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How Football Tactics Were Born

by Jonathan Wilson
4 July 2010

The success of Jose Mourinho's Inter and Vicente del Bosque's Spain have shown that today's game is all about tactics. Here's how it all started...

In the beginning there was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists, who analysed it. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that tactics in anything resembling a modern sense came to be recognised or discussed, but as early as the 1870s there was an acknowledgement that the arrangement of players on the pitch made a significant difference to the way the game was played. In its earliest form, though, football knew nothing of such sophistication, and so it continued for around half a century.
For the importance of tactics fully to be realised, the game had to be taken up by a social class that instinctively theorised and deconstructed, that was as comfortable with planning in the abstract as it was with reacting on the field and, crucially, that suffered none of the distrust of intellectualism that was to be found in Britain. That happened in central Europe between the wars. What was demonstrated by the Uruguayans and Argentinians was explained by a – largely Jewish – section of the Austrian and Hungarian bourgeoisie. The modern way of understanding and discussing the game was invented in the coffee houses of Vienna.

Football boomed in Austria in the twenties, with the establishment of a two-tier professional league in 1924. That November the Neues Wiener Journal asked, ‘Where else can you see at least 40–50,000 spectators gathering Sunday after Sunday at all the sports stadiums, rain or shine? Where else is a majority of the population so interested in the results of games that in the evening you can hear almost every other person talking about the results of the league matches and the club’s prospects for the coming games?’ The answer was easy: Britain aside, nowhere else in Europe.

But where in Britain the discussion of games took place in the pub, in Austria it took place in the coffee house. In Britain football had begun as a pastime of the public schools, but by the 1930s it had become a resolutely working-class sport; in central Europe, it had followed a more complex arc, introduced by the Anglophile upper middle classes, rapidly adopted by the working classes, and then, although the majority of the players remained working class, seized upon by intellectuals.
Football in central Europe was an almost entirely urban phenomenon, centred around Vienna, Budapest and Prague, and it was in those cities that coffee-house culture was at its strongest. The coffee house flourished towards the end of the Habsburg Empire, becoming a public salon, a place where men and women of all classes mingled, but which became particularly noted for its artistic, bohemian aspect. People would read the newspapers there; pick up mail and laundry; play cards and chess. Political candidates used them as venues for meetings and debates, while intellectuals and their acolytes would discuss the great affairs of the day: art, literature, drama and, increasingly in the twenties, football.

The modern way of understanding and discussing the game was invented in the coffee houses of Vienna.

Each club had its own café, where players, supporters, directors and writers would mix. Fans of Austria Vienna, for instance, met in the Café Parsifal; Rapid fans in the Café Holub. The hub of the football scene in the inter-war years, though, was the Ring Café. It had been the hang-out of the anglophile cricket community, but by 1930 it was the centre of the broader football community. It was, according to a piece written in Welt am Montag after the war, ‘a kind of revolutionary parliament of the friends and fanatics of football; one-sided club interest could not prevail because just about every Viennese club was present.’
The impact of football on the wider culture is made clear by the career of the Rapid centre-forward Josef Uridil. He came from the suburbs – in the Vienna of the time edgy, working-class districts – and his robust style of play was celebrated as exemplifying the proletarian roots of the club. He was the first football hero of the coffee house, and, in 1922, became the subject of a song by the noted cabaret artist Hermann Leopoldi, ‘Heute spielt der Uridil’, which was so successful that it spread his fame even to those with no interest in football. He began advertising a range of products from soap to fruit juice and, by February 1924, he was appearing as a compère at a music hall while at the same time Pflicht und Ehre, a film in which he appeared as himself, was showing in cinemas.
It was into that environment that Hugo Meisl’s Wunderteam exploded. The trend through the late twenties was upward and, despite a poor start, they narrowly missed out on the inaugural Dr Gerö Cup, a thirty-month league tournament also featuring Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland. After losing three of their opening four games, they hammered Hungary 5-1 and the eventual winners Italy 3-0, finishing runners-up by a point. In the Ring, they weren’t satisfied, and agitated for the selection of Matthias Sindelar, a gifted, almost cerebral, forward from Austria Vienna, a club strongly associated with the Jewish bourgeoisie.

