Jonathan Wilson’s encyclopedic narrative explores the evolution of on-field soccer tactical strategies, (commonly just referred to as “tactics”) throughout the history of the game. Mr. Wilson’s masterfully detailed and well-organized account offers the most compelling case for the importance of tactics that any fan could ever hope to read. At times it can be dry, but I imagine it is the seminal popular history of soccer tactics, as well as a worthy face on the Mount Rushmore of books on soccer history itself.
Admittedly, I was initially skeptical about Mr. Wilson’s premise that tactics are that important. When I watch soccer on TV, I don’t usually notice them. I see skill, technique, and energy. But, it’s tactics that seek to combine and harmonize these elements—to ultimately synthesize something greater than the whole and give the manager’s team an advantage over the opponent. Or in the case of a more brutish boss, it’s the lack of tactics that are more likely to foil any dreams of glory. I always knew tactics were there, but like the author’s English colleagues, I placed them on a stepstool rather than a pedestal. But, as I found out, to dismiss the story of tactics is to dismiss a fundamental part of the story of soccer.
Through meticulous detail that I can only imagine was teased out of a lifetime of research in the darkly lit halls of old Gothic libraries with creaky floorboards, majestic ceiling arches, and bookshelves with the trappings of acrophobia hidden somewhere near a catacomb, Mr. Wilson coherently and comprehensively lays down the crisscrossing, country-jumping, time-skipping tales of unique characters and cultures that shaped the forefront of the game throughout its history. Just like in life itself, the tensions between beauty and pragmatism, fluidity and structure, authority and affability, and individual and system seem to be forever manifest.
Even though the author tends to focus on the characters of the game, he does note many of the externalities that have profoundly influenced it, e.g. the rise of professionalism, computers, sports science, and television (the more macroeconomically-inclined reader should check out Soccernomics as well). Because these externalities simultaneously are influenced by culture and influence culture itself, while culture influences tactics and tactics influences the tactics of others (and in some countries, the game no doubt further influences culture), this book is a neat case study on system evolution. Indeed, in tactics, as well as in anything that evolves, whatever is is, until it isn’t anymore.
As with many man-made systems, there are also some comically sad steps backward. I was shocked to learn about the original top-heavy formations you would never see in today’s game (not even in EA’s FIFA!). Early on, these formations were treated like dogma—the “right way” to play—and the original purveyors of the game clung to them with obnoxious obstinacy. In another example, I don’t know what could be more emblematic of a faded empire than staking one of the things the population is most passionate about on a crotchety old man’s complete and dour misinterpretation of data.
One wrinkle that the author acknowledges, however briefly, is that sometimes the tactic of no tactics is the best tactic. When Brian Clough stormed the first division from the second with Nottingham Forest, he dispensed tactics in favor of granting somewhat nebulous responsibilities to each individual player. In this way, the players essentially self-organized into a powerhouse, however short-lived. This management style, which absolutely fascinates me, gives the most power to those closest to the action. If tenable at all in the modern game, I’d love to see more coaches and teams play out this philosophy. (Ironically enough, Mr. Wilson also wrote a book entitled Brian Clough: Nobody Ever Says Thank You: The Biography.)
But I digress. This book presents a very convincing canon for the history of soccer, but I must take away one star due to the academic writing style that was more Carlos Bilardo than César Luis Menotti (or even Marcelo Bielsa, but then again, it is a prose history of soccer tactics after all). In his epilogue in my 2013 edition, Mr. Wilson ponders what will become of tactics in this age of incredibly fast information when any team can see what their opponent is doing on TV or the internet. I can only wonder what Mr. Wilson would have to say about Leicester City’s unlikely championship as well as Iceland’s outsized emergence on the international scene. Actually, I am going to go look up his thoughts on those subjects as soon as I’m done writing this review. As said in the epigraph, felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas, indeed.