially as a way for cricketers to stay fit during the winter. On Boxing Day that year, the world’s first interclub match was played as they beat Hallam Football Club 2–0. The sport grew rapidly: within five years crowds of several hundred were common, and fifteen clubs had been established in the area. The Sheffield Club drew up its own set of rules, published in 1862, which, significantly, although showing the influence of Harrow, Rugby, and Winchester, made no mention of offside.

There appears, though, to have been some regulation, because when Sheffield’s secretary William Chesterman wrote to the newly founded Football Association on November 30, 1863, submitting the club’s subscription and his contribution to the debate over laws, he noted, “We have no printed rule at all like your No. 6, but I have written in the book a rule, which is always played by us.” Exactly what that was remains unclear. Sheffield’s formal acceptance of offside came only in 1865, as part of horse trading over rules ahead of a game against Notts County, and even then it required only one defensive player to be goal side of the forward when the ball was played for him to be onside. That, clearly, made passing far more viable, although it is debatable to what extent the opportunities it provided were taken up.

The FA failed to respond to Sheffield’s overtures, and so for several years two codes—or rather, two basic codes, because there were also variations in Nottingham and other cities—existed. They met for the first time in 1866, with a match between London and Sheffield in Battersea Park on March 31, 1866. London won 2–0, with contemporary reports suggesting they were the more skillful side but had been unsettled by Sheffield’s physicality.

After much back and forth over whose regulations to play by, Alcock brought a London team to Sheffield in December 1871. Playing under Sheffield rules, the home team won 3–1, their victory generally being attributed to their organized formation. That, taken in conjunction with their more liberal offside law, might suggest a passing game, but it seems Sheffield were rather more rooted in dribbling even than London. According to Percy M. Young in Football in Sheffield, the Sheffield players found “the dribbling skill of Alcock quite outside their range of experience. Moreover, Alcock was alive to the virtues of the well-placed pass (the local players adopted the simpler and more direct method of ignoring their own colleagues and making straight for goal on every possible occasion) and the delicate combination between himself and Chenery was a revelation to 2,000 delighted spectators.” There would be eighteen further meetings before Sheffield finally came into the FA fold in 1878.

There may not have been a culture of passing in Sheffield, but it does seem they would punt the ball long to clear their lines. In Soccer: The World Game, Geoffrey Green notes that when Sheffield players arrived in London for an exhibition match in 1875 and began “butting the ball with their heads,” the crowd regarded it as “something for amusement rather than admiration.” In a pure dribbling game, of course, there would have been no need for the ball ever to leave the ground, other—perhaps—than to lift it over a challenging foot. Only if the ball were played a significant distance in the air would heading have been necessary.

The Scottish Football Association annual’s report of an 1877 match between Glasgow and Sheffield makes the point clearly:

That the game was a very well contested one, and victory has rested with the best side, no one will deny; but that it was a pretty game, abounding in fine displays of combined dribbling, which has frequently distinguished a Scottish team above all others, few will admit.… The fact cannot be hidden… that the tactics pursued by the Sheffield team on Saturday were partially responsible for this inasmuch as they play a different set of rules from those of the English and Scottish Associations, and to them our “off-side” rule is next to a dead letter. In this manner, long kicking was largely indulged in on Saturday on their side; and in order to meet the same style of play, the Glasgow men actually lost that united action which had led them on to victory in many a harder fought field.

The spread of passing itself—that “united action”—can be traced back to one game, soccer’s first international, played between England and Scotland at the West of Scotland Cricket Ground, Partick, in 1872. England’s lineup comprised a goal, a three-quarter back, a half-back, a fly-kick, four players listed simply as “middle,” two as “left side,” and one as “right side,” which, to try to apply modern notation, sounds like something approximating a lop-sided 1–2–7. “The formation of a team as a rule,” Alcock noted, “… was to provide for seven forwards, and only four players to constitute the three lines of defence. The last line was, of course, the goalkeeper, and in front of him was only one full-back, who had again before him but two forwards, to check the rushes of the opposing forwards.”

