INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
When Jonathan Wilson released his history of football tactics, Inverting The Pyramid, he started something. Now, helped by the rise of Twitter and niche writing in general, tactical analysis is a more accessible part of the British football media than ever before. We asked Wilson about the boom…
Jonathan, Inverting the Pyramid charted the history of tactical development and appeared to have been at least partly inspired by Willy Meisl’s 1950s book, Soccer Revolution. Was Willy the first person to write about these matters for an English audience and to address England’s failure to keep up with other nations in a technical sense?
It goes back as far as things like the Dynamo Moscow tour in 1945, where there were these glimpses of evidence that other teams kept the ball better than we did and the feeling that actually that was quite important. It was the beginning of a realisation that we couldn’t just rely on physicality, and courage, and pride – all these ludicrous English terms.
But it was only the defeat to Hungary that really rammed that home. Even the 1950 World Cup, where we were defeated by the USA and just generally played really badly, has been overlooked, I think.
It was sort of a culmination of those things and then suddenly the defeat to Hungary shook England out of its complacency. You then had, over the next decade, a whole load of books and analysis written about what had gone wrong.
I guess you could argue that it started to happen in the decade leading up to 1966, especially after Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, which was helped by the fact that it was held in Sweden, so a lot of English journalists and a lot of people in English football went over to see it. This time it wasn’t on the other side of the world and they could actually go and watch. I think there was a realisation, then, that things had to change.
I think those books of the Fifties were answering a very specific need at the time and I guess you could make an argument that the type of writing that has been coming out over the last 10 years has been asking the question: “Why does English football always fail?”
Since Inverting the Pyramid, there has been a boom in tactical writing in English football media. Did you feel, when you started out to write the book, that we were lacking that core understanding of where and how tactics have developed, and was there an element of soul-searching, from the point of view of an English football writer?
I guess so. I don’t think I was the first to do it, or the cause of the boom, though. I think that was coming anyway and I was fortunate enough to ride the wave. Inverting the Pyramid stemmed from a piece I did for Four Four Two as early as 2005 or 2006, which was probably 10,000 words and ran over two issues. The fact they were prepared to give that much space to a piece on tactics suggests there was a general feeling that this was something interesting and something we don’t know much about.
Four Four Two is pretty mainstream, so they obviously wouldn’t go out on a limb and give you 10,000 words to write about something they thought no one really cared about. They were obviously convinced that there was a general interest in the subject. I think you could see that interest rising from the early-mid part of the last decade and tactical columns in the papers, by people like David Pleat and Stewart Robson, have been growing in sophistication and growing in number over the last 10 years as well.
In the last few years, there has been acceptance that you don’t have to be a manager or a former player to be able to write about tactics. Michael Cox is a great example of that – his reading of games is exceptionally good and newspapers trust that – in fact, when I talk to people in football, they pretty much trust him as well.
Michael Cox is also proof of another way into football writing, having effectively started a blog, in ZonalMarking.net, which has just grown and grown…
He is a great example of the democratisation of football writing. He had a great idea, he executed it really well and because of that and the fact that no one else was doing it, he found a gap in the market. I don’t think it was a cynical thing from his point of view; I don’t think he looked for a gap and thought, “I’ll fill that.” I think his interest just happens to be in an area where there was a gap and because he did it very, very well, loads of people went to the site.
So the site then became well known, the Guardian, ESPN and BetFair realised there was something worthwhile there and he became a mainstream figure.
That all happened very, very quickly because it is only about three years since he started the website. That is how quickly people can rise in journalism, in the age of the internet. The traditional route into journalism, of doing local paper work, learning the ropes and doing the beat by covering a few clubs in one area, before slowly making contact with nationals, is not the main route anymore. You can be catapulted from nowhere to being a mainstream figure.
There is no set strategic route for a budding journalist to take anymore is there?
There are a number of people – and I know I am not the only journalist who feels this way – who are asked again and again and again, by people at university or school, what they need to do to get into sports journalism. I just feel like saying, “Don’t do what I did!”
You are relying on a series of ludicrous coincidences to get that kind of opportunity. So I would say, in terms of a degree, do something that interests you and do it well. Read as much as you can and just hope things fall into place afterwards.
Going back to those tactical features and their growing prominence, it is fair to say that readers are engaged by them and that is something you can tell from the oft-maligned comments sections underneath the articles. Is that self-affirming or infuriating for a writer?
The problem with comments is that you get them from all corners. I don’t think any journalist minds being called up on a point, by somebody saying, “What about this..?” or pointing out when we get factual details wrong. We should be held to account and our argument should be there to be debated with.
The problem is that, a lot of the time, argument is submerged by comments from people who have not read it properly or who aren’t interested in the subject. I mean, if you’re not interested in tactics, why read a tactical piece? And why, having then read it, write a comment saying that tactical pieces are nonsense?
It would be like reading a film review and then writing underneath it: “I think films are rubbish.”
Don’t read it then – you don’t have to.
So, unfortunately, like a lot of others, I very rarely bother to read the comments now because of all the shit that I can’t be bothered to wade through.
It’s like going into a pub where there are 100 people and 10 of them are your mates, or people who treat you with a level of respect and engage with you, and the other 90 just want to hurl abuse at you. In that case, you don’t go to the pub.
What about feedback from professional footballers and managers – do they ever tell you that you over-think tactical matters, given that it may not be wise for a player to go into the same level of detail?
I remember talking to Ahmed Hassan, the great Egyptian player, about playing in a back three against one striker – or rather trying to talk about it – and just going around in circles for about 10-15 minutes, with him not really being able to understand what I was trying to say (or me not being able to articulate it properly). We never got anywhere and that is actually quite a common experience – you find it quite difficult to find the same register, or the same language, to discuss it in.
You hear talk about people like Brian Clough, or Joe Fagan, whose players always say, “He kept it very simple.” But if you look at Fagan’s diaries, it shows that what he told the players might have been very simple, but he actually had a very sophisticated and complex understanding of football. He had a great ability to break it down and give players one or two line instructions.
Some modern managers, like Andre Villas-Boas or Rafa Benitez, do go into more detail and do have dossiers and whatever, which I suppose started with Don Revie. But the gift of people like Clough and Fagan was to create an overall strategy (which pretty much came to be because of the players they had), work on it with them a little bit and then make tiny little tweaks here and there each game. So it seemed simple to the players but actually they had put together something much more complex.
If you’re a coach, I think there is a danger of over-complicating things. I’ve captained football sides and hockey sides and I may have a very clear idea in my mind of what I want the team to do, but I don’t explain that to the whole team: firstly because they are just bored by it and, secondly, because you don’t want them, with the ball at their feet, trying to think of the plan. You just want the players to do the things that they do.
I’m talking about the pathetically low level that I play at, where you don’t normally know who the other team are. But you might notice halfway through the first half that their left-back is really fast, so you just tell your right-winger to drop off a bit and get in his way. There is no need to explain the tactic to everybody, you just tell him that and it will happen.