Edwardian Football Tactics: Reality and Survival

The tragedy of the 100+ Mitchell and Kenyon films is in their length, or lack of it. Getting a real idea of what an Edwardian soccer match was like from any one of them or all of them is next to impossible. This example, Newcastle United v Liverpool at St James’s Park in 1901, is about the best of the bunch.

I suppose one of the best teams there has ever been was that claimed by Newcastle United for ten years or so before the War and that part which so many of them have since played in the game indicates that they were intellectually above the average. Herbert Chapman 1934

Chapman believed in clever players, and thought that War and what followed it was driving them out:

Football today lacks the personalities of twenty or thirty years ago. This, I think, is true of all games, and the reason for it is a fine psychological study. The life which we live is so different: the pace, the excitement, and the sensationalism which we crave are new factors which have had a disturbing influence. They have upset the old balance mentally as well as physically, and they have made football different to play as well as to watch. And they have set up new values. The change has, in fact, been so violent that I do not think the past, the players and the game, can fairly be compared with the present.

There are echoes there of 21st century jeremiads about Facebook, and one would like to have heard Billy Meredith (who played in the First Division from the time of Victoria right up until 1925) on the subject.

Certainly Chapman and his fellow veterans thought that things were getting worse. If they were right, that has interesting implications for the debate about when England and Scotland were caught by the rest of the footballing world. England and Scotland were caught in two phases – in playing potential, they lost their outright lead by 1928, but their psychological advantage endured for another twenty years, preserved in part by the Second War. But Chapman has England in retreat while the others catch up:

It is sometimes said that, if the old players were to come back, they would show up the limitations of today. But there is no coming back. I know how boldly and confidently the old-timers speak of their prowess, and how they are inclined to belittle present players. To support their arguments they point to the difficulty of the selectors in trying to build up a stable international side. England teams come and go. From one season to another they can scarcely be recognised. They have, unfortunately, to be altered from match to match. Men good one day fail the next. They do not even play consistently in their club form. This is one tell-tale piece of evidence of how football has changed.

For such a great man, Chapman is frustrating on specifics. This is the man who, along with Buchan, pioneered the use of the third back in 1925, the last significant footballing innovation by an Englishman until the advent of Simon Clifford, but this is as close as he comes to telling us what the game was once like:

I am not prepared to depreciate the men of today, being fully conscious of the many matters which have added to their difficulties. Competition has heightened enormously, and it is no longer possible for men or teams to play as they like. Thirty years ago, men went out with the fullest licence to display their arts and crafts. To-day they have to make their contribution to a system. Individuality has had to be subordinated to teamwork. Players have to take part in many more matches and the strain on their physical resources has greatly increased.

Licence, artistry, creativity and the Old Days: I’ve heard the tale told of the 1950s in the 1970s, of the 1960s in the 1980s, and, heaven help us, of the 1970s ever since.

But Chapman’s not the only guilty party here. Other Edwardian bosses wrote about the game without any real hint as to the tactics they employed – if any. John Cameron played for Queens Park, Everton and Spurs before managing at White Hart Lane in the early Edwardian period. His account of football management, written in 1905, uses a word most of the writers of the day bandied about undefined – combination:

Even if he succeeds in obtaining a team of stars – every player an acknowledged master – it does not follow that the combination as a whole will be successful. A team that appears invincible upon paper has an exasperating way of disappointing expectations. And when this is the case, the manager has to sally forth again in quest of fresh talent.

Cameron talks purely in terms of his first team – nowhere in his (by his own admission truncated) essay does he think in terms of a squad as such, despite most clubs of the day keeping 20+ professional players on their books at any one time. Nor does he indicate that his first team might be directed in different ways for different opponents or phases of play.

R.S. McColl, the Edwardian Scottish international who went on to found the eponymous chain of newsagents, was a little more helpful, if pedantically so, writing in 1913:

It is so much of a truism nowadays that combination in football – as in many other things – pays best, that it appears almost superfluous to urge its importance.

Successful combination, Bob explained, described the

team whose advantages of physique, head, and experience dovetail best.

What about tactics?

Too rigid a system of play, in which all the moves are known, will not do. There must be flexibility; endless variety and versatility, constant surprises for the other side. System must be inspired by art and innate genius for and love of the game.

McColl establishes for us, then, that creativity was a strong value in the play of top Edwardian teams (and you can see him in the film above). It’s creativity within a system. But what system? Once again, we have no word. Either there was no system as we would understand it, or he assumed that we would know what it was.

Kenneth Hunt, who was an ordained priest, was one of the last amateurs and Oxford men to win an FA Cup – scoring a “wonder goal” in the process for Wolverhampton Wanderers at Crystal Palace in 1908. He’d play twice for England in 1911, keeping his amateur status throughout.

