Book Review | Inverting the Pyramid

Let's get this straight. There is the game. The one that involves 22 players dribbling, passing, and shooting, trying to get past their opponents to stick the ball in the back of the net. It is a game of individual skill and vision or small bits of combination play that unlock defenses. We'll call this the television, or perhaps more accurately, the game console version.

And then there is the game.

This is what you see when you plop your butt in the plastic stadium seating with the whole field spread out before you. The interchanging parts. The flow of the players. The constant expansion, restriction, and exploitation of space. Sure, the moments of individual magic and skill and vision are still there to be enjoyed and wondered at--they are without a doubt the moments that leave your throat raw and nerves a-jangle. But they take place inside of a framework and flow that has its own inherent charm. A charm more rational and intellectual than emotional. This is the game that Jonathan Wilson dissects in Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics.

And what a history it is! You may have read Wilson's work in the Guardian or elsewhere, admiring his attention to history and detail, the real nuts and bolts of formational and positional choices grounded in a broad and deep knowledge of how the world plays, or has traditionally played the game. But those are mere vignettes. Inverting the Pyramid takes those scattered strands and weaves them into a glorious whole, enlivened by memorable characters, iconic teams, political and cultural influences, and the spirit of the people and times in which tactical innovations flourished.

Necessarily, there are times when Wilson has to jump about the timeline or the map or paint with a broad brush, but always it is in pursuit of the theme so cleverly reduced to those three words in the title. What happened in the century of tactical development that took the first widespread standard tactic, the 2-3-5, and flipped it on its head, presenting us with modern four-back, single striker formations--the inverted pyramid? Where do all those exotic stops on the way: the W-M, catenaccio, la nuestra, totaalvoetbal, liberos, trequartistas, etcetera, etcetera, fit into the picture? And what comes next?

I suppose you'll just have to pick up a copy to find out. If you're as intrigued by the tactics and history of the game as I am, you won't regret it.


  1. I bought this book. It certainly is encyclopedic in its approach and you do learn a lot if you are willing to plow through a lot of dull, meandering prose. Best to read it on the toilet in short bursts with few distractions.

  2. Hmmm.

    Can't say I found the prose dull or meandering, but perhaps my fascination with the subject meant I didn't notice. I like reading history (which often tends toward the dry side), and I enjoy the minutiae of tactical dissection (also fraught will peril for the thrill-seeking reader). To each his or her own I suppose.

  3. Thanks for the review.

    I thought the book would have benefitted from a little refocusing: even more space devoted to tactical minutiae, and less to the off-the-field soap-operaish elements. It's not for anyone, but it has its place.

    --DCU Curmudgeon