Herbert Chapman: the mastermind who reimagined football in the early 20th century

Herbert Chapman: the mastermind who reimagined football in the early 20th century

It seems fitting that, as Huddersfield Town embark on a new chapter with Jan Siewert, the Pioneers series spotlights the man to whom the German will aspire to emulate and to whom David Wagner was generously compared after he secured promotion to the top flight in 2017. It is, however, a generous comparison. Whereas the Terriers merely hope to avoid the drop under the new management, a century ago Herbert Chapman propelled the West Yorkshire club to the very summit of English football.

Appointed in 1921, initially as assistant to the wonderfully named Ambrose Langley, Chapman brought unprecedented success to Huddersfield, revolutionising the club through sophisticated tactics that drove English football into a new era and cemented his place as one of the game’s foremost thinkers. Chapman transformed Huddersfield into winners, clinching the FA Cup in 1922 – two years after Ambrose had led them to the final while still in the Second Division – before securing back-to-back First Division championships in 1924 and 1925. Later, the Kiveton Park native found the lure of Arsenal irresistible, joining the Gunners in 1925.

At Highbury he became synonymous with the 3-2-2-3 ‘W-M’ formation which, while he may not have invented, he certainly popularised on these shores. He mirrored his accomplishments with Huddersfield in north London, guiding Arsenal to the FA Cup before a couple of league triumphs.

His life was tragically cut short, however, succumbing to pneumonia in January 1934 as his side were in the midst of defending their crown. But even now, 85 years on from his death, he is considered not only Huddersfield and Arsenal’s greatest manager, but one of the most important visionaries to have ever graced the English game.

Of course, Chapman was lucky to have been given the opportunity to forge such a legacy at all. After a modest playing career, he cut his managerial teeth at Northampton Town. During a five-year stint, he introduced to his players a mostly alien concept: formation. Ahead of his time, Chapman recognised before most that merely having talent on the pitch was futile; teams had to be balanced, structured and prepared. To him, winning was not sheer luck.

His deep-thinking and scrupulous planning was always bound to attract admiring glances from clubs bigger than Northampton, but Chapman still managed to catch a big one: Leeds City. There, he triggered an upshot in attendances with his attractive, attacking football, before the First World War interrupted all things football in 1914. Then, after the war’s end, as normalcy flickered back into view, Leeds City were rocked by an illegal payment scandal.

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Although Chapman had spent the majority of his time during the war as the manager of a munitions factory and superintendent of an oil and coke works, he was one of five Leeds officials to receive a ban. City were dissolved, banished to history. Chapman became a pariah, a genius consigned to the footballing wilderness. But Huddersfield deemed his exclusion dubious at best and, with the club’s backing, Chapman’s ban was overturned on the grounds that he had not been in charge of Leeds when the illegal payments were made. 

Chapman’s reinstitution proved one of the most significant developments in English football history. From persona non grata, he grew to become one of the game’s most respected figures, a man whose keen eye for talent and tactical innovations breathed incredible new life into Huddersfield, challenging perceptions and pushing boundaries with his aura of modernity.

Four years at Town proved his making. During training he drilled into his players a strict tactical mandate which revolved around quick, sharp passes, organised defence and swift counter-attacks. He favoured organisation but didn’t swear by it. Chapman managed to find the balance between discipline and creativity. His players were at once defensively sound and expressive in attack; but expressive without being flamboyant.

Many of them were his players. At Huddersfield, he often acted on a natural ability for spotting talent. He was responsible for bringing two future Terriers legends to the club in Clem Stephenson and George Brown, who made almost 500 appearances between them. While his side were far from all-out defence, Huddersfield boasted the most parsimonious defence in the league for both of their title wins, shipping just 33 goals in 1923/24 and 28 in 1924/25.

Having always been attracted to the idea of working in London, Chapman accepted Arsenal’s advances that summer. His appointment came at an interesting time, too, coinciding with the changing of the offside law which reduced the number of defenders required to be behind the ball to avoid offside from three to two.

With input from Charlie Buchan, the ageless forward he signed from Sunderland, Chapman instigated a move away from the traditional 2-3-5 system that permeated English football for the best part of half a century to the 3-2-2-3 that became his trademark. That system saw the inside forwards move further back, allowing Chapman’s side to dominate midfield and carry out his wish for quick, incisive passing. To help players understand his instructions, Chapman even conceived the idea of a tactics board, illustrating the various nuances and idiosyncrasies inherent in a football formation.

Similar to his time at Huddersfield, Chapman completed a string of impressive transfers which turned Arsenal from a side languishing in mid-table mediocrity to indisputably the best team in the land. These included Joe Hulme, Jack Lambert, Tom Parker, David Jack and Cliff Bastin, who formed a devastating attacking trident with Hulme and Alex James and eventually became the club’s record goalscorer until Ian Wright and later Thierry Henry came along.

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He placed great stock in team spirit, encouraging his players to think about matches tactically, to analyse the opponent and to discuss game plans on the team bus. Team spirit wasn’t, Chapman believed, all about having a great time together, though. He encouraged his players to voice opposition to an idea and to have frank exchanges of views among themselves.

Over time his Arsenal grew too quick, too smart and too organised for other teams, his players overcoming the opposition with a combination of physical fitness, tactical nous and technical finesse. In that sense, he was a true trailblazer. He once declared that “the day of the haphazard football has gone.” It was he who sounded the death knell on tactics-free football in England.

Chapman’s nine years at Arsenal would reshape the club beyond recognition. From ensuring that all levels of the club were implementing his tactics to establishing a well-connected scouting network, everything was done in the hope of stabilising the Gunners in the long-term. Indeed, after his untimely passing in January 1934, Arsenal kept intact his legacy by clinching the league title that year and adding two more in 1935 and ‘38, with the FA Cup sandwiched in between in 1936.

Of course, his influence extended far beyond the pitch. Chapman recognised the importance of broadening horizons. He acknowledged that football existed outside of Britain and, as such, took a keen interest in the continental game. He studied European teams and managers, befriended the great Hugo Meisl, the mastermind behind Austria’s Wunderteam of the 1930s, and proposed a Europe-wide club competition long before the European Cup’s inception in 1955. Most of all, though, Chapman is remembered for turning Arsenal from an underachieving club into a genuine footballing powerhouse, an institution their rivals would look to for inspiration.

Perhaps Chapman’s greatest asset was an indefatigable desire for self-improvement. He once said “it is never safe to be satisfied”, and he lived by this, always devising strategies to enhance his teams, even if they were league champions. Chapman set the standard for modern football management. While it may be too sweeping a statement to say he ‘invented tactics,’ he certainly underlined their importance to football in England.

With that, and his appreciation of the psychology, physiology and even sociology of football, he remains one of the shrewdest, most exacting minds to ever grace the game. Had he lived past 55, he may well have proceeded to win several more championships with Arsenal and perhaps would’ve managed England. Even without all that, though, Herbert Chapman remains one of the beautiful game’s most influential figures, a real footballing man, a man for whom the word ‘Pioneer’ could barely be apter.

By Matt Gault @MattGault11

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