Writing in the same year as McColl, Hunt at once said more than anyone else about the actual tactics of Edwardian soccer and also hinted at something eternal at the heart of the game’s soul: reading him, I wonder to what extent tactics have ever changed at all:

..there are two generally prevailing styles of forward play, which we will here describe as the “three inside,” and the “wing to wing” game. Which is the more dangerous style of play it is difficult to say; each has its own advocates, and personally, I unhesitatingly plump for the “wing to wing” method of attack. In this style of play the wing-forwards lie as wide as possible on the touch-lines, ever on the look-out for those swinging passes, which they know their insides will give them at the first opportunity. The whole danger of this method lies in its suddenness. For myself, I prefer to see the centre-forward slightly in advance of his two insides, and the wing-forward considerably in front of the centre.
The plan of attack is then something as follows: Should the centre-forward receive the ball he swings it well out to one of his outsides, but in such a way that the wing-forward has to run ahead to receive it. In the meantime, the three inside men are all making tracks as hard as they can go for their opponents’ goal, and so are probably in time to reach the centre as it comes skimming across.
In the other style of play, most of the attack is carried on by the three inside men, and the outsiders are only used as a last resort. This kind of game is prettier to watch, but my experiences as a half-back tell me that it is much easier to checkmate thatn the more open style of play, which is far more likely to flurry the opposing defence.

To which some Arsenal fans will say yea.. and Alf Ramsey’s shade nay.. and Chelsea fans both, remembering Mourinho’s Chelsea team of Duff and Robben and the team that followed after.

But what matters is that you can picture what those two approaches would have looked like, and, with that in mind, it’s possible to watch that Newcastle-Liverpool clip again with a more enlightened eye.

The choice between going via the wings or down the middle took place in the context of an evolved 2-3-5, according to J.C. Gow, who – writing in 1913 once again – put the formation into historical context:

The whole plan of Soccer at its best is based on perfect combination and clear understanding between the members of the eleven. (Ed: as everyone keeps saying). Both as regards attack and defence does this statement hold true. There have been many changes made in the last forty years, both with respect to the number of players in various departments and as to their duties. But I believe, if you went into the matter closely, you would find that in every case each change made has been entered on with the view to strengthening the combination of the eleven as a whole, rather than with the idea of making it possible for this or that man to score individually. You may recall that in past years there used to be only one back and one half-back. This disposition of the forces was altered as time went on so as to afford finer combination and strength, until today, by having a team arranged in the shape of five forwards, three halves, two backs and a goalie, we have probably got as effective and powerful a combination for Soccer as can possibly be used or suggested.

Note that sense at the end there of arrival, of satiation: football, in Gow’s eyes, had reached a tactical end of the road, and now all that remained was to fit the best set of players to the (found) best tactical layout. Edwardians didn’t discuss tactics because they were at the end of four decades of fast, decisive, and above all, player-led, change. That change had led them to a final solution as they saw it to the football tactics problem.

In Edwardian football, therefore, formation and tactics were more or less the same thing, leaving a choice between attack down the middle or attack from the side. The players themselves had worked this out, almost by accident, by unconscious evolution: there is something redolant of Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Johnson about this process.

After 1919, Chapman’s “heightened competition” would take the matter out of the players’ hands and – in effect – place it into his hands and Charles Buchan’s.

It is still a shame that we don’t have fifteen minutes of Chapman’s favourites, Edwardian Newcastle, filmed from height, instead of the two or three minutes shot from one point on the ground. Perhaps, to get a true feel for what that lost side were like to watch, we need to look elsewhere.

As Jonathan Wilson has made clear, not every country switched to the third back game in 1925. The South Americans persisted with 2-3-5 into the 1950s, and its perhaps to them that we must turn to find us the ghosts of Edwardian Newcastle. Fortunately, film of Uruguayan and Brazilian football of the 1920s was done well. It won’t be a direct equivalent, but this was the generation of players who learned the game at the hands of the first British coaches to travel abroad. It might be closer than we think. Remember; 2-3-5, freedom, and artistry:

Uruguay here are using the same kit, the same ball, the same rules as the British teams, but are doing so uninterrupted by World War One and the burden of a 38 game league season. Would a 1920s Newcastle have been like this, absent Sarajevo? Chapman might have liked to think so.

There’s one other thing to say about Edwardian 2-3-5. As we’ve noted, it emerged from the pure experience of players, finding how the game evolved just through their interaction with it on the pitch over 40 years. That alone would indicate that there might be something inevitable about the formation, something that still exists down there buried beneath the modern game. Perhaps 2-3-5 has a way of emerging uninvited, an example of what bad poets call a palimpsest. Watch Italy attack in 2006 and see how their front line behaves, and remember what Kenneth Hunt said so long ago: there is wing play, and there is the three men through the centre…


3 responses to “Edwardian Football Tactics: Reality and Survival

  1. My father’s memory of being coached in football and rugby in the 20s was that the military analogy was emphasised – the wisdom of outflanking the enemy.

  2. Actually, I suppose that that would be rather poignant in the 20s.

  3. thanks for this I really wanted to use this for some references. appreaciated