Book Review: “Inverting The Pyramid”
I like history. The stories of things, how they came to be, how they came to appear like they do.
Soccer–or football, for most of the world–has roots stretching back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The Ancient Romans played a game called harpastum that–according to surviving accounts–that was something like a hyper-violent rugby. The Ancient Greeks had their own ball games. In the middle ages, English towns were playing kind of mob rugby in which an unlimited number of players on two teams would struggle to move a ball to a certain point. The oldest known soccer ball dates to 1540 and was found at Stirling Castle in Scotland during renovations in the 1970’s. In 1584, the first written reference to something called a “goal” is made in a document titled “The Survey of Cornwall.”
It wouldn’t be until the mid-19th century that efforts were made to unify the myriad local ball games into a cohesive structure of mutually agreed upon rules. What did soccer look like in 1890, or 1908, or 1930? What were the competitive pressures that drove teams to line up in the archaic 2-3-5? How did the 2-3-5 become the legendary W-M? How did those early formations and tactics become the various diamond-patterned patterns popular today?
“Inverting The Pyramid,” by Jonathan Wilson, is simply one of the best sports books I’ve ever read. It is a comprehensive and entertaining jaunt through the history of soccer tactics and strategy, from the balkanized days of local rules and public school fields, to the modern game of mega-stars at stadiums.
One of the first things that jumped out at me while reading “Inverting The Pyramid” is how many of the ideological fault-lines and narrative scrums of today where present right there, at the very birth of the game. Since the beginning of association football, there has been a friction between the seemingly obvious raison d’etre of winning the game, and playing the game beautifully. The English prized directness, something like smash-mouth soccer: whoever had the ball bombed down the pitch toward the opposing goal. The dribbler’s teammates would move with him in support, ready to swallow up the rebound should the ball pop loose, but never expecting that the player on the ball would actually pass it. The Scottish were the first to develop a passing game, “the combination game” in the parlance of the time. The English considered the game to be an expression of manliness and physicality; they looked down on the overly intellectual combination play of the Scottish. 130-years later, the main criticism of Spain and F.C. Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of one-touch pass-and-move is that it’s boring.
When the point system for wins, draws, and losses was devised, some early managers and players worried that the overriding drive for the three points was causing teams to play in an overly defensive style that was unentertaining to fans. By the 1960’s Helenio Herrera was deploying his defense heavy, park-the-bus counter attacking style called “catenaccio” at Inter-Milan to the consternation of lovers of free-flowing soccer everywhere. 50-years later, Tony Pulis’s Stoke City would would be derided for their long-ball laden defensive style.
Moves and countermoves, strategies and counter-strategies. If you’re interested in soccer–and you must be, since why else would you be here–then “Inverting The Pyramid” is absolutely indispensable for understanding why the game looks the way it looks today.
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