The Encylopedia of British Football

Tactics and Playing Formation

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."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Archie Hunter, Triumphs of the Football Field (1890)

While I was in Scotland I had become acquainted with the Calthorpe Football Club, which used to come up and play the second team of Queen's Park. There were some very fair players in the Calthorpe and I made up my mind, on arriving in Birmingham, to join them. But one of my fellow-workmen, George Uzzell, mentioned Aston Villa to me as a club that had come rapidly to the fore and asked me to become a member of it. I hesitated for some time, but at last my friend told me that a "brother Scot," Mr. George Ramsay, was the Villa captain and that decided me. Mr. Ramsay was a Glasgow man and had exerted himself very considerably to bring the Villa team into the front rank. He was himself a good right-wing forward and was well supported by W. B. Mason. So to Mr. Ramsay I went and we at once became good friends and remain so to this day.

Mr. Ramsay was practically the founder of the Aston Villa Football Club. He had had good tuition in the game while in Scotland and as a member of the Oxford Club he had gained plenty of experience and taken part in several first-class matches. A short time before he left, his club had tied three times with the Glasgow Rangers for the Scotch Cup. He was keeping goal and he relates that on the last occasion he saved his goal at the expense of a broken nose.

Mr. Ramsay was a capital all-round player and could take any position and give a good account of himself. Coming to Birmingham he found football here in a very backward state. The four principal clubs were St. Mary's, Aston Unity, Calthorpe and the Birmingham. One day Mr. Ramsay saw a few lads playing together in the big public park facing Park Road, Aston and he watched them with some amount of curiosity and amusement. They were connected with the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel and only had the most primitive ideas of the game. Mr. Ramsay describes their play as "a dash at the man and a big kick at the ball;" they were entirely ignorant of dribbling and were evidently in the most rudimentary stage of knowledge - quite "juvenile," as Mr. Ramsay said.

Well, when he had watched the lads some time he spoke to a bystander and suggested that they two should join in the game. Then he called to one of the players, William Weiss by name and proposed that he should be allowed to play on one side and his chance acquaintance on the other. When his broad Scotch had, after much trouble, been understood, the proposal was agreed to and Mr. Ramsay began to play. He soon showed that science was superior to all their big kicks and easily dribbled the ball past the men who had never seen a display of the kind before. They were amazed when they saw how he played and when all was over they surrounded the player, who had footed the ball.

(2) Graham McColl,Aston Villa: 1874-1998 (1998)

The influence of Ramsay, then Hunter, led Villa to develop an intricate passing game, a revolutionary move for an English club in the late 1870s. It was a style of play modelled on that which was prevalent in Scotland at the time which was prevalent in Scotland at the time and which had been pioneered by Queen's Park, the Glasgow side. This type of sophisticated teamwork had rarely been employed in England. Instead, individuals would try to take the ball as far as they could on their own until stopped by an opponent.

(3) Archie Hunter, described how the Aston Villa team trained for important games in the 1886-87 season, in his book, Triumphs of the Football Field (1890)

We travelled from Nottingham to Birmingham and obtained the necessary apparel for training and went on the same night to Droitwich. Outside the station a brake was waiting for us and on a pitch dark night a dozen of us rode through the quiet country lanes to a little unfrequented place on the river Severn called Holt Fleet.

Here we arrived at midnight and being tired with the day's exertions and drowsy with the ride, we tumbled off to bed. The hotel accommodation in those days at Holt Fleet was of a limited character and the host was not accustomed to such large parties asking for accommodation. He was not prepared for us and the first night we had to rough it. Six of us slept in a top attic in which three beds had been placed. I say we slept, but this is not quite correct. We were put there to sleep, but the pestilence that stalks by night was opposed to us.

All this, of course, was remedied later on by the obliging host, who did his utmost to make us comfortable. But you will wonder why we chose this place for our purpose. It was not our discovery, but was recommended to us by W. G. George, the champion mile-runner. It was his custom to walk, when training, from Bromsgrove to Droitwich and Holt Fleet lies between these two places. The district is very favourable for athletes. There is a fine stretch of open country and there is the river, which affords every facility for boating and swimming. Then the walks all around are delightful and the brine baths at Droitwich are, of course, very convenient.

Since we were there other football teams have experienced its advantages, the Wolverhampton Wanderers in particular. Well, here we stayed for a week with our trainer, Billy Gorman. He was a famous sprint runner and had won a special handicap; and when he ceased to take part in public contests himself he devoted himself to training athletes and a capital fellow he was.

We got up each morning at eight o'clock prompt and breakfasted. Afterwards we strolled about as we pleased for an hour or so. Then we put our uniform on and by permission, which was kindly granted by Lord Dudley's overseer, we were allowed the use of the ground behind the hotel for sprint running and long distance running. It was curious to observe the difference which practice speedily made in some or our physical abilities. There was Dennis Hodgetts, for example, who was called our slow man. Up to this time he was indeed lacking in that desirable quality of fastness which is so serviceable on the field. But after this training he wonderfully developed into one of the speediest of the set and was only excelled by Richard Davis (late of the Walsall Swifts) who had the reputation of being the fastest player for short distances. All the others were very quick: Albert Brown, Joey Simmonds, Jack Burton, Freddy Dawson, Howard Vaughton, Harry Yates and Albert Allen, but the sprint running improved their form tremendously.

