It’s a Simple Game
Jonathan Wilson examines The Football League’s tactical journey from 2-3-5, through to the W-M formation, 4-4-2, and beyond.

In the beginning there was the pyramid. The 2-3-5 had been used by Cambridge University and Nottingham Forest and, famously, by Wrexham in their victory over Druids in the 1878 Welsh Cup final, but it was its use by Preston North End in 1888/89 that spread its popularity and made it the default for almost all British sides. 

Preston had joined the Lancashire Football Association for the 1880/81 season and, although they initially struggled, the arrival of a host of Scottish players – professionals in all but name – transformed the club and, by the time The Football League began in 1888, the team-sheets were for the first time showing Preston lining up in a 2-3-5. Exactly whose idea that was is unclear, but it is known that James Gledhill, a teacher and doctor from Glasgow, gave a series of lectures “showing by blackboard what might be done by a team of selected experts”, as David Hunt put it in his history of the club.

That remained the standard shape until the 1920s, although there were variations. The game in Scotland was far more based on close passing than in England and, accordingly, the influx of a number of Scottish players to Newcastle led to them adopting a passing approach that was carried to Tottenham when they appointed the Newcastle wing-half Peter McWilliam as their manager in 1913. At the other end of the scale the likes of Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday, who like to sweep the ball long from wing-to-wing, looking to “turn” the opposing defence with a cross-field pass that would find a winger in space.

Everything changed, though, in 1925. In the years immediately after the First World War, football had become increasingly defensive, with a number of sides employing an offside trap, something at which Notts County and Newcastle were particularly adept. When Newcastle drew 0-0 at Bury in February 1925, it came as the final straw. It was Newcastle’s sixth goalless draw of a season that produced what at the time was an unthinkably low average of 2.58 goals per game. Something had to be done, and so that summer, after testing out various alternatives, the offside law was changed so that only two defensive players, rather than three as had previously been the case, were required to play a forward onside.

As teams sought to come to terms with the new regulation, the opening weeks of the 1925/26 Football League season saw a series of unpredictable results. Arsenal, for instance, beat Leeds 4-1 on September 26 but then were hammered 7-0 by Newcastle a week later. A number of teams, deprived of the crutch of the offside trap, began to deploy their centre-half deeper, as a third back. That, though, could leave teams short in midfield, and so one of the wing-halves began to play deeper – a 3-3-4. Under Herbert Chapman, Arsenal began to evolve further, pulling back the other inside forward as well until the shape was 3-2-2-3 – the W-M. That helped Arsenal to the League title in 1931 and, although Chapman died during the following season, the shape, and the swift forward passing of Alex James, carried them to a hat-trick of titles.

By the start of the Second World War, the W-M was all but universal in The Football League and it remained so until around 1960. England’s crushing defeat to Hungary in 1953 had begun to raise awareness that the W-M wasn’t the only way to play and Brazil’s victory at the World Cup in Sweden with a 4-2-4 confirmed it. Of the many sides who began experimenting with a back four, the most successful was Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich Town. Ramsey was also innovative in his use of Jimmy Leadbetter, whom he deployed as a deep-lying left-winger. Opposing full-backs didn’t know whether to track him upfield, and risk leaving space behind them, or to leave him and risk him creating play from deep. The ploy was devastatingly effective, and Ipswich, in the Third Division in 1955 when Ramsey took over, won the League title in 1962.

Ipswich Town manager Alf Ramsey talks tactics with members of his squad in 1961

After Ramsey had led England to the World Cup in 1966, their benefits of a back four were general accepted and that has remained the standard shape in England ever since, although the odd side has dabbled with a back three, perhaps most notably Jim Smith’s QPR in the eighties. The shape of midfields, though, continues to undergo development. 

For much of the seventies, the most usual way to play was a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, with one winger advanced and the other deeper and tucked in. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest are perhaps the classic example: John Robertson acting almost as a playmaker on the left, with Martin O’Neill tucked in on the right, with Viv Anderson overlapping from full-back to provide width. Forest, like Liverpool, had self-consciously adopted an approach to enable them to prosper in European competition: they held the ball, played short passes and sought to retain possession, frustrating opponents through patience and technical excellence.

The eighties saw the rise if the opposite of that: the more direct style of Watford and then, in a more aggressive way, Wimbledon.  All Watford tried to do, their manager Graham Taylor explained, was to play every minute of every game as though it was injury time and they were chasing an equaliser. They’d get the ball forward quickly and hound the opponent in possession, looking to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible.

Over the past twenty years, The Football League has become ever more varied. The outlawing of the tackle from behind and the back pass, and the liberalisation of the offside law, which has led to the effective playing area being lengthened as teams can’t push up as they once did, has heightened the emphasis on skill and, if 4-4-2 remains the dominant shape, the impact of players, coaches and ideas from a great variety of football cultures means the game is as varied as it’s ever been. What began on James Gledhill’s blackboard in Preston has, in 125 years, become infinitely more complex and diverse.