19th Century West Ham: A tactical experiment

When Jose Mourinho dismissed West Ham’s defensive game as “19th century football” he could not have been more wrong. In the football games of the 19th century, defensive football was simply not played. Players dribbled until they lost the ball, passing was considered to be unmanly and distinctly underhanded.

Teams in the 19th Century were dominated by gentlemen amateurs, and the beautiful game was designed to be played, not to be watched. Teams in the 1870s lined up with six or seven forwards, before the (at the time) revolutionary pyramid formation – a 2-3-5.

It is this ground-breaking (to 19th century minds) formation that I will be using in an experiment to see how well that style of football might be used today. My tools? A copy of Sports Interactive’s Football Manager 2013, an eager West Ham side and big Samuel Allardici, the pseudo-Italian tactical tinkerer behind bringing (according to Mourinho) Victorian footy to the modern era.

A tactical genius if ever there was one

As this is an experiment, rather than a full game, I will not be making any transfers, in or out. Unfortunately, due to the fact that my copy of Football Manager is a year behind (and despite it having a fan-created updated database), the exact team that faced Chelsea won’t be able to be recreated, but a majority of the players from that fateful night will be there.

Additionally, as Football Manager only allows 5 attacking players in the striker’s third of the pitch (the philestines), I will adopting the more “modern” 2-3-5 formation from the 1870s as opposed to the 1-1-8 or 1-2-7 formations seen before then.

The formation

Wrexham were the first team in Britain to successfully utilise the “Pyramid”, winning the Welsh Cup in 1877. According to Caxton’s Association Football (1960, 432) “for the first time in Wales and probably in Britain, a team played with three half backs and five forwards”.

The 2-3-5. Can the EPL handle it?

The formation achieved defensive and offensive stability, with the two full backs covering the wide players of their opponent while the three half backs in the centre covered the opponents strikers. This is, of course, in an age where midfielders and defenders were less fluid, and therefore rarely joined attacks.

So how does West Ham’s new revolutionary tactic pan out?


The need for rigidity means that my new players will have to be told to keep their need for expressive football in check. This is about good attacking football, none of that defensive stuff. Andy Carroll has plenty of support up front, with two advanced forwards, each supported by a winger either side of him. That should help any link up play we need.

The ball will be played forwards as quickly as possible – to avoid any unnecessary tactics like passing or, heaven forbid, tiki taka.

The first few games

A friendly match against the West Ham reserves turns out better than I first expected. The two covering defenders coped surprisingly well when being overrun by 4-5 players at a time, conceding only one goal over 90 minutes. An interesting side-effect of the 5-man attack appears in the form of midfield domination.

4 on 1: on the attack there are certainly a lot of options

Despite a number of them being told to focus on attack, the centre of the park seems to often have 8 of my 11 players squeezed together, rushing for the ball, not unlike most Sunday league matches. Passing is as direct as expected, mostly being distributed down the wings, which in turn lob the ball into the centre where often my 5 attackers are heavily outnumbering the opposition defence.

Packing the midfield

However, this is one match against sub-par opponents. What will happen when the 19th Century football tests itself against proper Premiership opposition?

The new season

Here goes nothing…

After a series of intense, goal-heavy friendly matches, 19th century West Ham are ready for their first test of the season against a Sunderland team at the Boleyn Ground. With a straightening of his tie and a glance towards the dressing room clock, Samuel Allardici, tactical mastermind, prepares to send his players out to pit Victorian gusto against modern fluidity. The bell goes and Samuel, forgetting his Italian roots, lets rip with a cry of “f****ing have ‘em lads!”

The game is tense and for an agonising 20 minutes the play is shared in the middle half of the pitch. That is until Maiga and Carroll gang up on a hapless John O’Shea, who can’t decide which one he is supposed to mark and falls over in a tackle that is half confusion and all rubbish. Maiga passes through to Carroll who, with the ball bouncing awkwardly at knee height, throws himself like a leaping salmon towards it. He connects, nodding the ball past a flailing Keiren Westwood.

Carroll’s all or nothing diving header

Only seven minutes later the score is doubled. Kevin Nolan lofts a tempting cross into the box to find the chest of big Andy once more. The former Liverpool plays turns on his heel and smashes a shot high into the net.

The dream start takes a bump in the 34th minute, as Giaccherini crosses from wide to an Adam Johnson in acres of space. James Tomkins comes hurtling towards the winger like a rhino in heat, but he has too much ground to cover. Johnson plays a return to the diminutive Italian who slots a shot into the corner. 2-1.

Acres of space in defence
Acres of space in defence

After half time more disaster as Sunderland score from a free kick conceded by a desperate Tomkins, dispossessed on the edge of the area by three Sunderland players.

The goals keep coming, though, as the five-man attack of West Ham piles pressure on Sunderland more traditional (and some would say boring) four man defence. A corner from the left hand side finds Maiga, who calmly tucks away the Hammer’s third.

Yet more confusion leads to a West Ham goal as the fearsome five overrun Sunderland’s defence again. This time Petric is set loose in the box. He makes no mistake in putting Big Sam’s Victorian team 4-2 up in the 72nd minute. Sunderland grab a late third but it’s too late, and West Ham claim their first victim in the season.

Not a bad day’s work…

To be honest I was utterly surprised at how well the formation worked. Sunderland’s four man defence looked at times floundering, with the two centre backs have to try and mark four players at once on occasion. The three midfielders, though pretty much adding nothing to the forward play, helped out in defence admirably. A 4-2 result on the first day of the season? Hardly boring stuff, eh Mourinho?

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