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The Greatest Tactical Innovations Of All-Time

September 08, 2015

- Grant Whittington

As football fans, we tend to think of tactical innovation as a modern phenomenon. From total football to the high-intensity pressing and short, tika-taka style passing style that revolutionised Spanish football at the end of the noughties, modern coaches are often heralded as creative geniuses with an innate understanding of the game and its evolution.

These coaches are simply building on the patterns and work established by those who have gone before, however, with some of the most ground-breaking tactical developments having occurred between the 1930’s and the 1970’s.

So what exactly are the tactical and strategic innovations that truly changed the world game?

Herbert Chapman and the Invention of the 3-4-3 System

In the 1930’s, the tactical landscape was far sparser than it is today. Most teams played with a primitive 2-3-5 formation, which operated in straight lines and at times as almost three separate units. There was also an emphasis on moving the ball forward and dribbling, rather than the cohesive passing that we see today. Arsenal manager and seminal thinker Herbert Chapman was one of the first to change this, simply by developing a more fluid 3-4-3 system that remains to this today.

By adding an additional centre half and deploying the inside left and inside right players in what we would describe as attacking wing-backs in the modern age, he cultivated a more balanced team that encouraged individuals to move skilfully in-between the lines of play.

Gusztav Sebes and the Deployment of the Deep-lying forward

Despite Champan’s innovation, tactics did not evolve at a rapid rate over the next 20 years (thanks in part to the disruption caused by the Second World War). This changed in the autumn of 1953, however, when Hungary’s ‘Magical Magyars’ visited Wembley to face England on the back of a 24-game unbeaten run. They destroyed England 6-3 in a simply stunning performance that altered the course of British football forever, as their fluid and flexible formation completely exposed the home team’s rigid deployment of the so-called ‘W-M’ formation.

With conventional forwards Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis occupying the defence, the talented Nandor Hidegkuti roamed as a deep-lying forward and created space with his constant movement and rapid darts. England players were ragged by the end, and while this was not the first time that a team had used a deep-lying forward as part of a fluid forward line, never before had it been seen to such devastating effect.

Helenio Herrera and the Catenaccio System

There is some debate about this innovation, as while popular culture attributes the development of the so-called ‘Catenaccio’ (or sweeper) system with Argentinian tactician Helenio Herrera, some claim that it was first imagined by Swiss coach Karl Rappan. Either way, this formation had a seminal effect on Italian and European football in the 1960’s, creating a more balanced and defensive team ethos that was designed to enable attacking talent to flourish.

Herrera put this formation to good use at Inter Milan, using former Barcelona midfielder Luis Suarez in the sweeper role and initiating a period of sustained success at the club. It was his system that provided Herrera’s most potent legacy, however, and one that is still revived sparingly in the modern age.

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