He was a new style of centre-forward, a player of such slight stature that he was nicknamed ‘Der Papierene’ – ‘the Paper-man’. There was an air of flimsy genius about him that led writers to compare his creativity to theirs: a fine sense of timing and of drama, a flair for both the spontaneous and the well-crafted. In his 1978 collection Die Erben der Tante Jolesch, Friedrich Torberg, one of the foremost of the coffee-house writers, wrote that: ‘He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be expected. He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern. He just had … genius.’
Hugo Meisl, though, was doubtful. He had given Sindelar his international debut as a twenty three year old in 1926 but, for all that he stood in the vanguard of the new conception of football, Meisl was, at heart, a conservative. Everything he did tactically could be traced back to a nostalgic attempt to recreate the style of the Rangers tourists of 1905: he insisted on the pattern-weaving mode of passing, ignored the coming of the third back, and retained a sense that a centre-forward should be a physical totem, somebody, in fact, like Uridil.
Uridil and Sindelar were both from Moravian immigrant families, both grew up in the suburbs and both became celebrities (Sindelar too played himself in a film and supplemented his footballer’s income by advertising wrist-watches and dairy products), but they had little else in common. As Torberg put it, ‘They can only be compared as regards popularity; in terms of technique, invention, skill, in short, in terms of culture, they were as different from each other as a tank from a wafer.’

‘In a way he had brains in his legs,’ Polgar said of Sindelar.

