If you want to know about the history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid is the book you need to read. It takes a fascinating look at the evolution of tactics and what it means for the game.
It’s easy to think football is a game of 11v11 and two halves, but there is a lot more to it than that. Success is often determined by the tactics teams use.
What’s interesting in reading this book is just how much tactics have evolved since the start of the 20th century.
There has been just a huge shift in the style of football played. The passing game, which is considered the norm today, was a novelty at one point. This just highlights how much trends can change over time.
This is a football book, so if you’re not a fan of football, I would advise you to give it a miss.
However, if you’re reading this, then odds are you do enjoy football. This is the definitive book on tactics and is a must-read if you want to get a deeper understanding of the workings and history of the game.
It’s one of the best sportsbooks you can read and an enjoyable and enlightening one at that!
Table of Contents
Inverting The Pyramid Summary
Takeaway 1 – Tactics Are Constantly Evolving
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but tactics in football are constantly changing and evolving. In my lifetime, football has changed significantly.
I remember football being much more physical in my childhood. Players such as Alan Shearer, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were dominant players. Their physical stature and character were much more lauded than their technical ability.
Nowadays, the inverse seems to be true. We are much more enamoured with players who are technical, and skilful than we are by displays of blood and thunder.
If we go back to the beginning of the 20th century, the tactical shifts from then until now are stark.
The dominant tactic of the early days was the 2-3-5 formation, known as the pyramid, a reference to the title of the book.
It’s amazing to think teams used to play with only two players at the back, but it was the common formation of the day.
This was superseded by the Arsenal team of Herbert Chapman pioneered the WM formation, which lined up as a 3-2-2-3 and was hugely successful. So much so, that it became widespread in England.
This was eventually superseded by the 4-2-4, which Brazil utilised effectively to win two world cups in 1958 and 1962.
After that we have seen Catenaccio, Total Football, Tiki-Taka and Gegenpressing come to the fore in varying degrees.
What is almost guaranteed in football is that nothing remains the same for long. Tactics are fluid, what is cutting edge one moment, is stale the next.
Once teams have adapted and found ways to negate your tactics, you need to adapt them or face being left behind.
The history of tactics in football shows that innovation is rife and to not innovate is to stand still and be left behind.
Takeaway 2 – Teams Might Have A Shelf Life of Three Years
One of the more interesting takeaways I took from Inverting The Pyramid is that teams may only have three years before they start to need to be broken up and revitalised.
The former Benfica manager Bela Guttmann, who won two European cups with Benfica, stated that the third year was fatal.
The idea is that in the early years, a team is hungry for success and they are willing to sacrifice and scrap for it. This can be maintained for the second year as they push on for more glory, but as the third year comes along, it’s harder to maintain motivation as players become complacent and disinterested.
While there is no way of proving or disproving Guttmann’s quote, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence which seems to back it up.
His own Benfica team is a case in point. They won back-to-back European cups in 1961 and 1962 but lost in the 1963 final to Milan. Guttmann had left by this time and his team would never reach the same heights.
Jose Mourinho has never been able to sustain success into a third year and beyond at any of the clubs he has managed. His first few years are normally bountiful as players buy into his methods, but they appear to become tired of them once the third year comes around.
He has rarely survived or made it past a third season at most of the clubs he has managed.
The outlier is Alex Ferguson, who managed Manchester United for 26 years from 1986 to 2013. He was able to sustain success over a long period of time. However, he was not afraid to change his team up and no problems with transferring players out who disagreed with him.
This trend seems to hold true in other sports. The Golden State Warriors conquered all before them in 2017 and 2018 but fell to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals. They also won the title in 2014.
It appears success can make players complacent and that they need to retain the hunger they initially had to sustain it.
Takeaway 3 – Rule changes result in tactical shifts
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that rule changes have a habit of shaking things up. Football is no exception to this and rule changes have often resulted in tactical shifts as teams adapt to the new set of laws.
One of the first examples of this is the changing of the offside law in 1925. Previously, the rule stated that for a player to be deemed onside, three opposing players had to be between him and his opponent’s goal.
The rule change whittled this down to two in an attempt to encourage attacking play and more goals into the game. It had an immediate effect. The average number of goals per game in the English top division went from 2.58 goals per game in the 1924-25 season to 3.69 the following season.
The rule encouraged teams to play long balls to try and stretch the opposition team and catch them on a counter-attack, this was opposed to the slow and patient passing game, which had been dominant beforehand.
Similar rule changes came in the early 90s which saw sliding tackles from behind ruled illegal and a rule which forbid the goalkeeper from picking the ball up from a pass by one of his own players.
The first rule was to counter the negative and cynical tactics that had been used at the 1990 World Cup. Players were routinely hacked down and matches became scrappy. Players such as the Dutch forward, Marco van Basten, was forced to retire early due to injuries sustained from such tackles.
The backpass rule was also introduced as a response to the 1990 World Cup. Teams had been overly negative and as the keeper was able to pick the ball up, it could encourage teams to be unduly defensive which led to dull and boring matches.
This is one of the most important changes in modern times, as it forced goalkeepers to become more than just keepers, they needed to be good with their feet and act as an eleventh man and in some cases, a sweeper-keeper who was not afraid to come off his line and clean up the play.
This has come to fruition in recent times with goalkeepers such as Manuel Neuer, Ederson and Alisson able to start attacks with their passing from deep and act as an additional playmaker.
Goalkeepers who are poor with their feet are increasingly marginalised and an endangered species.
Rule changes have a profound effect on tactics and how the game is played. They offer an opportunity to take a step ahead of your rivals and level the playing field to an extent.
Inverting The Pyramid review
If you want to better understand football tactics, then you have to read Inverting the Pyramid.
No other football book comes close to its scope and detail regarding the evolution of tactics in football. Zonal Marking is a good complement and looks at the last thirty years of tactics in European football.
I’m a big fan of football but I learnt a lot from reading this book. I was unaware of the roots of many of the tactics we see employed today, while it was nice to get a deeper understanding of the history of football.
Jonathan Wilson is arguably the premier football writer of his day. His works are essential and easy to read.
You’ll find a lot of detail in this book and it may be a struggle to read it if you’re new to football or not that interested in the tactical aspect of it.
However, if you persist, you’ll be rewarded with a great understanding and appreciation of the game!
Who should read Inverting The Pyramid?
Any football lover should read Inverting The Pyramid. You’ll gain deeper insights into the game and its history.
That said, if you have a passing interest in football, or you’re not that bothered about the tactical aspect of it, this book may be a difficult read.
There is a lot of detail and if you’re unfamiliar with the teams and tactics which are talked about it may be hard to follow.
On the other hand, it could also be a useful introduction to football. If you’re determined to learn more about the sport, then, by all means, give Inverting the Pyramid a read!