Cynical Review: Inverting The Pyramid

The prologue of Inverting The Pyramid mentions the genesis of the book occurring in a bar in Lisbon in 2004. England had beaten Switzerland 3-0 in the Euros the day before, and a group of journalists were discussing the England setup, and how it could be optimised. An English journalist then exclaims “Oh, what’s the difference? They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.” These words changed Jonathan Wilson’s life, if we are to believe his account of things. He set out to write the ultimate tactics book about football, and presumably sent a copy to the gentleman who uttered the unfortunate words, I assume with a post-it note attached saying “So… I guess it IS worth writing about”.

I get that the prologue is most likely put in there for narrative purposes, and that the journalist is meant to represent the wider English mindset of anti-intellectualism in football. I also wholeheartedly agree with Wilson in that anyone whose brain-to-mouth filter does not stop comments like those of his fellow journalist “shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it”. However, I’m not sure if Wilson knows how he’s coming across when he’s implying that he responds to drunken discussions by going away for four years to write a 450 page book about why he’s right. You should know that I myself have been described as “punchably argumentative”, yet this is the most strenuous effort I’m willing to go to in order to score a point after an alcohol-fuelled debate:

With that in mind, the desperately sad thing is that he kind of misses the mark. The book has the subtitle “The History of Football Tactics”, it aims at being a tactical book, but it is first and foremost a history book. Namedropping of absurdly obscure characters and descriptions of their backgrounds take up way more of the word count than discussion about the merits of formations. Actual tactics are generally limited to unhelpful visualisations of football fields, with tactical descriptions ranging from the mundane to the incomprehensible, sometimes even in the same diagram:

No wonder England found it harder to score, with all those arrows in the way.

Another clear sign of why this is a history book is the ridiculous amount of index fodder. There is a long index of names at the end of this book, containing pretty much every single internationally influential football manager in history. It also contains a lot of other names. This is largely due to Wilson pulling out sequences like this one:

(…) Zajec as the libero, with Hadzic to his right and either Srecko Bogdan or Borislav Cvetkovic to his left. Gradually [Blazevic] replaced the full-backs, Zvjezdan Cvetkovic and Milivoj Bracun, with more attacking players, Petar Brucic and Drago Bosnjak, creating the 3-5-2.

Did that excerpt intrigue you? If so, I can reveal that it is in fact a description of Dinamo Zagreb’s backline of the early 80s, including two separate Cvetkovices. Also, I can reveal that you are very likely somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Marathon namedropping sections like that are not unusual throughout the book, and it’s clear that Wilson somehow gets off on having a big, thick index, possibly the strangest form of penis size compensation I have ever encountered. But the epitome of indexing weirdness is reached in this section:

(…) the debate about the relative merits of beauty and success came to Sweden. Peterson compares it to listening to Charlie Parker after Glenn Miller or viewing Picasso after classical landscapes

So this is a quoted metaphor about American music from the 1940s. The absurd thing is that this digression gets an index entry for Glenn Miller, but not for Charlie Parker (Or Picasso, for that matter). I find this so strange that I’m actually struggling to get past it. What was the thinking there? Is it based on which obscure and outdated musician is more likely to be searched for in a book about football history?

Actual tactics are clearly secondary. There is a chapter on Catenaccio, but predictably, it is more concerned about which short and tempered Italian got an epiphany from which nautical metaphor, rather than how Catenaccio looks in today’s game. Specifically, how it looks when adopted by a dreadful Portuguese man currently in the Manchester area, who have spent most of his professional life trying to be the Darth Vader of club football.
Though truth be told, I mostly enjoyed Inverting The Pyramid. It’s informative, and it does provide a historical context for why the game looks like it does, and why centre backs are occasionally referred to as “centre halves”, which I’ve always found weird. It’s still weird, as it turns out this is a remnant of a “halfback” position that hasn’t been used a whole lot these past 90 years, but now I have a context for why it’s weird. The biggest problem of the book is that it doesn’t live up to my expectations, as it was sold in to me as the definitive book on football tactics. But occasionally, it does feel like the importance of tactics are undermined somewhat by the book, as it clearly doesn’t matter where on the pitch you put your players, they’re just going to run pointlessly around anyway.

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