Herbet Chapman and the legendary W-M formation

Herbet Chapman and the legendary W-M formation

This feature is part of The Masterminds

AS THE SMOULDERING WRECKAGE morbidly illuminated the snow-drenched gloom, one flame threatened to go out altogether. A few survivors scrabbled through the shredded shards of metal to rescue what remnants they could have one of the greatest teams the world had seen, and amid the panic it seemed a grim and hopeless task. The ‘Boss’ was rescued despite having suffered severe injuries that would keep him in hospital for over two months, but it wouldn’t be for some time until the scale of the Munich Air Disaster would be truly understood.

Amongst the fatalities were a number of journalists who had chronicled the pioneering European escapes of Manchester United with more direct contact with the players than modern media could dream of. The oldest of them was 65-year-old Donny Davies of the Manchester Guardian who was coming to the end of his writing career. He had been planning to publish his memoirs of a life that had seen him play first-class cricket for Lancashire, tour Austria, Hungary and Romania with the England amateur football team and survive a German prisoner of war camp where he almost perished from malnutrition.

One aspect of his observations in a life in sport was particularly telling with regards to the success of Sir Matt Busby and his famous Babes. The sheer romance of the swashbuckling fearless young men in red had already swept the nation – days prior to the disaster they had overpowered Arsenal at Highbury in a thrilling 5-4 win – but Davies was spellbound by a different kind of magic that was in many ways the antithesis of Busby’s approach, but in other was cut from the exact same cloth. Despite admiring United’s dashing entertainers like almost all who watched them, he was entranced by the remarkable efficiency of a man who was, to borrow from boxing parlance, pound for pound the greatest manager of them all: Herbert Chapman.

For what makes a truly great manager? Is it tactical ingenuity, silverware, or perhaps an indelible legacy? Chapman had all three, but he did it in a way that was so incongruous to the times that it was revolutionary in every sense. From the beginning of football as a professional sport right up until Busby’s time and even beyond, committees had often held the power over team selection, and those in the position of manager around the turn of the 20th century were often little more than company secretaries with minimal tactical expertise or influence – but not Chapman. “[He] sat down to organise football much as a business magnate settles down to organise profits,” Davies wrote. “In his view, every device used by the industrialist to speed up the production of goods could be used equally well to speed up the production of goals.”

Industry and production were central to Chapman’s upbringing. Born in the North Yorkshire mining village of Kiveton Park in January 1878, there seemed little in the way of life choices for Chapman and his siblings, as generation followed generation underground without ever dreaming of escaping the cycle. His father, John, had moved – as many did – because of the availability of work which revolved around the lifespan of a pit. John had lost his father when he was just two months old, and before he moved north with his own family he had to supplement his meagre earnings with illegal bare-knuckle boxing in local pubs, where badger-baiting and cockfighting provided alternative means of illicit entertainment.

Herbert was the eighth child of 11 of John and Emma, two of whom died in infancy and another two who didn’t reach maturity before passing away. Children as young as seven were forced to work to supplement the scarcely plausible wages, often receiving 15 pence a week, but Herbert himself never worked down the mine itself. Instead, he dedicated himself to studying to become a colliery manager – a sign of his inclinations – and instilled by the strict moral values of a Methodist upbringing, Chapman’s working philosophy was already being formed.

Long before any mass media other than print newspapers, it was quite possible to be shrouded in ignorance beyond the confines of your town around the time Chapman was reaching adolescence, but one momentous football tale was beginning that even the residents of Kiveton Park couldn’t have failed to notice. The original Invincibles of Preston North End went the entire 1888-89 unbeaten, led by a wealthy cotton mill owner by the name of Billy Sudell who would go on to form a huge part of Chapman’s essence as a manager.

Preston won the FA Cup that season with a lineup that contained just four English men, while up to ten Scottish ‘mercenaries’  – this was a time, don’t forget, when fielding players from outside the county was almost considered unusual, let alone from across borders. Although professionalism had officially been accepted in 1885 – something that Chapman became an advocate of –  the Scottish FA still outlawed the practice of paying players, as it has seen a drain of their native talent south of the border to the wealthier and better-established clubs in the English league system.