Scotland were represented by the Queen’s Park club, which, until the foundation of the Scottish FA in 1873, governed the Scottish game—functioning much like the Marylebone Cricket Club in cricket or the Royal and Ancient in golf. Crucially, they were about eighteen pounds per man lighter than England. It is indicative of the physicality of early soccer that most pundits seemed to have expected that weight advantage would give England a comfortable victory, but what it actually did was to stimulate the imagination. Although direct evidence is sketchy, it seems probable that, as Richard McBrearty of the Scottish Football Museum argues, Queen’s Park decided they had to try to pass the ball around England rather than engage in a more direct man-to-man contest in which they were likely to be outmuscled, and their formation was very definitely a 2–2–6. The ploy paid off. England, with a more established tradition and a far larger pool of players from which to select, were firm favorites, but they were held to a goalless draw. “The Englishmen,” the report in the Glasgow Herald said, “had all the advantage in respect of weight, their average being about two stones heavier than the Scotchmen [a slight exaggeration], and they also had the advantage in pace. The strong point with the home club was that they played excellently well together.”

First International: Scotland 0 England 0, Partick, 30 November 1872

That success may have confirmed the notion of passing as superior to dribbling—north of the border at least—but it could never have worked had passing not been part of the game in Scotland almost from the start. When the Queen’s Park club was established in 1867, the version of the offside law they adopted held that a player was infringing only if he were both beyond the penultimate man and in the final fifteen yards of the field. That, clearly, was legislation far more conducive to passing than either the FA’s first offside law or its 1866 revision. Queen’s Park accepted the three-man variant when they joined the FA on November 9, 1870, but by then the idea of passing was already implanted. In Scotland the ball was there to be kicked, not merely dribbled, as H. N. Smith’s poem celebrating Queen’s Park’s victory over Hamilton Gymnasium in 1869 suggests:

The men are picked—the ball is kicked,

High in the air it bounds;

O’er many a head the ball is sped…

Robert Smith, a Queen’s Park member and Scotland’s right-winger in that first international, remarked after playing in the first of the four matches Alcock arranged between England and a team of London-based Scots that were the forerunners to proper internationals. “While the ball was in play,” he wrote in a letter back to his club, “the practice was to run or dribble the ball with the feet, instead of indulging in high or long balls.”

One of Queen’s Park’s motivations in joining the English association was to try to alleviate the difficulties they were having finding opponents who would agree to play by a standard set of rules. In the months leading up to their acceptance into the FA, they played games of ten, fourteen, fifteen and sixteen a side, and in 1871–1872 they managed just three games. “The club, however,” Richard Robinson wrote in his 1920 history of Queen’s Park, “never neglected practice.” Their isolation and regular matches among themselves meant that idiosyncrasies became more pronounced—as they would for Argentina in the thirties—and so the passing game was effectively hot housed, free from the irksome obstacle of bona fide opponents. “In these [practice] games,” Robinson went on,

the dribbling and passing… which raised the Scottish game to the level of fine art, were developed. Dribbling was a characteristic of English play, and it was not until very much later that the Southerners came to see that the principles laid down in the Queen’s Park method of transference of the ball, accompanied by strong backing up, were those that got the most out of the team. Combination was the chief characteristic of the Queen’s Park’s play. These essentials struck Mr C. W. Alcock and in one of his earlier Football Annuals formed the keynote for a eulogium on Scottish players, accompanied by earnest dissertations advocating the immediate adoption by English players of the methods which had brought the game to such a high state of proficiency north of the Tweed.

Alcock, in fact, was nowhere near as convinced as that. Although he professed himself intrigued by the “combination game”—and for all the prowess he had shown at Sheffield—he expressed doubt in that annual of 1879 as to whether “a wholesale system of passing pays.” Passing, he evidently believed, was all very well as an option, but should never be allowed to supplant the dribbling game.

