Inverting the Pyramid markets itself as the history of football tactics, and on the surface that's just what itBeyond essential for any football fan.
Inverting the Pyramid markets itself as the history of football tactics, and on the surface that's just what it is (and it does a fabulous job of recounting that history). Yet there is a line in the opening few pages that explains why it reaches beyond that with such ease; while Wilson recounts a conversation that takes place at a dinner party, he explains how, when one man (a Brit, naturally) declares boldly that tactics are largely irrelevant as long as you have good players, a woman (Argentinian, inevitably) steps in to stop another man putting him in his place with a quiet word - there's no need to react to such idiocy. Anybody who knows anything about football knows that tactics are everything.
As far as this book goes, tactics really are everything - they're culture, they're society, they're personality, they're tales of personal success, failure, and redemption. Tatics, for Wilson, is a constant that underpins the development of football on a much grander, wider scale. Observe, for instance, how well this book makes you feel like you know and understand Austrian legend Matthais Sindelar despite the fact he died in 1939. Only a tiny fraction of this book's readers will have seen him play in any capacity (those sent over to YouTube by their curiosity will find a disappointingly, if understandingly, meagre selection of videos), yet the way Wilson frames Sindelar in terms of not just his tactical role in the Austrian Wunderteam, but also the way he redefined the image of what a footballer should be and became a hero of Vienna's intellectual middle classes; he was, as the book explains, seen in his day as one of the city's great artists, and this marked the first time football as a sport had been seen in this way. The book is rich with detail like this - each new tactical detail, particularly those before the '90s, is introduced as a part of a complex system of developments in government (Italy's World Cup winning side of 1934 is related to the ideals of fascism), or society (Ajax's Total Football and Amsterdam's newly-empowered psychedelic-era youth), or previous events in football history (the tale of England's World Cup win of 1966 starts with the infamous defeat to Hungary's Mighty Magyars in 1953), or the personalities and personal histories of the people involved (Arrigo Sacchi and Valeriy Lobanovskyi particularly).
Impressively, all these individual details pull together into an easily summarized arc; one the title sums up within three words, in fact. The reason the book is named Inverting the Pyramid is that it starts with football's earliest days, when team lined up in a 1-2-7 formation with 7 forwards all running in straight forward lines and just three defenders, and culimates with the modern trend to have either a single frontman, a series of interchanging frontmen designed to confuse the opposition defences, or no recognised centre forward at all (examples provided include the constant positional interchanging of Man Utd's Champions League winning front four of Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo, and Giggs, Roma's noted preference for 4-6-0 under Luciano Spalletti, and Lionel Messi's role as a false nine for Barcelona, blurring the lines between attack and midfield). This gradual erosion of the number of forwards is explained in great detail - the book's description of space is a particular highlight of this, as it delves not only into who had what space to operate in on the pitch, and how the shifting of certain players into new areas allowed them more of it, but also how the technical and physical demands places upon certain positions changed over time due to the ever-decreasing (wingers, target men) or ever-expanding (full-backs, anchormen) space they had, and how this in turn led to new sort of players (inside forwards, trequartistas, wing-backs) and new formations and tactics to get the best out of them.
This book, quite simply, will make you see football in a different way. The recent El Clasico encounters, for instance, have become much more enjoyable for me as I've started to realize how Barcelona are (without meaning to hype them up too much) the culmination of 100 years of footballing thought, and in turn started to really understand the size of the task that Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid face in stopping them. Outside of tactics, too, I'm seeing things like David Beckham's stint in America and the fee Madrid paid for Ronaldo in a new light; it seems bizarre for me to say this, because I've never had any trouble seeing music (the only passion I have that outweighs football) as a cultural and social force that changes in relation to world events, but it took this book to show me that football is the same.
Football365 suggested about a month ago that Inverting the Pyramid should be turned into a six-part TV series. I couldn't agree more. England suffers, both in terms of our players and our fans, from a general lack of tactical knowledge and appreciation - not because football fans are stupid (far from it in most cases), but because in comparison to every other European footballing superpower, our media doesn't treat tactics as something worth appreciating or studying. Dutch academies, as memorably noted in one passage here, send their children home with tactics homework. The Sun, on the other hand, tells a nation every two years that a 4-4-2 and good old British courage and grit is enough to win major honours. This is changing recently - managers like Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Andre Villas-Boas, Tony Pulis, and Brendan Rogers are bringing tactical discussion to the surface in recent years with their various impressive achievements - but there needs to be more. It annoys the hell out of me when I hear people say that 'if everybody heard this album/saw this film/listened to this comedian, the world would be a better place', but here is possibly the only occasion ever where I'd agree - if everybody in football read this book and absorbed all its information, the world (of football) would be a much, much better place. The best sports book of all time?...more
The format of this book is clearly designed to allow as much information to be crammed into as little space as possible. If that sounds like a bad thiThe format of this book is clearly designed to allow as much information to be crammed into as little space as possible. If that sounds like a bad thing, it's definitely not - the jokes come so thick and fast here that it's like you're being attacked. There's barely a square inch of any page that doesn't have something at least a little bit funny in it, whether it's in the points of interest that are labelled up on the map, or the brief historical timelines, or the main tagline, or the full description, or any of the pictures (such as the brutally dark picture of an Etheopian wearing a T-shirt saying 'no fat chicks').