It had been common practice for clubs to offer employment on paper at a company linked to the football team in order to satisfy the demands of the Football League to remain amateur for some time; effectively circumventing the laws of the game to press home whatever superiority over their rivals they could glean.

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Sudell was a master at manipulating the books to eke out every ounce of advantage he could for his club, a ruthlessness that appealed to the formative Chapman, as Davies was to write half a century later. In fact not only did he persuade bands of talented Scots to turn out for the Lilywhites, he also syphoned off money from his mills to the tune of over £5,000 – the record transfer fee in 1893 was £100 – and after the glorious run of success ran out, he was jailed for his fraudulent practices.

Chapman’s relationship with money was intriguing, given his background and the atmosphere of football in which he had developed. He was astute enough to realise quickly that it was an essential cog in the grand machine he envisaged as the perfect model to produce football at its full potential, at times pushing the boundaries further than he ought. In one sense it was no different to the business acumen, or cold-hearted realism, of figures throughout the history of the game; there was a price to pay for winning, quite literally.

After his first managerial post that combined playing responsibilities with running the team itself at Northampton, he was invited to take charge of Leeds City, who were struggling at the bottom of the Second Division and in desperate need of a spark. He had earned the right to be headhunted for the role having dragged the Cobblers from consecutive last-place finishes in the Southern League – below the Second Division, but without any automatic promotion or relegation, hence their stay – to winning the league within two years. To do so he had persuaded the club to part with their first transfer fee to secure Welsh international Lloyd Davies and other talents from league clubs, and he introduced something that had barely been conceived at this level: tactics.

When he had joined, he commented that “no attempt was made to organise victory” and he swiftly set about altering that by beginning the habit of dropping his centre-half further back that would become his hallmark W-M formation. His preparation was meticulous in all aspects of the game, shaped in no small part by a visit to Southampton for a cup match with Northampton as player. The train they caught from London on the second leg of their journey stopped at every station and left them minutes to prepare before kickoff, only to find that the pitch was a sloppy mud bath and they only had boots prepared for frosty conditions. The club’s record defeat of 11-0 followed.

Such was Chapman’s success as a manager, however, that England international Harold Fleming felt compelled to praise Chapman and his organisation of his side that had just beaten Fleming’s Swindon Town 4-1. “You have something more than a team: you have a machine.”

That was the highest praise Chapman could wish to hear; the synchronicity of different elements combining to create more than the sum of their parts. So when he departed for Leeds, sensing the opportunity and potential to expand his vision on a grander scale, it was with utter conviction that he set about reshaping the side, demanding complete control of all aspects of running the club. His predecessor Frank Scott-Walford had also had a surprisingly high level of control for managers of the time, but just didn’t have the vision and appreciation of tactics that Chapman had in abundance.

By the end of his first season, he had elevated Leeds to sixth place, but not before demonstrating one of his many vital skills that would set him apart from his contemporaries. Membership of the Football League was decided not by league placement but by application, so before he had even overseen a single match his first job was to rally support from the other chairman in the Second Division just to keep them where they were. In truth this was bread and butter to a man like Chapman; selling the potential of the sole professional club in a city the size of Leeds was something that inspired him, and needless to say he was successful.

What also inspired him was the wealth of the chairman Norris Hepworth, whose father set up a clothing company that would later become high street retailer Next. In fact, it wasn’t only the bank balance of Hepworth that he admired, but the manner in which he looked after it; Scott-Walford was a rich man himself, but despite the healthy finances of Hepworth, had seen over £15,000 of his own money disappear into the club. Chapman saw a man determined to get to the top, and a powerful ally in his own schemes, but the difference between him and the previous incumbent of the Elland Road hot seat was that Chapman had a crucial knack at dealing with people on a personal level.

