I remember when, in the early stages of my soccer fandom, I first came across Zonal Marking. At some level, of course I understood that there were tactics and strategy in soccer as with any sport. But to see the game explored from that (top-down) angle was a revelation. Over the years, I’ve spent far too much time going through that site, reading whatever analysis and articles I could find. I owe no small portion of my current understanding of how soccer is played to Zonal Marking.
And so I owe something to Jonathan Wilson. ZM’s bibliography page lists Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid at the top, describing it as “the daddy of all football tactics books.” I just finished reading it, and I can understand that praise.
Inverting the Pyramid is a history, not just of soccer tactics, but of the evolution of soccer tactics. Wilson always has a long view of things, with the knowledge that tactics do not, and can not, stay static. What Wilson does so well is he explains why tactical changes occurred. It is one thing to provide a history of tactics, but Wilson has the understanding to grasp why, say, the 2-3-5 gave way to the W-M in the days before World War II, or why Argentina’s 3-5-2 of the ’80s led to its own obsolescence.
More than anything else, he provides a human element to the Xs and Os by focusing on who conjures up the changes in style. The book’s twenty chapters mostly center on a few managers each, highlighting the men most responsible for the game’s tactical development. So he’ll venture away from the overhead view to explain Jimmy Hogan’s playing career, or the eccentricities of Helenio Hererra. It’s these details that make this a complete book, not merely a textbook but something people want to read.
As the book nears both its end and the modern day, Wilson starts posing questions, seemingly to anyone who will listen. “Can the game today cope with a player who does not charge and hustle and chase…guiding and coaxing through imagination rather than physique?” He also questions the place of the poacher, the forward whose only ability is to score goals. The net effect of these questions is to leave the reader with this impression: the game is still evolving. The 4-2-3-1 that seemingly everyone plays currently is not the culmination of soccer tactics simply because it’s the most modern system. Someone will inevitably notice a flaw, and a way to exploit that. The game is always in flux, and this past World Cup proved that even tiki taka has an antidote.
And so Inverting the Pyramid ends with forward momentum, pushing out into what’s next.