That's one of the things about Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth, 73rd Edition that's so impressive. The other is how diverse the humour is. Anybody who reads the site will know that they're as capable of bitterness as sillyness and as happy to employ highbrow irony as they are to indulge themselves in gutter humour, but that range of approaches is taken to new heights here. Observe how viciously certain US states are attacked, and then compare it with how Jordan's page is basically a love letter to Queen Rania, before turning back to the subtle(-ish) contempt with which France are described, and then fast-forwarding to the way most of the descriptions of countries in the Middle East mock America's foreign policy and myopic, often offensive worldwide media coverage (Afghanistan are described as being 'bombed forward into the Stone Age' while Iraq's tagline is simply 'they had it coming').
It's an absolute tour de force throughout, irreverent and caustic withou ever being truly offensive, and silly without being dumb. It took me four days to read all of it, and at least half of that time was taken up by laughing - even people I know that can't get into The Onion's website love this book. Brilliant....more
It might seem odd that Wilson chose to follow up a book like Inverting the Pyramid, one with such a broad, all-encompassing sweep, with one that seemsIt might seem odd that Wilson chose to follow up a book like Inverting the Pyramid, one with such a broad, all-encompassing sweep, with one that seems to have such a narrow focus; not merely a book about England's national team, but one that focuses on ten specific matches (many of which its readers are unlikely to have seen) to make its point. Yet, where else could he really have gone? Inverting the Pyramid picked up so many strands of thought and left them tantalizing unresolved or unexamined that, surely, the only way forward was to pick up one of those strands and run with it?
That's what The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten Matches does; it takes a few sentences found in the chapters named 'The English Pragmatism' from Inverting the Pyramid that attempt to sum up the personality and history of English football and uses them as a launchpad for another discussion.
That in itself is great, and when the book sticks to this concept it's a compelling read. Wilson attempts to explain throughout just why and how we are so different from so many of our European neighbours, let alone the South Americans, and why we have traditionally been so slow to adapt to change. As part of this, he also examines some of the nation's ongoing rivalries (particularly with Argentina), some of the more influential figures in the team's history and the negative influence they may have had (I was pleased to find that Wilson' hatred of Charles Reep and his refusal to ignore Alf Ramsey's multitude of flaws carried over from his last book), and the cult of personality that built up around certain figures, Paul Gascoigne especially, and why it happened.
The idea of focusing just on these ten matches holds it back a little, though. Too much of the book is given over to details of what happened during the games for my liking - if it came with a DVD where you could watch the games yourself, or even a website with clips uploaded, it wouldn't be so bad, but there's only so often you can read about an English defender losing the man he was marking before you get a little bored and wonder what this really tells us about England's team and its history. The book is meticulously researched, admittedly, and I feel the newspaper articles reacting to the games are illuminating (the national team's relationship with the media is examined throughout, and rightly so), but I think that the quotes and clippings could have been incorporated into a more free-flowing structure. Some of the games chosen just don't really seem to deserve it - the infamous 6-3 reverse against the Hungary of Kocsis, Puskás, Hidegkuti et al in 1953 and the match against Argentina in the 1966 World Cup are fair enough (and sure enough, those are the best chapters), but I have to wonder whether the 4-1 win against Holland at Euro '96, McLaren's defeat to Croatia in 2007, or the defeat to Spain in 1929 deserve the level of analysis they get here, when the points these chapters make could easily have been made in a more general overview of the tournaments or managers involved.
Still, that's a relatively minor criticism, because Wilson still makes his point well, with more than enough justification. Maybe the frustration comes from knowing that there's a lack of quality, analytical books on the England team around; when somebody comes so close to writing a book good enough to render all others irrelevant, the areas where they fall short stand out that much more. It's to Wilson's eternal credit that he comes so close though - this paints a full and vivid picture of England's national character and the way it understands and appreciates football, and how this has underpinned and contributed to all its failures and successes. It's a book that's almost reminiscent of those essay-writing classes you're made to take in college, in that it knows what point it wants to make, explains what the point is, and then makes it in a classic essay etructure (although it's obviously more complicated and delicate than that). It doesn't have the same number of eye-opening revelations or fascinating anecdotes that Inverting the Pyramid does, not does it flow quite as well, but it's a worthy follow-up to the greatest football book ever written all the same....more
Maybe the best way to explain how fascinating and unusual this book is, is to look at the people that wrote it; it's such a curious combination that tMaybe the best way to explain how fascinating and unusual this book is, is to look at the people that wrote it; it's such a curious combination that the book takes time to explain how they even met in its introduction (it was at a conference in Turkey). Simon Kuper is the kind of man you might expect, a sports columnist published in several broadsheets and with two previous books about football under his belt, but Stefan Szymanski holds a PhD in economics, has written about politics and arts for The New Statesmen, and has published essays like Compulsory Competitive Tendering For Public Services In the UK: The Case Of Refuse Collection and Parallel Trade, International Exhaustion And Intellectual Property Rights: A Welfare Analysis. Szymanski actually writes about sport, and in particular football, a lot - a more recent essay is titled The Champions League And The Coase Theorem and he's also written about racial discrimination in the wage structure of English football a few times - but the book's introduction seems to want to downplay this and present itself as the joint work of a football man and an economist.
