20100417

A trumpeter for the Pyramid

Having announced himself as a football writer of note with Behind the Curtain, his journey around Eastern European football, Jonathan Wilson seemed to be taking an enormous risk when he set about trying to entertain his newly-acquired audience with a history of football tactics.

It just seemed too dry, too narrow a subject. The kind of person who would identify Dario Gradi as an ideal dinner guest might find it fascinating. But beyond that...?

In fact, Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics has been among the top sellers among football books since it was released in paperback last June. Up to press, 37,000 copies have been printed and it is being translated into seven languages.

Gary Naylor, aka Mouth of the Mersey and the Tooting Trumpet, provided The Sports Bookshelf with the following review:

"Riquelme has become less a player than a cipher for an ideology". This elegant biography in a sentence turns up on page 326 of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics. If you're even mildly engaged by those twelve words, the 351 pages that surround them will reward you with an extraordinarily rich rollercoaster ride through what is less a history of football tactics, more a history of men thinking about football.

Fortunately our guide, Jonathan Wilson, presents his history in an orthodox chronological structure as we flit from continent to continent, looking on, as the pyramid (the formation in which a team is set up) is not so much inverted as perverted from 2-3-5 to 3-2-2-3 (the classic WM) to 4-1-4-1 and all points in between. Tantalisingly, a possible future of 4-6-0 is mooted - indeed Sir Alex Ferguson's Champions League winners may well have played this formation without us realising.

But it would be a huge disservice to the writer to give the impression that this is a technical theoretical treatise - like the best popular history, the writer wears his learning lightly without ever talking down to his readers. And, also characteristic of the genre, the narrative is packed with unforgettable portraits of extraordinary men. Wanderers like Jimmy Hogan embedded football thinking in central Europe and Bela Guttmann proselytised his 4-2-4 gospel from continent to continent. Great teams, as well known as Hungary's 1953 vanquishers of England and as forgotten as Austria's inter-war Wunderteam, are brought to life as if they were playing last week. Influential players, like the tragic Matthias Sindelar and coaching innovators like Arrigo Sacchi are placed within the wider ebb and flow of football thinking and given due credit for their willingness to theorise, then practise new ways of playing football.

One puts the book down with two overwhelming feelings. Firstly, that the game is so very much richer than is generally perceived in Britain - never mind 6-0-6 callers pleading for a "bit of passion" as the panacea for all English footballers' shortcomings, how about the sheer blinkeredness of those paid to explain the game, from TV pundits to writers in the Press Box? Secondly, that the game is evolving more rapidly than ever before and that British managers and coaches (one florid-featured Manchester-based pensioner excepted) are as emotionally and psychologically distant they have ever been from such developments. If I live thirty more years, I am more convinced than ever that I will not see England win a World Cup.

Oh, just one last thing. On page 284, Watford didn't beat Everton 5-4, they lost 4-5. I know - I was there and nothing quite beats that, even if Wilson's book comes mighty close.

You can read more by Naylor under his Tooting Trumpet hat at 99.94, which presents "cricket analysis from beyond the boundary".

Wilson's latest book The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten Matches is due for release on May 20th.

For more by Jonathan Wilson and more on football, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.

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