When an Arsenal manager writes in a newspaper that “spectators want a fast-moving spectacle, rapier-like attacks that have the spirit of adventure, and ever more goals“, it is a given that Wenger’s name will be attached to the column, but these were Herbert Chapman’s words, uttered during the 1930-31 season.
Herbert Chapman was born on 19th January, 1878 in Kiveton Town near Sheffield to John Chapman, a coal miner and Emma Chapman, a housewife. He was one of the eleven children the couple had. Young Herbert went to local elementary school along with his brothers where the love for football was cultivated in him. Herbert became an apprentice at the local colliery and pursued his diploma in mining engineering from Sheffield Technical College while also playing as an amateur footballer for local teams.
As a player, Herbert Chapman had a mediocre and nomadic playing career. He played for a total 12 different teams in his 14 years career. Some of the notable teams he played for were Sheffield United, Tottenham, Notts County and Northampton Town. The decision of choosing a team to play for was based on the availability of employment in that area as he wanted to make use of his engineering qualification. After leaving behind his playing career, he embarked on the journey for which he is known in tales of football tactics.
Herbert Chapman managed teams like Northampton Town, Leeds City, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal during his managerial career; the two last being the teams where the ideas born at Northampton Town and Leeds City were implemented to lead them to astounding success. With Arsenal and Huddersfield Town he won a total of four First Division titles and two FA cups and one Southern League title with Northampton Town.
His ideas were so revolutionary for their time that they were deemed as ramblings of an eccentric mind and dismissed accordingly. At the time the most popular formation was 2-3-5 where emphasis was on attack but it would leave the team susceptible to attacks. Herbert Chapman wanted to seek a balance between attack and defense and implemented a 3-4-3 system. The idea was back three would stick close to goalkeeper when opposition had the ball and they would spread out to prevent long ball counter attacks when their own team had the ball. The two midfielders would also drop to help the defense if necessary. He also devised a system where the opposition defenders would be drawn out of position and ball would be played beyond them.
How this system worked is the players were instructed to run straight the defenders with ball at their feet, the opposition defenders would be drawn out of their position to guard their goal. Once the defender reached the spot where the ball was, the ball would be passed to the other side of the field. This process would continue till they were near the goal and had an opportunity to score. He encouraged the wingers to go for goal when the opportunity presented itself rather than ask them to run along the byline and pass to the strikers as was the status quo with all the other teams. This tactic allowed his wide players at Arsenal namely Cliff Bastin and Joe Hulme to score 33 and 20 goals respectively in 1932-33 season. He also emphasized on counter-attacking football and his philosophy was
A team can attack for too long. The most opportune time for scoring is immediately after repelling an attack, because opponents are then strung out in the wrong half of the field.
His system required players who could run fast, make accurate long low passes and have an understanding of game and he acquired such players no matter what the cost. He became the first manager to pay £10,000 for David Jack to Bolton Wanderers. Such fee was unheard of during those times. But he also did not shy away from signing unknown players like Eddie Hapgood, a local milkman from non-league side Kettering Town. Herbert Chapman also invested in establishing a scouting system that unearthed future gems like Hapgood, Cliff Bastin and Herbie Roberts amongst a long list of legends. He also bought James Tull, the first mixed race outfield player while managing Northampton Town as he suited his system.
Herbert Chapman’s counter-attacking style of football required a player to be mentally and physically fit. During his time the tactics were left to players themselves and teams barely went out with any kind of plan. At Leeds City he introduced the concept of players discussing tactics for next game and analysis of previous game between the games. Every player was encouraged to speak during these meetings and express their opinions. This resulted in players feeling a sense of contribution to the joint effort and became involved as a single unit. He was amongst the first managers who installed a tactics board to discuss them with the players. This resulted in player buying into the manager’s philosophy and playing with a plan. He also ensured the second and third team played the same style of football so reserve team players could easily slot in the team when necessary. Such unorthodox methods were unheard of but resulted in unprecedented success.
He encouraged his players to play other sports during off season to keep them fit. He warned them off women, gambling and smoking. In his autobiography Hapgood describes his first meeting with Chapman: “Well, young man, do you smoke or drink?” Rather startled, I said, “No, sir.” “Good,” he answered. “Would you like to sign for Arsenal?“
Amongst his other innovation was the use of numbered shirts so players can easily recognize each other easily and it would speed up moves. But the Football league disapproved of this and he was banned from using such shirts again. He also had floodlights installed at Highbury but the Football league again disagreed and refused to let them be used during official matches. Instead they were used for evening practice until they were made legal in 1950. He also advocated the idea of using referees near goal lines to adjudge the validity of goals long before the idea of goal line technology was born. He also proposed a pan European club tournament long before European Cup was born. But the idea did not generate necessary interest and he had to be content with friendly matches against continental teams. He took his players on golfing trips so they could bond together.
Herbert Chapman revolutionized the game by introducing new formations, fast counter attacking football, player openly discussing tactics before game, picking his own team rather than the board doing so, deciding on his transfer targets, using a PR agent to ensure the name Arsenal was in news, stress on physical fitness, treating players equally, advocating use of white balls, floodlit football matches, numbers shirts. He also changed the Arsenal shirtsleeves to white, which the club still retains and in 1932 changed the name of Gillespie Road tube station to Arsenal so the club can have instant London wide publicity.
He created a template which led to rise of managers like Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly, and other greats. He was a man who ahead of his time in terms of ideas and vision and will forever be remembered for changing our idea of how football should be played.
~ written by guest author Girish Nerkar