The biggest financial hurdle he faced came during a difficult period around the conclusion of the Great War. As with many clubs, attendances fell and players left to join the war effort, leaving a patchwork of regional matches and guest appearances as Leeds struggled on, but in 1916 Chapman left his post as manager to take over a munitions factory in the city to support the armed forces. In his absence he recommended that his assistant George Cripps took charge, but the new chairman, Joseph Connor, was highly distrustful of Cripps’ ability to run Leeds’ financial affairs, and decided to allow accountants to take control of the club’s books.

On Chapman’s return to the club at the end of the war, he found the club in a disastrous state with funds depleted and a ramshackle playing squad pieced together with players who had previously not been a major part of the first team before hostilities had begun. Worse was to follow when Charlie Copeland, signed by Chapman upon his arrival, complained to the football authorities about what he claimed was a failure by the club to comply with an agreed pay rise. In itself that wouldn’t have been illegal – by this time professionalism had been legalised for two decades – except it had been made illegal to pay wartime guest players as it was deemed contrary to the war spirit.

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The club was brought before an FA commission to defend themselves against the claims Copeland had made, but in 1919 they were expelled from the Football League and disbanded. Chapman himself was banned from football for life, and his nascent career was in tatters. Mildly disenchanted by the affair, he threw himself back into regular employment and began to forget about life in football.

Chapman had long been used to the lifestyle that demanded the constant upheaval to follow employment opportunities. He left home as a 17-year-old to pursue employment in management of collieries, and began to show promise as an inside forward for amateur teams wherever he went. In more ways than one, however, his playing career was one of a journeyman; in 14 seasons on the pitch, he changed clubs 12 separate times. He was at one point courted by Sheffield United, then one the country’s foremost clubs, but turned down the opportunity of a professional contract in favour of remaining an amateur, as he had his heart set on pursuing a career away from the sport.

Thankfully he found projects that attracted his attention enough to bind him to football. After three years out of management, he was coerced back into the game by the directors of Huddersfield Town who felt they needed a guiding hand to help the reverse their poor form before Christmas 1920. The previous owner, Hilton Crowther, had built a stadium capable of holding 50,000 spectators despite the club only having been formed in 1908, but the crowds were thinning at an alarming rate. It was, after all, a town that had another more popular sport – the Rugby League side had won the Challenge Cup either side of the war – and it was a tough sell getting fans through the gates.

After Crowthorne threatened in 1919 to amalgamate the club with the newly-formed Leeds United, which had been established in the wake of the collapse of Chapman saw former employers Leeds City, funds were raised and the community began to flood back to support their club. Ambrose Langley was the manager at the time, and despite having overseen a rise up the Second Division league table in the 1919-20 season amidst the financial uncertainty, he was deemed in need of help.

First, though, Chapman had to show all of his powers of persuasion to convince the FA that his ban was unmerited. This he did by explaining that when the illegal payments to players had taken place at Leeds City, he hadn’t even been working at the club, and his path was paved. Bizarrely he was given all the control over transfers ahead of Langley and was paid almost twice as much, despite nominally being employed as Langley assistant.

One such transfer he conducted was to revitalise the stuttering campaign while at the same time showing his ability to appreciate talent and how to get the most out of it, despite factors such as age and injuries. Clem Stephenson had been unsuccessfully solicited to join Chapman at Leeds City a few years earlier, but this time it took £4,000 – just short of the British transfer record – to prise him from Aston Villa.

Given the perilous state of the club’s finances the year before, and the fact that the maximum wage in football had been reduced to £8 a week in the lean post-war years, it was some masterstroke of Chapman’s to persuade his board that the growing crowds would more than pay for the deal. As it turned out, he was selling himself short by merely claiming the deal would eventually balance the books.

With optimism restored, Chapman began casting his restless eyes further afield. He had in fact long harboured intentions of treading continental ground – before the Great War, he had taken Northampton on a preseason trip to Nuremberg, and he had predicted the success of a regular Western European competition to rival the Mitropa Cup that was played for by teams from the former Austria Hungarians Empire.

