Book review: Inverting the Pyramid

BOOK REVIEW: INVERTING THE PYRAMID: The History of Football Tactics, Jonathan Wilson

Orion 18.99

THIS must surely go down as one of the most revelatory sports books of the year, as well as one of the best.

Not that it is revelatory in what it says, more in how it says it. Simply: who would have thought that a book charting the history of football tactics and strategy, from the 1870s to the present day, could be so engrossing and entertaining?

And, indeed, page turning. There are a lot of pages – 350-odd – and a lot of text on each page, as well as handy diagrams showing team formations in some of the key matches under discussion, but there is nothing dry about Jonathan Wilson's book. Fears that it might resemble the football equivalent of a trainspotters' guide prove unfounded.

Broadly speaking, Wilson intelligently documents the evolution of modern football through the changes in formation, from the early, attack-oriented, line-ups – 2-3-5 being the pyramid favoured in the 1880s – through total football to today's vogue for just one dedicated striker. The theme has been one of increasing caution and defensiveness and it is interesting to speculate why: is it greater fear as the rewards and attendant pressures have increased at the expense of attacking football?

Wilson dwells on Scotland's significant contribution to football, and especially on this small nation's early reputation for slick, passing football with quick, skilful players, in marked contrast to England's more pragmatic style.

But his gaze shifts away from these islands to the coffee houses of Austria, and Hungary, and to South America, where the game – usually imported by Brits, often Scots – developed in its own way, and sometimes, as in Argentina from 1938-50, in isolation.

As Argentinian football drifted into reclusiveness, writes Wilson, their domestic game flourished. Crowds were enormous and a philosophy developed "which was founded on the joy of attacking. Between September 1936 and April 1938 there was not a single goalless draw in the Argentinian championship".

An interesting theory advanced by Wilson concerns the anti-intellectualism of British football. The "distrust of intellectualism" in Britain meant that the game wasn't thought about, or discussed, in the same way as it was elsewhere; in the coffee houses of Vienna, Budapest and Prague, for example, where "intellectuals and their acolytes would discuss the great affairs of the day: art, literature, drama and, increasingly in the 1920s, football".

Reading this, you can't help thinking that the dumbed-down world of British football – from monosyllabic player interviews to clich-spluttering pundits – still sets it apart, and holds it back.