Finally, in 1931, Meisl succumbed to the pressure and turned to Sindelar, installing him as a fixture in the team. The effects were extraordinary, and on 16 May 1931, Austria thrashed Scotland 5-0. Two-and-a-half years on from the Wembley Wizards’ 5-1 demolition of England, Scotland found themselves just as outmanoeuvred by the same game, taken to yet greater heights. They were, admittedly, without any Rangers or Celtic players, fielded seven debutants and lost Daniel Liddle to an early injury, while Colin McNab played on as a virtual passenger after suffering a blow to the head towards the end of the first half, but the Daily Record was in no doubt what it had witnessed: ‘Outclassed!’ it roared. ‘There can be no excuses’. Only the heroics of John Jackson, the goalkeeper, prevented an even greater humiliation.
Given England had been beaten 5-2 by France in Paris two days earlier, that week now seems to stand as a threshold, as the moment at which it became impossible to deny the rest of the world had caught up with Britain (not that that stopped the British newspapers and football authorities trying). The Arbeiter-Zeitung caught the mood perfectly. ‘If there was an elegiac note in watching the decline of the ideal the Scots represented for us, even yesterday, it was all the more refreshing to witness a triumph that sprang from true artistry,’ it wrote. ‘Eleven footballers, eleven professionals – certainly, there are more important sides to life, yet this was ultimately a tribute to Viennese aesthetic sense, imagination and passion.’
For the Wunderteam, that was just the beginning. Playing a traditional 2-3-5 with an elegant attacking centre-half in Josef Smistik – but with an unorthodox centre-forward who encouraged such fluidity that their system became known as ‘the Danubian Whirl’ – Austria won nine and drew two of their next eleven games, scoring forty-four goals and winning the second edition of the Dr Gerö Cup in the process. The coffee houses were jubilant: their way of doing things had prevailed, largely because of Sindelar, a player who was, to their self-romanticising eye, the coffee house made flesh. ‘He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess: with a broad mental conception, calculating moves and countermoves in advance, always choosing the most promising of all possibilities,’ the theatre critic Alfred Polgar wrote in his obituary in the Pariser Tageszeitung, an article remarkable for how many fundamental themes it drew together.
There was the analogy to chess Galeano had used to describe the Uruguayans of the twenties and, later still, Anatoliy Zelentsov would apply to Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv. The influence of Hogan and his obsession with the instant control of the ball was apparent, as Polgar went on: ‘He was an unequalled trapper of a ball, and a stager of surprise counter-attacks, inexhaustibly devising tactical feints which were followed by the true attacking move that his deception had made irresistible, the opponents having been cunningly fooled by a flash of skill.’
And, then, perhaps most strikingly, he pre-empts the thinking of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould on ‘the universality of excellence’. ‘I don’t deny the differences in style and substance between athletic and conventional scholarly performance,’ Gould wrote, ‘but we surely err in regarding sports as a domain of brutish intuition… The greatest athletes cannot succeed by bodily gifts alone… One of the most intriguing, and undeniable, properties of great athletic performance lies in the impossibility of regulating certain central skills by overt mental deliberation: the required action simply doesn’t grant sufficient time for the sequential processing of conscious decisions.’ ‘In a way he had brains in his legs,’ Polgar said of Sindelar, ‘and many remarkable and unexpected things occurred to them while they were running. Sindelar’s shot hit the back of the net like the perfect punch-line, the ending that made it possible to understand and appreciate the perfect composition of the story, the crowning of which it represented.’
And then, in December 1932, came the Wunderteam’s greatest test: England. They were not the best side in the world, far from it, but the world respected them for their influence over the development of the game and, at home, they remained unbeaten against foreign opposition. Spain had exposed England’s vulnerability by beating them in Madrid in 1929, but two years later they felt the full force of the backlash, being hammered 7-1 at Highbury. Buoyed by the victory over Scotland, many in Austria were exuberantly hopeful, but Meisl, who always tended to pessimism, was concerned, and turned to his old friend and mentor, Jimmy Hogan.
Disenchanted with England, Hogan had moved to Switzerland in 1921, spending three years with Young Boys of Berne and then Lausanne, before returning to Budapest with MTK, in their new guise as FC Hungária. He then moved to Germany, working as an advisor to the football federation, coaching SC Dresden – where one of his pupils was Helmut Schön, who was assistant to Sepp Herberger when West Germany won the World Cup in 1954, and led them to victory himself in 1974 – and generally evangelising for a technically adept style of football that would ensure English football was soon overhauled by Europe.
He was initially greeted with suspicion and, when various local coaches complained about his lack of fluency in German, the German FA asked Hogan to prove himself by delivering a lecture without a translator. It began badly, as Hogan inadvertently presented himself as ‘a professor of languages, not a master of football’, and got steadily worse. Attempting to stress the importance of the mind in football, he told his bemused audience that it was a game not merely of the body, but also of the committee. Faced with laughter and derision, Hogan called for a ten-minute intermission and left the stage. When he returned, he was wearing his Bolton Wanderers kit. He removed his boots and his socks and, telling his audience that three-quarters of German players could not kick the ball properly, smashed a right-footed shot barefoot into a wooden panel 15 yards away. As the ball bounced back to him he noted the value of being two-footed and let fly with another shot, this time with his left foot. This time the panel split in two. His point proved, Hogan undertook a lecture tour, in one month alone speaking to 5,000 footballers in the Dresden area. When he died in 1974, the then secretary of the German Football Federation (DFB), Hans Passlack, wrote to Hogan’s son, Frank, saying that Hogan was the founder of ‘modern football’ in Germany.
Uneasy about the political situation, Hogan left Germany for Paris, sewing his savings into the seams of his plus-fours to avoid restrictions on the export of currency, but he struggled to maintain discipline there among a team of stars and returned to Lausanne, where he never came to terms with a chairman who believed that players should be fined for missing chances. When Meisl came calling, he was desperate for a challenge.
Austria, it must be said, seem to have been in need of him, or at least in need of some outside confirmation of their talents. A fortnight before the game in London, with Sindelar unwell and playing far below his best, Austria had struggled to beat a scratch Vienna side 2-1. Nerves, evidently, were an issue, while there were fitness concerns over Adolf Vogl and Friedrich Gschweidl. Nonetheless, Austria was agog. Crowds gathered in the Heldenplatz to listen to commentary relayed over three loudspeakers, while the Parliamentary Finance Committee adjourned a sitting to listen to the game.
The Wunderteam did not begin well, and within twenty-six minutes England were two up, both goals coming from the Blackpool forward Jimmy Hampson. Austria pulled one back six minutes into the second half, Sindelar and Anton Schall combining to set up Karl Zischek. Walter Nausch hit a post amid a welter of pressure, but then, as England rallied, an Eric Houghton free-kick deflected off the ducking Schall and past Rudi Hiden in the Austria goal. Sindelar, with consummate control and a cool finish made it 3-2, but almost as soon as he had done so a long-range effort from Sam Crooks put England back in charge. With England baffled by their opponents’ habit of dropping behind the ball when out of possession, Austria continued to dominate, spinning their webs of passes, but their lack of thrust was to cost them. Zischek bundled in a corner with five minutes remaining, but it was too late. They lost 4-3, but their performance captured the imagination. ‘A revelation,’ said the Daily Mail, while The Times awarded Austria the ‘moral victory’ and rhapsodised about their ‘passing skills’.