He was in a strict minority; right up until the 1950s continental opposition was viewed very dimly by the general British football conscience, with Wolverhampton Wanderers famously being branded the unofficial ‘Champions of Europe’ by the British media after beating the Honvéd side of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis et al. Chapman knew that the future of the game depending on broadening the horizons beyond the shores of England, and took his Huddersfield players to Paris for a short preseason tournament which they won.

What a minority it was though. Willie Garbutt was a contemporary of Chapman’s in the Southern League where he had been playing for Reading, but jumped at the chance to become the first professional coach in Italy while working on the docks in Genoa. He went on to manage for 36 years in Italy and Spain, where he won the Copa del Rey with Athletic Club, his success based in no small part on his insistence on proper training and preparation, just like Chapman. Fred Pentland had been playing as an outside right for QPR around the same time, and went on to manage four Spanish clubs, most notably Athletic Club, as well as the German and French national teams.

When Chapman was an amateur with Tottenham, he crossed paths with a fellow inside forward by the name of Jimmy Hogan, a man destined to be under-appreciated in his own country. After the historic 6-3 annihilation of England at Wembley by Hungary in 1953, Gustáv Sebes said of Hogan, who had coached in Sebes’ country for almost a decade: “[Hungarians] Played football as Jimmy Hogan taught us. When our football history is told, his name should be written in gold letters.”

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Hogan and Chapman would often discuss the developments of football along with a contemporary of the former, Hugo Meisl, who managed his native Austria with guidance from Hogan. The Wunderteam of Meisl and the Mighty Magyars espoused a spontaneity that very few tacticians were, and indeed still are, able to conceptualise, let alone impose on a team. On the surface, they represented opposing approaches to the game, and Chapman, Hogan and Meisl should not have become intellectual contemporaries in the footballing world.

The floodlit clash between Wolves and Honvéd could be described as a clash between two philosophies. Across the world for almost half a century, teams had employed a variation of Chapman’s pioneering W-M formation, where the centre-half from the old 2-3-5 set up was moved between the full-backs to provide more cover at the back, while inside forwards were withdrawn behind the centre-forward and wingers creating a fourth line of players.

The insularity of English teams led them to believe that their universally rigid adherence to the positioning of players on the pitch was unquestionable. The inventive but organised fluidity of the Hungarians took them into a shock 2-0 lead on that night in December 1954, however, demonstrating the great democracy of football in the face of the stubborn would-be autocrats.

Where people go wrong is assuming that Chapman was an inherently defensive-minded manager. Meisl’s younger brother Willy wrote a book called Soccer Revolution in which he strongly criticised Chapman for his supposedly negative effect on the evolution of the game thanks to his tactical tinkering. He is largely credited with moulding the 2-3-5 into a more adaptable W-M, but his interpretation of the formation depended on having the right players to carry out his instructions. The many attempts to mimic his interpretation of the game have leant an overly negative and defensive sheen to the legacy of the W-M, much like the Catenaccio of Nereo Rocco and Helenio Herrera was misunderstood as the original version of parking the bus.

Herrera himself once described the problems with defining such a popular tactical legacy: “The problem is that most of the people who copied me copied me wrongly,” he explained. “They forgot to include the attacking principles that my Catenaccio included. I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as also forward.”

For Giacinto Facchetti, read Alex James. At Arsenal, Herbert Chapman’s whole game plan revolved around having a player who was as visionary and technically gifted as possible, and James was that man. Compared to Dennis Bergkamp in his reading of the game in all its complexities, he was converted from an inside forward to a deep-lying playmaker, without whom the success of counter-attacking in Arsenal’s tactics would have been significantly less.

After winning an unprecedented three consecutive top-flight championship titles with Huddersfield, Chapman had even more hunger for greater things. While with Leeds City, he had been so impressed with the scale of the capital as a location for breeding a whole new level of football dynasty that he remarked; “What a chance there is in London. I would like to build a Newcastle United there.” Now came his chance.

Arsenal had controversially moved to North London in search of a greater slice of the football pie, but the expected rise in performances had failed to materialise, or to match the increased attendances, as they finished the 1924-25 season third bottom. Money was in short supply after £20,000 had been spent on securing the ground where an Archibald Leitch designed stadium was built, with chairman Sir Henry Norris steadfastly refusing to release transfer funds to manager Leslie Knighton, who was tasked with helping reduce the club’s debts.

