Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

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invertingthepyramid-book My interest in football started with my research paper on hiring and firing of football managers. For the past few years, I have been following football games and news on the English Premiere League and their European counterparts out of interest on the validation of my model and also the excitement and enjoyment of the sport. Recently, I am intrigued by the issue of the diamond formation in football tactics, particularly, with both Ancelotti’s Chelsea and Mourinho’s Inter Milan which are now adopting it. Jonathan Wilson’s recent article on the diamond formation in the Guardian has prompted me to read deeper into the subject. So, as usual, I visited Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore and checked out the book “Inverting the Pyramid” by Jonathon Wilson whether it is available. Luckily they have it and here are my thoughts after reading the book.

If you are interested in the history of football and tracked the development how the idea of football formations come about, Jonathan Wilson’s book “Inverting the Pyramid” will be a great exposition on the subject. It is reminiscent of international chess history books that tracked the tactics, Wilson’s book puts a good degree of scrutiny on the known football formations such as the boring 4-4-2, the dynamic switching of 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 adopted in modern football or even the 3-5-2 with interesting examples by looking at how the tactics improved or cancelled the sides in gaining victory in the game. It is important that the term “centre-half” known to most of us as the central defender in the English game which can also be interpreted as the central midfielder in the early history of the game.


The book began with a concise history of English football and the emergence of the first football formation known as the 2-3-5 system. Gradually, the book discussed how the first prominent football manager, Herbert Chapman from Arsenal introduced the third full back and introduced the W-M system (3-2-2-3) that was designed to counter the offside rule. He was also credited to be the one who had introduced the numbers behind the shirts of the players to facilitate identification.


Of course, the tale gradually moves towards on how managers such as Jimmy Hogan brought new ideas on the evolution of tactics in Holland. One realize that the history of football started with most British managers who acted as pilgrims of football and brought the game out of England to South America and continental Europe. The irony that one could realize is that these pilgrims of football all ended up as the founding fathers of football for other countries, for example, Charles Miller for Brazil and Jimmy Hogan for Hungarian, German and Austrian football. Yet none of them are recognized back in their homeland for their contributions of the game.

One of the sad tales of this book is that Hogan did not do so well when he came back to England, managing Fulham and Aston Villa. However, he was vindicated with the legacy he left behind in Continental Europe when England suffered the trauma shock of loss with a score of 3-6 by a Hungarian team at Wembley in 1953. That led to England into soul-searching for its own place in football. Ramsey, the only English manager who won the World Cup, brought a pragmatic view to incorporate a 4-2-4 formation which was used by Brazil, but changed it to 4-1-3-2 and made it work for the English team.

Moving along with history, Wilson also talked about how Reed’s flawed statistical analysis in football games. The circumstantial evidence on average amount of three passes brought about the belief that direct football is the best model for English football. It is also responsible why the English adopted the long ball approach that was totally outclassed by the teams in contemporary Continental Europe teams. The later parts of the book explore the contemporary formations, for example, the 4-3-3 used by Mourinho in Chelsea, and philosophy of football formations outside and within England and concluded how the initial adopted pyramid formation (2-3-5) ended with being inverted (4-4-2, 4-3-3) in today’s world. One of the chapters I enjoyed most was the story of how total football emerged from Holland.

The book is worth a read and will offer anyone a glimpse on how the world of football has changed with respect to football formations and tactics from the past to present. It is a treatise that showed how the South Americans have turned it into a beautiful game with the way they played and the continental Europeans adopted a holistic approach in molding individual players towards a robust team structure, for example, the Germans and how they trained themselves in taking penalty kicks.

Interesting Links:
[1] Jonathan Wilson, The Question: Is the midfield diamond here to stay and how do you counter it?, Guardian.
[2] Barney Ronay, The Manager Series.
[3] Guardian Football Weekly with James Richardson – my favourite football podcast and I enjoyed the sarcasms and bantering between Barry Glendenning and the rest of the guests in the show.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist

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