As for me, I went in for long distance running, with Warner our goalkeeper, who had no particular need to go in for this training and Coulton, for my companions. Albert Allen, I should here explain, was our reserve man who was in readiness to take Dawson's place if necessary, for Freddy had seriously hurt his knee and we were very uncertain whether he would be able to play. However, when the right time came the question was put to all the team and they decided that he was fit, so Allen was not needed after all.

Well, so the morning went. Sometimes the team walked along the delightful lanes for eight or ten miles, in charge of one or two of the members of the committee and myself and then we returned to dinner.

After dinner we were allowed to lounge about again and then the team were called together for football practice, a gentleman on another side of the river having placed at our disposal a suitable patch of ground. Here we worked hard for an hour and a half, perfecting ourselves in all the science of the game and mastering every trick that could be thought of. It was sport, but we were very much in earnest and though we enjoyed ourselves we spared no pains to learn everything that was to be learnt.

Returning, we were rubbed down and examined by the trainer and then sat down to tea. After partaking of that meal we frequently took a mile and a half walk; and by ten each evening the Villa team were in bed. Such was our training day by day.

For breakfast we had ham and eggs, or fish and we drank tea or coffee. We had no lunch, except perhaps a glass of beer if we were accustomed to it. For dinner we had fish, mostly, salmon or lampreys. Not infrequently our host would bring us in a freshly-caught salmon and on one or two occasions we enjoyed ourselves by going on fishing expeditions also. Sometimes we had a little roast beef or mutton and occasionally fowl; but fish constituted dinner most frequently. Tea consisted of chops and steaks and we went to bed without supper.

Of course, every day was not alike and we had small adventures which formed an agreeable variation to the routine. It was our special delight to come across our fine old trainer seated by the riverside, rod in hand, waiting patiently for the fish that never came, while there was no lack of diversion at night. Pillow-fights were quite the order of the time and as most of us were used to the advantages of town life it was only natural that we should endeavour to find as much amusement as possible in that quiet out-of-the world spot. On some of the nights we were kept at the hotel entertained by the county hop-pickers out of work, who to earn an honest penny dressed themselves up like Red Indians, stuck feathers in their caps, blacked their faces and performed all sorts of wild antics, dancing and singing.

(4) Wilf Mannion, Association Football (1949)

Real tactics I agree begin in the dressing room when club officials will be able to give the players some idea of the general methods, weaknesses and strength of the opposition. It is then that not one, but several plans are made, or should be made, so that the opposition can be attacked at its weakest point and probes made where other weaknesses are suspected.

Mobility is the secret of any team's success, and that means that the captain should be able at any given moment to switch his plan to some other tactical movement which has been discussed and agreed on by every member of the team.

I cannot agree for instance that one inside forward, let alone two, must always be slightly in the rear of his attacking colleagues. That is not always possible. I agree that as long as the other four are making headway and bringing results the method can be carried on, but if results are not forth¬coming then steps have to be taken to remedy that and it may result in an all-five forward attack.

A team's tactical schemes and plans must always be fluid and a captain and his team must always be ready to adopt them to the turn of events. A move by the defence to counteract an attack must itself be countered by yet another scheme. Positive action all the time is the finest policy any team can adopt : an energetic and versatile attack is the way to victory. A negative policy of avoiding defeat which is often adopted, particularly by an " away " club, is not a happy solution to a team's troubles.

Arsenal, in past seasons, have been said to have had a method all of their own, and frankly I don't believe it for a moment. How often have you heard that they concentrated on defence for long spells to draw their opponents well upfield and, hey presto, the ball suddenly was switched to their hitherto idle forwards who had then nothing to do but race on and put the ball in the net.

There was more to the old Arsenal method than that. Let it be realised that they were a team of stars and their forwards needed no such wide open spaces to make a movement that would bring results. Many are the defenders in England's First Division that have run themselves dizzy trying to stop Arsenal forwards from the word "go".

I will not have it that the Arsenal methods were fixed. I am convinced that with them, more than with most teams, the very fluidity of the team was what mattered... the complete understanding between all the players, the knowledge that each man would be in a certain spot at a certain moment according to the way play was running. At the time of writing Arsenal are having a bad spell; they will rise again.

Dressing-room talks and discussions are very important indeed. Players compare notes from previous experience. The team's agents will probably have watched the opposition in a recent game. No harm can come of putting two and two together and getting an answer in the shape of a plan which will probably outwit the opposition.

But it would be wrong definitely to say to the players: "This is how you will play this particular game; stick to the plan." What might be said would be "This is a probable way of getting off to a good start, try it for a while and if the results are good, carry on."

There is method in that as long as the captain is left to decide whether the method is the right one when he sees how it is working in action. There must be stand-by plans and obviously there must always be considered opinions ready to be brought into operation.

(5) Jimmy Ruffell, interviewed by Brian Belton in 1973.

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. But he was good at that. He got us to the Cup final and got West Ham promoted in 1923 so you can't ask for much more than that can you.