Nonetheless, it quickly spread, particularly in Scotland, where the influence of Queen’s Park was all encompassing, leading ultimately to the highly romanticized “pattern-weaving” approach, characterized by strings of short passes zigzagging between the forward and half lines. Queen’s Park organized the Scotland side for the first two internationals and even after the foundation of the Scottish Football Association remained a powerful voice in shaping the sport. They acted as evangelists, traveling across the country to play exhibition games. Records of a match against Vale of Leven, who became one of the early powerhouses of Scottish soccer, describe the game being stopped at regular intervals so the rules and playing methods could be described, while a game in Edinburgh in 1873 kick-started soccer in the capital. It is perhaps indicative of the impact of those matches that the Borders remain a rugby stronghold: a missionary game Queen’s Park were scheduled to play there had to be canceled because of FA Cup commitments, so soccer’s seeds were never sown. As McBrearty points out, Scotland’s demographics, with the majority of the population living in the central belt between the Glasgow and Edinburgh conurbations, made it far easier for one particular style to take hold than it was in England, where each region had its own idea of how the game should be played.

Queen’s Park’s tactics in the first international raised eyebrows in England, but the southward spread of the passing game can be attributed largely to two men: Henry Renny-Tailyour and John Blackburn, who played for Scotland in their victory over England in the second international. Both were lieutenants in the army and both played their club soccer for the Royal Engineers, carrying the Scottish style with them to Kent. “The Royal Engineers were the first football team to introduce the ‘combination’ style of play,” W. E. Clegg, a former Sheffield player, wrote in the Sheffield Independent in 1930. “Formerly the matches Sheffield played with them were won by us, but we were very much surprised that between one season and another they had considered ‘military football tactics’ with the result that Sheffield was badly beaten by the new conditions of play.”

The passing approach was implanted in school soccer by the Reverend Spencer Walker, as he returned as a master to Lancing College, where he had been a pupil, and set about turning “a mere bally-rag into a well-ordered team.” “The first thing I fell upon,” he wrote, “was the crowding of all the forwards on the leading forward. They crowded round him wherever they went. So I made Rule 1: Fixed places for all the forwards, with passing the ball from one to the other. You should have seen the faces of our first opponents, a sort of ‘Where do we come in?’ look.”

For all Alcock’s skepticism, it gradually became apparent that passing was the future. The Old Carthusians side that beat the Old Etonians 3–0 in the 1881 FA Cup final was noted for its combinations, particularly those between E. M. F. Prinsep and E. H. Parry, although the following year the Old Etonian goal that saw off Blackburn Rovers, the first northern side to reach the final, stemmed, Green wrote in his history of the FA Cup, from “a long dribble and cross-pass” from A. T. B. Dunn that laid in W. H. Anderson. Still, the Etonians were essentially a dribbling side.

The final flourish of the dribbling game came in 1883. For the first time the cup received more entries from outside London than from within, and for the first time the cup went north as Blackburn Olympic beat Old Etonians in the final. The amateur era—at least in terms of mind-set—was over; something acknowledged two years later when the FA legalized professionalism.

All the Olympic side had full-time jobs, and it caused something of a stir when their half-back and de facto manager, Jack Hunter, took them to Blackpool for a training camp before the final. This was very evidently not the effortless superiority to which the amateurs aspired. Early in the game, injury reduced the Etonians to ten men, but it is doubtful whether they would have been able to cope with Olympic’s unfamiliar tactic of hitting long sweeping passes from wing to wing. The winning goal, scored deep in extra time, was characteristic of the game as a whole: a cross-field ball from Tommy Dewhurst (a weaver) on the right found Jimmy Costley (a spinner) advancing in space on the left, and he had the composure to beat J. F. P. Rawlinson in the Etonian goal.


  • “A wonderful and comprehensive treatment of this important topic. Make sure to secure the revised and updated edition, of course.”—Stan Veuge, Senior Fellow, Economic Policy, American Enterprise Institute

On Sale
Aug 14, 2018
Page Count
480 pages
Bold Type Books

Jonathan Wilson

About the Author

Jonathan Wilson is the author of eight books, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named NSC Football Book of the Year in 2009 and won the Premio Antonio Ghirelli prize as Italian soccer book of the year in 2013. His books Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football; The Anatomy of England; and The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper were shortlisted for the NSC award in 2007, 2011, and 2013. Wilson is the founder and editor of the soccer quarterly the Blizzard, writes for the Guardian, FoxSoccer, and Sports Illustrated, and is a columnist for World Soccer. He was voted Football Writer of the Year by the Football Supporters Federation in 2012.

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