Football historian Jonathan Wilson talks about tactics, formations, origins of national styles, & more

Jonathan Wilson is best thing to have happened to English football for years.” – Time Out.

The words ‘Greek’ and ‘tragedy’ almost always follow each other, much in the same manner as ‘England football national team’ and ‘baws’ are mentioned in the same breath. The Emperor Nero of ancient Rome lit his city on fire, and from his balcony sang and strummed his lyre. The reports were varying, but the general consensus was that it was a PR move to boost the tyrant’s ratings (not that exit polls were a thing back then, as much as organised stabbings were), when his men, who happened to be the first on the scene by sheer coincidence, managed to douse the flames. This was an exercise in diversion, distracting people from what truly ails the Empire.

Faux pas (Sam Allardyce’s sacking) after faux pas (FA’s child-abuse scandal), the retrograde English FA seems to be carrying on Nero’s legacy for the last 50 years since their solitary (and dubious) World Cup triumph in 1966. Tragedies beget scholars, and Jonathan Wilson, hailing from the proud working-class city of Sunderland, is perhaps England’s most celebrated. The game of football is his muse.

Employed by The Guardian, Financial Times, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Telegraph; appearing on Sky Sports and Fox Soccer network as a football pundit, Jonathan Wilson is a football historian and a journalist, considered one of the very best in his field for the better part of the decade.

 Football historian Jonathan Wilson talks about tactics, formations, origins of national styles, & more

Representational image.  AFP PHOTO

His book 'Inverting the Pyramid', a modern-day gospel on football tactics has won prestigious awards, including Italy’s Premio Antonio Ghirelli Prize, NSC Football Book of the Year, and the critically-acclaimed Football Supporters Federation Award, for forever changing the way the game is seen by broadcasters, broadsheets and fans alike.

He has seemingly outdone himself with 'Angels with Dirty Faces', his new book launched this year, which is a literary quest to find the true soul of Argentinian football. The book explains how the hot-blooded South American nation, through its impudent form of artistry, has learned to colour outside of the English manual of football and culture, for better and for worse. The author speaks to Firstpost in a two-part interview; the first of which is about his new book, the art of storytelling, Argentinian football and how national footballing styles develop.

FP: Jonathan Wilson, the author of Inverting the Pyramid, a monumental achievement in sports journalism – a revelatory effort, with The Independent calling it football’s answer to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Can you sum up what the book is about to those who haven’t gotten around to reading it yet?

JW: Very simply – it’s a history of football tactics with the backdrop of culture, geography and society. It explains how we move from the early formations of the 1870s, the first set of formations that we have any real idea about – like the first International played between England and Scotland in 1872. England played a 1-2-7 system, and Scotland, radically for the times, pulled one of the forwards back and played a 2-2-6, thus enabling them to pass the ball around England, even though they were lighter and had much less experience and churned out a 0-0 draw. The book works through the whole development of those formations and onto the present day, where instead of 7 strikers or 6 strikers, we have often no forwards.

It’s not just a question of how players have moved on the pitch; it is, critically, about style and how in the way which we play reflects the culture that stimulated that way of playing.

There are very good reasons why Total Football, or the other versions of Total Football had their inceptions in The Netherlands and The Soviet Union at the same time. There’s a very good reason why Herbert Chapman, the visionary Arsenal manager, changed the WM system into being more streamlined, where the ball was played forward quicker – and why that came about in years after the 1st World War in modernist England.

FP: Angels with Dirty Faces is perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book on Argentinian football ever written in the English language – what can the reader expect from it?

Award-winning football historian Jonathan Wilson. Coutesy:

Award-winning football historian Jonathan Wilson. Coutesy:

JW: I was very late in delivering the book, almost two years late. I got to a stage where 6 months before the first deadline, I said to them, look this is what I’ve done – is this a disaster, or are you happy for me to keep going like this? They were happy for me to try and complete the book.

This is a complete book that will tell you: Okay, River Plate won the league in 1936, their coach was Imre Hirschl, these were their best players, but why did they win the league? They had Bernabé Ferreyra up front – bustling forward, scored a bundle of goals, huge man, he signed enormous advertising contracts, and was a figure of public importance. But there were, of course, the tactics of Imre Hirschl, a Hungarian manager with mysterious origins, called ‘El Mago’ or the wizard – who was hugely influential in the formative years of Argentinian football.

Then, you try and place that in context with the advent of professional football and the challenges that stood in the way. Independiente with Antonio Sastre, and other great players they had who aren’t talked about these days - they won the league in 1937 and 1938. Then, you have the great Boca Juniors with ‘Pancho’ Varallo, who was the last surviving player of the inaugural 1930 World Cup – and thankfully, I got to him just before he passed. He was aged 101, still very sharp, remembering those days - the inputs he provided for the book were amazing. I was very fortunate.

