6 football tactics that changed the game as we know it

Tactical revolutions have come in various guises. Michael Cox guides you through the most impactful ones the game has seen...

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1. The combination game, 1870s

Early football games were based around dribbling. Players would receive possession and move directly forward in possession, with teammates largely concerned with ‘backing up’ to collect the ball if it ran loose

Modern football is largely based around passing, but it wasn’t always the default approach. 

Early football games revolved around dribbling. Players would receive possession and move directly forward in possession, with team-mates largely concerned with ‘backing up’ to collect the ball if it ran loose. In terms of a player’s intentions when receiving the ball, football during the 19th century was arguably more similar to rugby league than modern football: passing was rare, and essentially a last resort.

An alternative approach, however, was being developed. The Queens Park side of the 1870s dominated Scottish football and provided all the players for their match against England in 1872. Although the English players were much stronger, and built for for a more rudimentary style of football, the Scottish players worked properly as a team, attacking in pairs and slipping the ball to one another on the run. 

An artist's impression of England vs Scotland in 1872. Despite ending 0-0, the Scots' style impressed their opponents

This approach was startling to the English players, unaccustomed to the concept – the idea that a ball could be deliberately passed to a team-mate in a better position had barely been considered. Inevitably, this combination game maximised the talent of players and created more of a harmonious team. Equally inevitably, the idea spread across Britain – and then the rest of Europe. 

2. The WM, 1930s

While tactics and formation are sometimes used almost interchangeably, most significant tactical developments have been about style rather than shape. The WM, however, is an exception.

The ‘pyramid’ system – essentially 2-3-5 – had reigned supreme until the mid-1920s, when a significant change in the offside law meant attackers required only two opponents between them and the opposition goal, rather than three. Early 20th century teams had understood the value of the offside trap, but the change made it significantly more difficult, and risky, to perfect. Teams could play forward much more quickly.

Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman realised that adapting to the new offside law was necessary. Chapman decided his centre-half – then referring to the player in the centre of the pyramid’s three-man midfield –  would have to drop deeper, between the two full-backs, forming a three-man defence. This change the nature of defending entirely, and provided a more solid foundation for the rest of the side.


1931: Arsenal players proudly show off their 6 (six) trophies won with the WM formation

Because the centre-half’s retreat left the side short in midfield, the inside-forwards dropped back, leaving one centre-forward and the two wingers higher up the pitch. This became 2-3-2-3, or WM. Teams now had a sufficient number of players at the back, and had beefed up their midfield too – it was no longer all-out-attack.

3. Hungary’s positioning, 1950s

Hungary’s 6-3 thrashing of England in 1953 is one of the most famous games in the history of football – England were completely outwitted in a tactical sense. The crucial thing about Hungary’s performance was relatively simple: they confused England by deploying key players in roles which surprised England.

Though not the star man, centre-forward Nandor Hidegkuti was the catalyst for Hungary’s incredible performance. He wore the No.9 shirt, and therefore was expected to play as a striker, engaging in a physical battle with England’s central defender.

Instead, he dropped deep away from England centre-back Harry Johnston, dictating the game almost as an extra midfielder in oceans of space and providing regular passes to the other four forwards. 

Defensively, too, Hungary did things differently. Jozsef Zakarias was a midfielder but dropped deep to become, essentially, a second central defender, pushing the full-backs wider into the positions they play today. This idea spread quickly, with a back four soon considered the default approach across the world. But Hungary’s achievement was greater than that, effectively popularising the art of getting attackers into space, rather than playing directly up against an opponent.

Ferenc Puskas

Puskás excelled in Hungary's system and became an international icon