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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

My Sporting Heroes - Herbert Chapman

(Picture Credit - Football Paradise)

We're starting off a brand new semi-regular column this week with a more in-depth piece on one of my sporting heroes - former Arsenal and Huddersfield manager Herbert Chapman.

Chapman is a man that doesn't really need an introduction. He's one of the most unsung heroes of football and definitely set a precedent for the beautiful game in the future. His work at Arsenal is the most famous and is what I'll be covering here; from the innovations of the 'WM' formation to the introduction of floodlights and shirt numbers, it's hard to argue that there's ever been a more revolutionary manager in English football and maybe even the world.

(The 'WM' Formation; Picture Credit - ConceptDraw)

Chapman's most famous innovation is perhaps the introduction of the 'WM' formation from the mid-twenties to combat a 1925 change to the offside rule. This change saw a reduction in the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves from three to two so, the position of centre-back was introduced. This was designed to stop the opposing centre-forward and balanced attacking and defensive styles of play. Most notably, by the late-thirties, most English clubs had adopted the 'WM' tactic. Even the Uruguayan national team used it to win the inaugural World Cup in 1930. However, despite the popularity of the tactic, no club could utilise it like Chapman. Players like Alex James, who has been regarded as one of the earliest playmakers in the game, allowed Chapman to outplay other teams. It was the usage of Alex James that aided with Arsenal's successes under the former Huddersfield manager.

The 'WM', in various guises, has been described as a derivative of the 3-4-3 and also a 3-2-5 formations, judging by the pictures. Going forward, it utilises a tiki-taka, counter-attacking system. Therefore, players such as Alex James perfectly suited this system. Defensively, the two half-backs allow the 'WM' to have five defenders and since the modern full-back was pretty unheard of, it's a narrow bank of five, but the defenders would spread across the length of the pitch, making this a 5-3-2 when out of possession. I remember when some fans were going mental at the sight of the 3-4-3 system that Antonio Conte operated during his days at Chelsea. This ran very similar to the 'WM' with regards to the tactical fluidity of both formations. "Revolutionary!", I once heard from a friend of mine, not knowing that it had been introduced some ninety years prior.

(The Zeppelin; Picture Credit -

Chapman's Arsenal tenure saw him lead the club to substantial success, including the Gunners' first major trophy in the 1930 FA Cup Final and first First Division title a year later. In 1927, Chapman would lose the FA Cup Final with a formidable Arsenal side to Cardiff City; this is the only time that the FA Cup has ever left England. In 1930 however, it was against his former employers Huddersfield that Chapman tasted glory. Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners against the Terriers with goals from Cliff Bastin and Jack Lambert. This Final also saw the appearance of the colossal Graf Zeppelin airship and the return of King George V to public engagement after illness.

Chapman oversaw Arsenal's inaugural First Division triumph in 1931 and graced with the emphatic front line of Cliff Bastin, David Jack and Jack Lambert, Arsenal scored 127 goals over the entire season - this is still a longstanding Arsenal club record. Granted, the season was 42 games long and even then, the goalscoring record that season belongs to second-place Aston Villa, who scored 128 goals. The season saw demolition jobs of the likes of Grimsby (9-1) and Blackpool (7-1) and saw Chapman kick Arsenal up to a higher gear and win five titles in eight years.

Rather intriguingly, Chapman was aware of the importance associated with correct decisions with regards to goals standing or not and was one of the first people to suggest the inclusion of 'Goal Line Judges' as adjudicators. He is quoted as saying: "We owe it to the public that our games should be controlled with all the exactness that is possible.". His Arsenal side suffered the ignominy of losing the FA Cup Final in 1932 to Newcastle, 2-1, with what became known as the 'Over The Line' equaliser from Jack Allen. The equaliser came from a Jimmy Richardson cross that had crossed the by-line and Allen levelled the scoring for the Magpies. The goal stood as the referee ruled that the ball had not gone out of play. However, photographic evidence later showed that the ball had crossed the line and that it should not have stood. It's one of the most debated goals in English football history.

Off the pitch, he was an advocate of physical fitness and was one of the first managers to employ the usage of masseurs and physiotherapists. Chapman was a footballing pioneer also with regards to the introduction of floodlights during his Arsenal tenure (although they were not licensed for official usage by the FA until the 1950s) as well as introducing numbers on the back of his players' shirts. He's credited with the naming of 'Arsenal' tube station too; Chapman thought it confusing for the fans visiting Highbury on the Underground to have to visit 'Gillespie Road' to go and watch their team and so, since October 31st 1932, fans have been to 'Arsenal' station. Moreover, to increase tactical familiarity, Chapman encouraged players to openly discuss his tactics by ordering weekly meetings at the club. Also, he allowed them to socialise in extra-curricular activities such as golf to build team rapport. He regularly wrote columns for the Sunday Express newspaper on football and a collection of his writings were posthumously published in a book entitled Herbert Chapman On Football.

In short, Herbert Chapman is one of football's all-time greats. His work for both Arsenal and Huddersfield is known to fans of both clubs, but outside of that, he appears to go unnoticed. He's one of my sporting heroes and I encourage you all to do a little bit more research to fully discover what an amazing and revolutionary manager he proved to be during his time in the English leagues.


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