This might be a half-truth, but the book plays out as if it were fact. There are so many statistics, facts, and figures in this book that it can make your head spin at times, yet when they are analyzed and broken down, they're put into terms that even an Alan Shearer-esque mouthbreather could understand. It's a book that manages to make you feel like you're getting smarter without ever actually challenging you.
The general theme of the book is to take a question about football that doesn't seem to have a simple answer, and then answer it with a judiciously-chosen range of stats. The title 'Why England Lose' - one that's only used to advertise the book in the UK, in the rest of the world it's called Soccernomics - refers to the opening chapter, which presents a range of ways of analyzing England's underachievements and eventually presents the idea that, actually, they overachieve - in the process, it also explains why countries like Turkey and the USA should rise up the FIFA rankings over the next few years, and exactly how Brazil are freaks that defy all logic. Later chapters look at a range of questions, from which country is the most obsessed with football (spoiler alert: it's Norway), to why Newcastle are always guilty of spending too much on players, to whether managers actually make all that much difference in the short term, to how much skill is involved in penalty shootouts and whether they are geuinely all down to luck, to the reasons football as a whole isn't run poperly and why Lyon, with their 'wisdom of the crowd' model, are the best-run football club in the world. There are trains of thought picked up at various points that are fascinating and thought-provoking, like the assertion that England will never win a major trophy until football clubs begin to accept the middle classes, or the convincing psychological analysis of exactly whay Nicolas Anelka missed his penalty in the Champions League final in 2008.
Still, there are some things about the book that are head-scratchers - for instance, it posits (with good evidence) that league position is tied very closely to wages paid, then suggests that football clubs probably shouldn't be viewed as businesses and that glory is more important than profit, and yet throughout it's full of praise for Arsene Wenger. I'm a big fan of Wenger personally, but it seems odd that somebody else would be when they believe clubs should pay big wages (which Wenger never does) and shouldn't be concerned with making a profit (which Wenger always is). There are a couple of basic facts that are wrong too, things you'd expect most football fans to know, but personally I don't think that calls the figures presented into question - for whatever reason, spending so much time on little details that you miss a big one is a fairly common failing, and I believe that's what has happened here.
It's a powerhouse of a book though, one that's almost guaranteed to change the way you think about at least one or two aspects of football. It gets a little heavy-going at a few times, but the most part it's a surprisingly easy read, and one thatpiques your curiosity so mcuh that it becomes hard to put down. Definitely recommended....more
Film sites are littered with people slating films because they're not as good as the book, and rightly so in most instances, so it feels weird that I'Film sites are littered with people slating films because they're not as good as the book, and rightly so in most instances, so it feels weird that I'm on a book site writing a review that says it's not as good as the film.
The key difference between Nick Hornby's vision of Rob and John Cusack's one is one of relatability. The Rob of the film is obviously sweet, charming, and insecure in a way that engenders sympathy, while the Rob of the book seems a little more distant, a little less fun to be around. The issue of music, obviously a huge one with this book, makes a difference too - the film gives the impression of Rob being a man that loves his own music more than he hates other people's, and the book just doesn't, with his opinions outside of his own generation, hip-hop particularly, making him seem like a bit of a tool (interesting how the film saught to attack this head-on by having Rob namedrop Massive Attack vs. Mad Professor in his first top five, isn't it?).
This aside, this is an essential book for anybody that's ever obsessed at music at any point in their lives. Parts of it are almost painfully vivid; it's very hard not to recognize a little of yourself in all of the three main male characters and wince a little (anybody that looks down their nose at Barry or Dick is lying to themselves), nor to wistfully empathize with the way all these men live vicariously through their record collections and the singers, musicians, producers, and labels that produced them. On the one hand it's a novel that glorifies geekiness, on the other it's one that explores the pitfalls and the downsides of retaining your geekiness into your thirties better than just about anything ever has - sometimes the most telling way to skewer something is from the inside out, and High Fidelity is a great example of that. Funny (funnier than the film in fact), charming, touching, elegantly paced, and impressively mature throughout; this is the kind of book you feel silly recommending to people because you assume that anybody that might possibly like it will have at least heard of it already, but recommend it I must....more