‘He would play football as a grandmaster plays chess’

Two years later, what was essentially the Austria national team played Arsenal at Highbury, although they were presented as a Vienna XI, matches between club and national sides being frowned upon by Fifa at the time. They lost 4-2, prompting Roland Allen to write in the Evening Standard that, ‘It looks fine, it is fine: when the Austrians have learned how to turn all their cleverness into something that counts: when … they have organised the winning of football matches as highly as they have organised the taming of a football, they will make [everyone] sit up and take notice.’ The writing was on the wall, but nobody in England was minded to read it.
Instead the two games were taken as confirmation of the cliché that continental European teams lack punch in the final third. Applied to the Austrians, there was a certain truth to it, but the wider point about ball retention was obscured, a situation that wasn’t helped by Meisl’s habit of talking in idealistic terms. ‘To us Middle Europeans,’ he said, ‘the attacking play of the British professional, seen from an aesthetic point of view, seems rather poor. Such play consists of assigning the job of scoring goals to the centre-forward and the wings, while to the inside-forwards is allotted the task of linking attackers and defenders, and more as half-backs than as attacking players… The centre-forward, who, among us in Europe, is the leading figure, because of his technical excellence and tactical intelligence, in England limits his activity to exploiting the errors of the opposing defence.’
He did, though, laud the pace at which the British played the game, saying it had left his own players ‘confused and disoriented’: ‘Although their passing, swift and high, is rather lacking in precision, the English players compensate for this by the rare potency and great rapidity of their attacks.’ The familiar battle-lines were drawn: England, physical, quick and tough; the continent, technical, patient and probably lacking in moral fibre.
Austria finally enjoyed the victory over England Meisl so craved in Vienna in May 1936. When he presented his team to Hogan, the Englishman questioned the stamina of the inside-forwards, to which Meisl replied that he expected to take a decisive lead in the first twenty minutes, and spend the rest of the game defending it. He was right. Sindelar repeatedly dragged the centre-half John Barker out of position – foreshadowing Harry Johnston’s travails against Hungary’s Nándor Hidegkuti seventeen years later – and England soon found themselves two down. George Camsell pulled one back early in the second half but, for all Meisl’s bowler-hatted nervousness on the touchline, Austria’s superiority was obvious. ‘We didn’t know whether we were coming or going,’ Jack Crayston admitted. ‘And it was disgustingly hot.’ When the heat makes manic charging unsustainable and prioritises possession, British teams have never prospered.

This is an extract from Jonathan Wilson’s book ‘Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics: A History of Football Tactics’

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