Invereting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson book cover
Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (2008) by Jonathan Wilson is an analysis of how football tactics have evolved over the years and how the attitudes of different nations and coaches have helped shape the style of their nation’s teams. From the origins of the game to its current genus, Jonathan Wilson objectively measures the contribution of individuals globally, from the powerhouses of South American football like Argentina and Brazil, to countries whose history is less synonymous with the beautiful game – Belgium, Austria, and the like. Exploring different formations and positions, this is an insightful, scientific/historical look at the game and its development. The text is supplemented by numerous diagrams and images – an excellent way to conceptualise some of Wilson’s points, and also break up what might otherwise be rather dense chunks of text.

The research that has gone into this book is staggering (the healthy bibliography attests to this) as too is Wilson’s commitment to the objective evaluation of contributions to the game. The breadth of his discussion is refreshing, drawing in influences from right across the world, gladly encompassing the contribution of nations outside of the game’s ‘heavyweights’. Fascinating too, are the long enshrined attitudes to the game, which Wilson exposes, explains, and charts. Why aren’t English players as technically gifted as their South American counter-parts? How has Russian socialism shaped their footballing style on the pitch? Does the beautiful football of Brazil’s samba style find its origin with the Scots’ decision to implement a passing game? Wilson answers all these questions and more.

Making tactics the centre-piece of a football book is a big ask, but Wilson manages to make detailed discussion about the evolution of formations as generation after generation develop new ways to balance attacking fluidity with robust, efficient defending. Inevitably, some readers will be turned off by the level of detail and the faintly academic style but for most fans with an interest in the tactical side of the game, this is about as good as it gets. Wilson’s own enthusiasm underpins all of his deceptively dispassionate prose and this carries the reader with the author on his journey through the history of tactics.

There is a slight underplaying of the importance of players in shaping formations and making them successful, but that is perhaps unsurprising given the book’s raison d'etre. Nevertheless, if evidence were needed that Wilson is a man who understands his topic, his prediction that 4-6-0 would become an increasingly used formation was vindicated by Spain’s victory in the European Championships of 2012 playing just that formation and, to slightly less acclaim, Everton’s use of the formation for a period when they were short of strikers. Barcelona’s tiki-taka, too, relies on a fluidity of formation, which regularly sees no one player ‘leading the line’. How the rest of the footballing world will respond, well, that remains to be seen (although Bayern Munich might well have given us a fair clue just a few months ago).

Criticising the national team is a sport in itself, but rarely has the tactical naivety of English football been so clinically exposed, nor the impact of the fans’ attitudes to higher level thinking about the game. Don’t expect too much opinion here though; this isn’t a book for the comparing of tactical styles and the assessment of merit of different approaches, nor is it about how matches are tactically fought – this is an objective, clinical look at the developments of tactics over the years.

Football is becoming increasingly scientific, increasingly forensic, and that has cascaded down to the fans too – with an appetite for and appreciation of the nuances of the game growing season on season in the stands. This is a book for those fans. On its publication, Inverting the Pyramid won a host of awards, and rightly so - this is a wonderful, intelligent book, which will enlighten and engage all football fans who are interested in the tactical side of what they see every Saturday at 3 o’clock.

I started this a few years ago and have only just come back to finish it off. I'm pleased to say, I enjoyed it as much on second reading as I did on my failed first. The discussion of tactics will be too dry for some people I fear, but others will love this.

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