Football tactics are those strategies employed by the members of one side to compete most effectively with their opponents. These tactics are usually devised by managers or coaches. For example, the right full-back might be told to try and force the outside left to run to the right and make him use his weaker foot.
Most importantly, tactics refers to the playing system or team formation that is employed by the manager or coach. The first football teams in the 19th century tended to play a system of eight forward players, with a goalkeeper, half-back and three-quarter as defenders. In the 1870s successful teams used a slightly different formation that included seven forwards, two half-backs and one full-back. During this period great stress was placed on the dribbling skills of individuals.
In the 1880s William Sudell and Tom Mitchell, began buying players from Scotland and their teams, Preston North End and Blackburn Rovers, became very successful. These players brought with them what was known as the "Scottish style" that placed more emphasis on passing than dribbling.
The first season of the Football League began in September, 1888. William Sudell and his Preston North End side won the first championship without losing a single match and acquired the name the "invincibles". Preston also beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-0 to win the 1889 FA Cup Final. That season Sudell used the 2-3-5 formation (two full-backs, three-half-backs and five forwards).
The success of Preston North End persuaded other clubs to adopt the 2-3-5 formation. This system dominated football until 1925 when the FA decided to change the offside rule. The change reduced the number of opposition players that an attacker needed between himself and the goal-line from three to two.
Charlie Buchan, who played for Arsenal, suggested to the manager Herbert Chapman, that the team should exploit this change in the law to create a new playing formation. The idea was that the centre-half, rather than the two full-backs, should take responsibility for the offside trap. The full-backs played just in front of the centre-half whereas one of the forwards was brought back into midfield. The formation was therefore changed from 2-3-5 to 3-3-4. This also became known as the "WM" formation.
The system developed what became known as the counter-attacking game. This relied on the passing ability of Alex James and goalscoring forwards like David Jack, Cliff Bastin, Jack Lambert and Ted Drake. Success was not immediate and it was not until 1930 that Arsenal won the FA Cup Final.
The following season Arsenal won their first ever First Division Championship. Alex James was injured for a large part of the 1931-32 season and this was a major factor in Arsenal losing the title by two points to Everton. James was at his best in the 1932-33 season. Arsenal won the First Division by four points. They also scored a club record of 118 goals in the league that season. Arsenal also won the league the following season beating Huddersfield Town into second place. By this time the WM formation was being used by most clubs in the Football League.
Herbert Chapman was one of the few managers who got involved in deciding tactics before games. Jimmy Ruffell played for West Ham United between 1920 and 1937. The team was managed by Syd King but he claimed that it was Charlie Paynter who decided on the team's tactics: "Syd King was a good manager. But he left a lot of the day-to-day stuff to our trainer Charlie Paynter. It was Charlie that most of us talked to about anything. Syd King was more about doing deals to get players to play for West Ham."
Similiar comments were made about Joe Smith who managed Blackpool between 1935-1956. Stanley Matthews argued that Smith: "Never a great tactician, or even a reasonable one, he was nevertheless the best manager I ever had the privilege to play for. Joe brought out the best in me because he allowed me to play my natural game. I will always be grateful for his support and belief, especially when I look back to those moments when situations contrived to make me doubt myself and my own ability... Joe was a great psychologist who could kid an average player into believing and performing as a good one, and a good player as a very good one. He signed some very good players, and that's the hardest part of a manager's job. Joe did it time and again. As I have said before, a manager doesn't have to tell good players what to do, they know."
Cyril Robinson played in the 1953 FA Cup Final for Blackpool against Bolton Wanderers. He later claimed that before the game all Smith said was "go out there and get them beat". According to Stanley Matthews he said: "Go out and enjoy yourselves. Be the players I know you are and we'll be all right."
Stan Mortensen also played under Joe Smith at Blackpool. He also admitted that Smith spent little time speaking about tactics leaving it up to Harry Johnson, the captain: "Joe has one great virtue outstanding among all his others - and they are many. He is just about the best loser and winner in football. If we win he is never up in the air and dreaming of championships; and if we lose, he is quick to give consolation, and never gets down in the mouth. Joe has been so long in the game as player and manager that he knows full well that one defeat doesn't mean relegation, any more than one win heralds the winning of the Cup or League."