The W-M formation: thoughts on sources ⋆ An Old International

The W-M formation: thoughts on sources

Yesterday the well known and esteemed guardian writer and editor of the blizzard Jonathan Wilson had to admit in a piece for the guardian’s sports blog that not Arsenal under Herbert Chapman were the first team to play in a W-M formation in the 1920s but that this was already in use in Southampton already roughly at the same time Chapman took charge at Arsenal.

Herbert Chapman came to Arsenal in 1925 and it has so far been orthodoxy that while there, the W-M formation was introduced and Arsenal were side using it to its best effect, i.e. winning trophies: In 1930/31 and 1932/33 they won the league and in 1929/30 the FA Cup, thus making Chapman one of the most successful managers in the club’s history.

Wilson however, conceded that it might no longer be true that Chapman first used this tactical formation. Under the nom de plume Cherry Blossom a journalist wrote ‘that use of the W-system was widespread’ in the Southampton Football Echo on October 3 1925. That was before Chapman used it himself at Arsenal. Further, the system seemed to fall in place with the change of the offside rule in 1925. Thus, the development of the W-M and the new offside law went hand in hand rather than the former being ‘invented’ by Herbert Chapman and Charles Buchan.

It is a question of sources and Wilson openly admitted that he wasn’t aware of that and that he credited Chapman as being the tactical genius behind the W-M. This no longer is true. As a football writer with a historical interest in the game, it is vital to check sources; this applies to journalists as well as historians and everybody else who is conducting research in this field. One has to be aware however, that football nowadays has become a matter of bytes and bits, thus everything is analysed by myriads of experts and pundits. The blogosphere is witness to that. Yet, in the 1920s the game was not connected as it is today and papers such as the Southampton Football Echo were possibly not read by many people outside the city of Southampton. On top of that, it is not sure that all issues are always available when needed for historical research. Also, not every game was followed by similarly attentive writers like Cherry Blossom now appears to have been. Football writers cannot exclude the possibility that the W-M formation has not been in use before the change of the offside rule in 1925. Therefore the terminus post quem for the W-M formation has to be 1925 but it can no longer be connected solely with Herbert Chapman. However, it is not meant to discredit Jonathan Wilson. He’s done the right thing by saying that there is new evidence about a certain aspect in football history and deserves respect for that. This is history in the making.

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