So, it is an attempt to fuse the two – pure football history, but with a socio-economic background as well.

FP: You effortlessly pick up strands of themes and knit it into a snug sweater for the reader, with a narration as smooth as hot chocolate. Finding stories is one thing, but how does one keep track of all the details and arrange them without creases?

JW: [Laughs] I always feel slightly intimidated when I go and see other writers talking about how they have drawn up huge plans. Most of the time I just sit down and start writing and see what happens, sometimes it comes out okay and sometimes it doesn’t – the times it doesn’t, I start all over again.

In none of my books have I started at the beginning and worked my way through – you always write a chunk, and then write another chunk – do they fit together? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. You need to then bridge the paragraphs, and perhaps write a lot more to make them all fit. I’m not a careful, organised writer at all – I do think I should be, I’d probably be better if I were!

FP: Can you talk us through the creative process involved?

JW: When I was writing Inverting the Pyramid, I had gone to see an old friend for dinner. I sat on the train, had all these notes, and was trying to figure out how all of those things fit together. I thought to myself – well, Victor Maslov, the Soviet Russian manager, the progenitor of pressing, the father of the 4-4-2, was the man who invented modern football – what if I make him the central chapter? So I put him in the middle, with everything leading into him and then everything leading out of him. And as I was drawing it up, I realised, this works.

Since it’s not my only job, I tend to do it in snatches, and that’s the way the process has developed. If all I was doing was writing books, then I’d probably be a bit more careful. But because I’m a journalist and then there’s The Blizzard, so I may get half-an-hour a day. On some days, you get a whole afternoon, and on others a full day. So, if I get half-an-hour, I say to myself, okay, so what do I feel like writing about? What’s the thing I’ve been researching recently which is fresh in my mind? I write that. And when you get a day or two, you piece those together and try and smooth the joints.

FP: You examine in Inverting the Pyramid and even more minutely in Angels with Dirty Faces as to how much a footballing style is a product of geography – how does it affect national styles?

JW: It definitely does, in a million ways. If you’re playing football in England, where it rains from October through to March, you get pitches that are very, very muddy – certainly, in the days before the properly drained pitches that you have now, you couldn’t dribble through the middle. You just couldn’t do it! So, that’s why the English had a proclivity towards wingers, because the sides of the pitch were firmer, held together by the grass and you could dribble. At the same time, as the English pitches are soft – they like their sliding tackles because they don’t hurt.

England’s first-ever defeat to a non-British or Irish side was against Spain in 1929. They lost 4-3 in Madrid. If you read the post-match reports in the English papers, they said, oh, it was hot! The pitch was very hard and bumpy! Well, of course it was – it’s Spain you’re playing in, in May! What do you think it is going to be like? Somehow that seemed invalidating as a proper game of football.

It’s obvious in the way the Spanish play – you can’t run around for 100 miles per hour for ninety minutes, because it’s too hot! So, you learn to conserve energy and you learn to protect the ball. If the pitch is hard and wobbly, you don’t hit long balls over the top – as it's going to bounce ahead of you and out of play. Whereas, if the pitch is soft, you know what the bounce is going to do.

In terms of dribbling too – if I am a defender and you’re a forward, and you’re making a run, and you knock the ball in front of me on an English pitch, you know that the ball is going to slow down and you’re going to catch up to it. On a hard pitch, it’s going to keep going, and you’re not going to have a chance! That kind of pass and dribbling makes sense in England, and no sense in Spain.

Arsène Wenger has also talked about wind being a factor, and how that makes training very difficult because passing to each other and communicating with each other is difficult on a windy day.

FP: What are the drawbacks to adherent purism in football that you find in national styles?

JW: There’s always a danger when people talk about national styles, when people overplay it. They have to be careful to be subtle about it, and yet nuanced. (Otherwise, it becomes all too stereotyped and predictable.)

It’s not the case that all Soviet teams play this really regimented style with no individuality – it’d be easy to imagine that this would be the case, you see people and society projecting that kind of idea – but it is a lot more nuanced than that.

So, in Argentina, the difference between the Anglo (English) game and the Criollo (South American) game, is in part the difference between playing on grassy pitches that the schools have, and they can water them right after; and the Criollo game being played on the streets where the surface is hard.

So, yes, geography and societal conditions make a huge difference. It is becoming less and less significant because pitches are becoming more and more modernised. One of the many reasons why England fail at World Cups is because they can’t play in hot weather!...Well, although they also played in South Africa when it was freezing, so it’s definitely not the only reason! [Laughs]

[Continued in Part 2: Lessons in Sports Journalism, New-age Fan Culture, Wonderkids & Best Managers in Europe]

Jonathan Wilson, one of the most respected historians of the beautiful game has written 8 critically-acclaimed football books. His newest book, Angels with Dirty Faces, is available in stores. He tweets @jonawils.

Updated Date: Dec 22, 2016 13:20:38 IST