When Chapman was tempted by an offer of £2,000 a year, he had the unenviable challenge of persuading his new boss to part with funds to restructure the playing squad. This was his forte though, as he had shown at Leeds City and Huddersfield, and as Patrick Barclay points out in his definitive chronicle The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman: “Given the right conditions, Knighton could manage a football club. Chapman made the conditions right. He had the muscle to enforce it.”

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In came a 34-year-old Charlie Buchan from Sunderland at centre-forward, who most felt was past his prime. Chapman knew better, and after negotiating a deal based heavily on goals scored, he secured the signature of a man who went on to play for him for three seasons. Buchan was to have a far greater effect on Chapman than just his statistics, though. An outspoken senior pro, he was not afraid to speak his mind, even directly in the face of a man who had come from winning three titles in a row, and after a painful 7-0 defeat away to Newcastle he let rip.

The Geordies had deployed a third back in the wake of the International Football Association Board’s decision to reduce the number of defenders required to be goalside before a player could be called offside. It was a natural decision that stemmed from the dearth of goals – Chapman’s Huddersfield won the title with an average of just 1.4 goals per match – and once the ruling had been passed, the tactical shift was also an inevitable consequence. Buchan was adamant that Chapman must adapt in the same way. Instead of bellowing blunt refusals at his player, he listening to the criticism, and decided it was time to change.

That Chapman had not instantly installed the system upon his arrival at Arsenal while others were already actively employing it was telling for two reasons. Firstly, that despite history painting him as the father of the W-M, he simply ensured his teams were the most proficient exponents of it. The relationship between man and system is much more nuanced than just labelling them together.

Secondly, it showed a side of him that was every bit as crucial as his fierce determination, and that was his patience. Until he had the ideal ingredients – which admittedly he rarely had too long to wait for – he didn’t simply lump players into a system, but moulded a system to fit his players. The target, of course, was to find players that were good enough to carry out his preferred methods, but he was aware enough to realise what could and could not be done.

With an ambitious chairman behind him, a new stadium with boundless potential to attract spectators, and the last few pieces of his jigsaw falling into place, Arsenal and Chapman had finally found the perfect partner for each other. The Yorkshireman used every single scrap of resources he could to promote not just his club’s fortunes but the game on a grander scale. He pushed to have the nearest tube station at Gillespie Road renamed after the club, and was an advocate of shirt numbering, even though his initial suggestion involving the away team bearing the numbers 12 – 22 wasn’t adopted. He also encouraged the first-ever live radio broadcast of a football match in England.

The medical staff and facilities at Highbury were a particular source of pride to him; England’s ‘Bodyline’ series cricketers received treatment before departing for Australia in 1932, while England scrum-half Bernard Gadney was prepared for an international against Ireland within two weeks having previously been diagnosed with a potentially career-ending ankle injury.

When he died at the relatively young age of 55 from a severe bout of pneumonia, he had left behind a legacy that touched every strand of football across the world for generations to come. His attention to detail in preparation can be seen in the workings of Pep Guardiola; his value of what would become known as sports science is evident in the career of Arsène Wenger; his ruthlessness pervaded every action of Sir Alex Ferguson. What makes him stand out from the crowd is how he managed it all with the capacity to love and be loved by those he stood for.

His reputation deserves one last assurance. Assessing his approach as defensive and ‘anti-football’ should be corrected – his title-winning Arsenal side scored over 100 goals in each championship-winning season – and who better than the man himself. “The average standard of play would go up remarkably if the result were not the all-important end of matches. Fear of defeat and the loss of points eat into the confidence of players … What it comes to is that when circumstances are favourable, the professionals are more than capable than may be believed, and it seems that if we would have better football, we must minimise the importance of winning.”

Even by balancing winning with style in self-reflection, he was cunning: for he was the greatest at creating those circumstances, so rarely had to choose.

By Andrew Flint  @AndrewMijFlint

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