The Games That Changed The Game by Ron Jaworski (Shane's book 40, 2011)

Ron Jaworski was an NFL quarterback for more than 15 years. He spent the bulk of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles and took them to their first Super Bowl. These days he is an analyst on Monday Night Football.

In this book, Jaworski looks at seven NFL games that he believes represent important moments in the tactical development of the sport. He gives the background to the coaches and players involved and then examines the film of the game to explain how the tactical innovation in question played out.The tactical to-and-fro of an NFL game is what makes the sport so absorbing for me and Jaworski captures it perfectly here. There is a narrative to an NFL game that isn't always apparent, even to seasoned observers, and this book does an excellent job of making those narratives clear.

Jaworski explains, for example, that coaches don't always pick plays because they expect to score with them, or even gain a lot of yards. He writes:

"An offense will run plays that you know aren't going to pick up much yardage, but you have to run them to set up another play for down the road. You run certain plays to see how the defense reacts. You show certain fomations to help a quarterback understand how defenders will line up against that formation."

It's here that Jaworski's experience as a quarterback becomes relevant. He has been on the field and played the game at the highest level. When he tells you what it's like to try to read a defense or to attempt to avoid a pass rush, you can trust that he knows what he's talking about.

Using a specific game to explain a tactical innovation is slightly forced because in almost every case the tactics under consideration did not suddenly appear, fully-formed, in one game. They were developed over a series of games - or even over years. However, the advantage of this approach is that makes very clear how the tactics work in practice.

Jaworski's play-by-play is frequently riveting. At times, he manages to create the excitement of watching the game itself. The only downside was that I wanted to watch the tape while I read his analysis. This can be done with enhanced ebooks and it's to be hoped that publishers will try to sort out the licensing deals to make that possible in future.

There are also lots of brilliant anecdotes in amid the description. Jaworski explains how Sid Gillman consulted a maths professor to work out geometrically where each receiver should be on the field so that the ball would be in the air for the same amount of time, whichever one the quarterback passed to.

There are some wonderful quotes too. Here's Jim Otto, the Oakland Raiders center:

"At the end of one run, Joe Greene cussed me out, then kicked me square in the testicles - and I've never forgotten that. I didn't think that was very nice."

Some of the tactical developments that Jaworski covers here were so significant that they changed the type of players that teams looked for. In some cases, they even resulted in rule changes by the league, because a new idea tipped the balance of the game too far towards the offense or defense.

Though Jaworski has two co-writers on this book, the writing and editing are often poor. There are exclamation marks all over the place, for example, which is irritating. And it's repetitive: occasionally you'll read a sentence that repeats, almost a word-for-word, one from a few pages earlier.

Though it would be nice to have better prose, that isn't the selling point of a book like this. It's all about the expertise and Jaworski has buckets of it. This is a book that will deepen your understanding of the game. An essential for every fan.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball - Playbook Edition by Pat Kirwan (Shane's book 33, 2011)

I don't re-read books very often, as regular visitors to this site will know, but this is my second reading of Take Your Eye Off the Ball this year. Strictly speaking, it's somewhere between a re-reading and a new book, since this Playbook Edition updates the original with more than 50 pages of new material. [amtap book:isbn=1600786170]

The main changes are in updated examples from last season as well as new sections on this year's NFL Draft and an added chapter on the special teams game.

Other significant changes are to the packaging of the book. It has expanded margins, to facilitate annotation, and is now ring-bound to make it a little sturdier for repeated reference. There's also a DVD, which features Kirwan explaining many of the book's key concepts with the aid of a whiteboard and a marker. It's fascinating if you're an NFL fan but soporific if you're not.

As I wrote in my review in March, this is only for those who already understand the basics of American football. Kirwan assumes a degree of familiarity with the rules and terminology. For all those beyond the novice level, this is an extraordinary resource.

My understanding of the game increased after the first reading and so, as the start of the NFL season approached, I was keen to read it again. I wasn't disappointed: I got just as much out of a second reading. There is so much here, in fact, that I will probably read it again before the next season begins, just to reinforce what I've learned.

I recommend this to all NFL fans.

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson (Shane's book 21, 2011)

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.

Take Your Eye Off The Ball by Pat Kirwan (Shane's book four, 2011)

Pat Kirwan is a former NFL coach whose spells with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Phoenix Cardinals and New York Jets allow him to bring a real expertise to his punditry. His aim with this book is to help NFL fans get more out of watching the game by drawing their attention to some of the less obvious things that happen on the field. [amtap book:isbn=1600783910]

It's not a book for complete novices; Kirwan assumes a fair amount of knowledge of the sport but anyone beyond beginner level will find something useful here. I've been watching American football for 25 years but I still learned a lot from reading this.

Kirwan provides a lot of detail on how coaches prepare for a game, draw up their game plans and how they monitor what's going on during the game. I knew, for example, that teams use different 'packages' of players for different situations but I had no idea that much of the time this is determined by what they've had time to practice.

There are lots of little rules of thumb: the number of steps a quarterback drops is usually half the number of steps a receiver has to work with before receiving the ball; a running back will watch the helmet of the lead blocker to judge where to run - if the helmet is outside the defender, the running back will head outside the blocker; and a star pass rusher can expect to sack the quarterback on fewer than two per cent of attempts.

Some of the most interesting material comes when Kirwan gives his thoughts on where the game is headed. For example: "Someday there will be an NFL team based in London. There may even be two teams in European cities, so that a team from the US could go over for two weeks, play two road games, and come home." I'd love to think that he's right.

The NFL has always been far more open to technological advances than a sport like soccer, which prides itself in being resistant to change, even in situations where technology would bring clear benefits, such as with instant replay. Kirwan has some good ideas for how the NFL could further benefit from technology:

"...the day is coming when every team's playbook will be recreated as an EA Sports-style video game. When players take their playbooks home, they'll interact with it instead of reading it. They'll be able to see themselves in every play and perhaps even enjoy the learning process."

He also talks about having cameras in the locker room, realtime polling so that coaches can see what fans think of the game and the idea of virtual reality simulators so that quarterbacks can practice passing. Some of his ideas seem bizarre but it's his openness to change and to thinking about the structure of the game that makes the ideas so intriguing.

It's a well-written book and easy to follow given the often complex ideas that Kirwan is trying to explain. Obviously it's of value only if you're a fan of the sport but for those that are, it's a treasure trove of information and will enrich your experience of watching the game.

Morbo by Philip Ball (Shane's book 38, 2010)

I like Spanish football a lot. I've seen Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao at home and seen Real Madrid play against Levante - Valencia's second team. I find the footballing and fan culture fascinating, though I don't know much about either. That's where this book comes in.

[amtap book:isbn=0954013468]

Philip Ball explores, chapter by chapter, the Spanish regions and their major clubs. All the time he searches for evidence of 'morbo', the almost untranslatable Spanish term that means, roughly, the passionate animosity between rival supporters.

There are plenty of fascinating stories here - from the sport's birth in Spain thanks to Englishmen abroad to the often seedy backroom dealings over players, managers and even stadiums.

There are plenty of colourful characters, not only players, managers and owners from the past but also the fans and journalists Ball meets as he tours Spain. Ball wants to emphasise three key themes: first, there were regional tensions in Spain long before Franco; second, that Barcelona are not as saintly as they are often painted; and third, that Real Madrid are not as evil as they are frequently portrayed.

To be honest, he labours these themes a little too much but at least they are interesting arguments and Ball offers plenty of evidence to support his case.

Anyone with an interest in Spanish football should read this.