I read this back in May and in the time it's taken me to write about it the football season has rolled around again. Wilson's book is a thorough guide to the history of tactics in football, from the days when the majority of players were attackers, through to the modern game, in which teams frequently play without a recognised striker. [amtap book:isbn=1409102041]
Though Wilson, as an English writer, spends a lot of time on the game at home, he also finds time for extensive examinations of how the game developed across Europe and South America.
"It could be said," Wilson writes, "that the whole history of tactics describes the struggle to achieve the best possible balance of defensive solidity with attacking fluidity."
While that is true, Wilson also demonstrates that tactical innovation depends to a large extent on what everyone else is doing. If one team can change its system, even slightly, to exploit a weakness in the fashionable system of the day, then it can gain a significant advantage. Of course, that advantage is often then diminished as others imitate, leading to further experimentation, and so on.
Wilson provides potted biographies of the key figures involved in the history of the game. This brings the characters to life and is always readable but does tempt Wilson into suggesting on occasion that a key tactical change came about because of some quality of a manager's character.
In some cases that might be true but the broad sweep of the book makes clear that most tactical development is the result of an evolution from what had gone before. It is less a stroke of genius from an individual and more a case of experimenting with moving just one more player a little further back or pushing a player a little further wide.
In other words, while it might be possible to find a link between a brilliant tactical advance and the character of the manager who pioneered it, the evidence suggests that with so many managers, coaches and players all examining the same problem, that advance would have been made by someone sooner or later.
Still, the stories are frequently entertaining. I particularly enjoyed this one: "Garrincha had fallen out of favour for showboating in a warm-up friendly against Fiorentina (having rounded the goalkeeper he decided not to roll the ball into an empty net, but to wait for him to recover, upon which he beat him again before walking the ball over the line)."
Wilson is very clear on the flaw in the English game: the over-estimation of strength and fitness and the under-estimation of skill. He goes right back to the formulation of the laws of the game in 1863 and F. W. Campbell of Blackheath: "Sport, he appears to have felt, was about pain, brutality and manliness; without that, if it actually came down to skill, any old foreigner might be able to win."
Which pretty much explains the World Cup. England's one win, in 1966, cemented a certain idea of the game in the English psyche, Wilson argues. The result has been clear for all to see.
As I write whenever I review a sport book, clearly you have to enjoy football to get anything out of this book. If you do enjoy it, however, it will give you an excellent grounding in the evolution of the game across the world and provide an understanding of just why today's game is played as it is.