Welcome to Formation Renovation, where we figure out which modern players would best fit into some time-honored styles. The idea behind Formation Renovation is simple: It’s an attempt to figure out who today could do what they did back then. It’s not a suggestion that these formations and tactics, some of them 30, 50, or 70 years old, could thrive or even work in the modern era, but a thought experiment meant to help us look at differences between teams and players then and now.
Of the four Formation Renovations we’ve written, this has certainly been the most difficult. Game footage has proven more scarce than it was with the teams of the 60s, 70s and 90s that we’ve done in editions past, and where it was available it was pretty difficult to interpret from a tactical standpoint, since I couldn’t really see the ball. I did enjoy this one an awful lot though:
Here though, is basically what you need to know about the WM. It’s generally accepted that Herbert Chapman, formerly manager of Northampton, Leeds and Huddersfield and as of 1925 manager of Arsenal, and his captain Charlie Buchan converted what was a central midfield player — the center-half — of a 2-3-5 into a central defender in response a change made in the offside law, which before 1925 had required three opposing players be between an opponent and the goal when the ball was played. The change provided extra coverage at the back — previously two defenders was more viable because both, theoretically, could always play with the opposition in front of them, otherwise that person was offsides.
From this platform, Chapman spent five years assembling an Arsenal squad that fit his vision, a team that could play fast, counter-attacking soccer, getting the ball forward quickly to take advantage of the space left by the gobs of men teams were throwing forward at the time. Which they did quite well, scoring 127 goals in the league in 1930-31. (Nevermind that that was also the year that Aston Villa set the record for most top-flight goals in a season with 128).
As we discuss our selections for the team, think of the shape almost as an accordion: in defense, the three non-forward lines fall back, defending more or less with seven men at varying levels and with the wing halves – that’s Bob John and Charlie Jones – and defenders only applying heavy pressure close to the 18-yard box. Then when the ball was won, the players expanded, the forwards moving forward looking for the long pass, the middle stretching, until the wing-half line caught up with them and they were attacking with seven men once more. In that sense, they were among the first, certainly in England, to make use of the idea that would spark generations of Dutch teams — that the pitch should be made smaller when your opponents have the ball and larger when you do.
A word on the methodology:
1. There will be no Messi and no Cristiano Ronaldo on any of the teams in this series. We can all agree that the former would make any team you placed him on better, and since I’m not factoring in personal characteristics, like level of arrogance or how far a player’s head is up his ass, so probably would the latter. Using them would be cheating — they’d go on every team somewhere.
2. Given the choice between one or another player, odds are I picked the less obvious one, for reasons similar to those stated in #1. Every team that calls for an attacking right back can’t have Dani Alves or Maicon.
3. Any gaps in my knowledge of particular characteristics of current players were filled via printed reports, scrounged YouTube clips, and, for comparison purposes, Football Manager stats. When I say, for instance, that my selection at right defender is a “dangerous crosser,” it’s either because I’ve seen it myself, or got it in one of those three sources.
Here’s our model:
And here’s our list. Note the abbreviations, CH for center-half, WH for wing-half, and IF for inside forward. It didn’t seem right to translate these into modern terminology, since an inside forward isn’t quite the same thing as an attacking midfielder:
GK – Manuel Neuer
Odds are with our three defender system there are going to be some runners who make it through, and some shooters who aren’t picked up. Neuer, as he demonstrated against Manchester United in the Champions League, is capable of having his share of hero moments to keep us even.
(As an aside, it seems every time I pick a keeper to go into one of these, he responds by making a tremendous mistake between when I select him and when this is posted. Contact us by email or Twitter with your bribe offers.)
LB – Marcel Schmelzer
Unlike some of the other three-man defenses we’ve looked at in this column, the WM’s back line does not consist of a sweeper and two auxiliary centerbacks. Our outside defenders are true fullbacks, designed to cover the flanks in an era when every team they would be playing with used wingers. That said, realistically, they’re going to have to cover ground out from their flank into the center quickly and comfortably. So we’ve gone for young, tall, defensively-sound outside backs, who can both cover the ground and assist in the air on set pieces and crosses from their opposite flank. Schmelzer fits all those.
CH – John Terry
Still the best modern example of the classic English center-half. Make no mistake, I’m worried about sticking him back there by himself too, but with support from the flanks and from our wing-half line in front of him, Terry’s main job will be battling opposing center forwards.
RB – Gregory van der Wiel
See the reasons for Schmelzer.
LWH – Jan Vertonghen
Once again we’re taking advantage of a player’s versatility, this time by designing a squad that can evolve as the tactics did over a twenty-year period, from Chapman’s WM to the 4-2-4 of the mid-to-late 1950’s. Vertonghen began his career as a midfielder and still sometimes plays on that line for Ajax, but he’s primarily known as a central defender. Here, he’ll start as a wing half, playing in front of the defensive line and contributing to the attack occasionally. But as the opponent dictates, he can also drop into the backline and assist Terry in the center of the defense.
RWH – Scott Parker
I’m not sure that Scott Parker’s not actually a player sent forward in time from the 1930s. At any rate, he gets to play his normal game here.
LIF – Luka Modric
We’ll make use Modric’s ability to play both an attacking midfield position and a slightly deeper playmaking role. That’s ideal for our WM: In a system relying on fast counterattacks, he’s a player who can both come deep to receive the ball and get it moving forward quickly, or push on to take long passes higher up the pitch and thread it through to our forwards.
RIF – Wayne Rooney
Both our second inside forward and the ponta de lance in a four-man forward line. Rooney can run down and hold up long passes from the back or initiate his own counterattack by tackling the ball of a careless midfielder. He can score himself or play the pass through to get our wingers and center forward through on goal.
LW – Eljero Elia
Even Chapman’s Wikipedia page takes time to note that his system’s wingers were both pacy and inverted (the source it cites is Phil Soar’s and Martin Tyler’s The Official Illustrated History of Arsenal”). Elia, a right-footed player who typically mans the left flank, has the wheels to be his own one-man counter attack.
CF – Radamel Falcao
At 5’9” he’s hardly the stereotypical English number 9, but how can we count that against him when he can do stuff like this:
RW – Arjen Robben
We’ll go double Dutch with our wingers. Despite the fact that every time Robben runs I worry he’ll spontaneously combust, there’s no denying that he, like Elia, is fast as hell, and a better goal scorer to boot.