Like so many of the game’s greatest managers, Herbert Chapman was little more than a mediocre player, travelling the lower leagues as a journeyman inside forward and never once getting his hands on any silverware. However, Chapman’s impact on the British game as a coach and tactical innovator remains unparalleled, the man famous for taking Arsenal to the very pinnacle of English football bestriding the modern game like a colossus.
Unlike some players who become set upon the idea of becoming a manager early in their careers, Chapman came to the profession almost entirely unintentionally. In 1907, having decided that he would retire from football after the conclusion of his final season with Tottenham Hotspur, Chapman had planned to pursue a career in mine engineering but was unexpectedly offered the chance to coach Northampton Town, a position he accepted and took on initially in a player/manager capacity.
At the time Northampton were languishing in the lower reaches of the Southern League and, frustrated with the total vacuum of tactical organisation he had witnessed throughout English football, Chapman took it upon himself to transform The Cobblers both in terms of results and methods.
He got Northampton playing a style of football which saw the midfield drop deeper in order for the forwards to be afforded more space (of course, in those days teams regularly fielded four or five forwards) and drew the opposition defenders further up field to create space in behind. These tweaks to Northampton’s game eventually led to the creation of an effective counter-attacking methodology, one with which Chapman’s team enjoyed great success.
Indeed, the local media at the time recognised the extraordinary nature of Northampton’s tactics under their Yorkshire-born coach, the Northampton Daily Echo noting at the time “The forwards wove no fancy patterns…but, given the ball, straight they sped for the goal. Just a brief run, enough to draw part of the defence to the spot, and over it went with almost amazing accuracy to the other side of the field. There the operation was repeated.”
Having finished a respectable eighth in Chapman’s first season in charge, Northampton won the Southern League in 1908/09 although were not promoted due to the lack of a system for automatic promotions or relegations being in place. Angered by the absence of a coherent meritocracy of any kind in the footballing pyramid, Chapman proposed the idea to the Football Association and, although rejected at the time, was introduced a decade later – the basis for the idea being credited to the visionary coach.
Famed for his scouting abilities, Chapman proved his supreme eye for a player over and over again during his time with Northampton, the signing of 21 year-old winger Fred Walden from Wellingborough Town being a case in point. Walden, deemed by many to be too skinny and lightweight (he was a little over five feet tall) to make it in the rough-and-tumble world of early twentieth century English football, blossomed into one of the finest wide players of his generation under Chapman’s tutelage, even going on to represent England.
Three consecutive top four finishes in the Southern League with Northampton led to a host of other clubs seeking to hire their talented young manager, Chapman (who was still working part-time at the local collieries at this stage) eventually leaving for Leeds City in 1912. A team struggling in the Second Division, Chapman’s influence quickly transformed the original tenants of Elland Road into a competitive force, finishing sixth in his first season with the club and fourth in his second. By the time the First World War broke out and disrupted the footballing calendar, Leeds City were widely expected to win the Second Division title but, during the conflict, were forced to participate only in regional competitions.
In the wake of the Great War, Leeds City were charged with financial irregularities and found guilty of making illegal payments to players during wartime matches. In October 1919 the club was dissolved and its top officials, Chapman included, were summarily given a lifetime ban from football. It looked as though Chapman’s promising managerial career had been brought to an abrupt end.
However, just a year later Huddersfield Town approached Chapman with a view to making him their new assistant manager. Supported by the Huddersfield board, Chapman successfully appealed his lifetime ban claiming ignorance of the underhand dealings that had been going on at Elland Road during the war.
Shortly after his arrival at Huddersfield Chapman was installed as manager following the departure of Ambrose Langley in February 1921 and quickly set about implementing his counter-attacking philosophy. Central to Huddersfield’s tactical approach was Clem Stephenson, an experienced England forward whom Chapman signed from Aston Villa shortly after taking the reins from Langley. Stephenson was famed for the innovative – now recognised as conventional – way in which he broke the offside trap, dropping back into his own half before getting forward at pace.
Having ingrained his philosophy in the players and modernised Huddersfield’s facilities by re-turfing the pitch and making huge improvements to the press box amongst other things, Chapman began to further develop his tactical theory and introduced a deep-lying centre-half to his system. Tom Wilson, the player Chapman chose for the role, was deployed far deeper than was conventional at the time and was used to break up opposition attacks and provide extra defensive cover in a similar fashion to the likes of Sergio Busquets today.
Huddersfield’s new tactics in an era when the majority of teams played a rigid 2-3-5 formation did not go down well in the wider footballing community, but they were successful nonetheless. Despite drawing criticism from certain quarters, Chapman led his team first to the 1922 FA Cup before going on to win two consecutive First Division titles in the 1923/24 and 1924/25 seasons. So effective was Chapman’s management style becoming that he was offered the job at Arsenal, at that time a very wealthy club despite occasionally battling against relegation from the top flight. Chapman jumped at the chance and was installed at Highbury by the start of the 1925/26 campaign.
It was to be with Arsenal that Chapman transformed himself from an excellent manager to the footballing icon he is seen as today. Indeed, Chapman’s claim upon arrival in north London that it would take him a maximum of five years to win silverware demonstrated his ever-increasing confidence in his own abilities. As it happened, it took him a little over four years to start winning trophies with The Gunners as Arsenal marched to the 1930 FA Cup, but it was tactical development and infrastructural modernism, not silverware, that most characterised Chapman’s time at the club.
Having signed international striker Charlie Buchan from Sunderland and inspired by the change in the offside law in the summer of 1925 (the number of players required to be between the attacker and the goal line was revised down to just two), Chapman scrapped 2-3-5 and set about developing the 3-2-2-3 formation, more famously known as the W-M.
With the centre-half in the 2-3-5 converted to a conventional centre-back and the inside-forwards far deeper than they originally had been, the W-M facilitated an even more extreme and direct interpretation of Chapman’s counter-attacking philosophy.
All the while Chapman was attempting to push through changes at the highest level, proposing ideas for shirt numbers and floodlights only to be initially turned down by the FA, but introduced the now famous white sleeves on Arsenal’s kit, the Highbury clock and, in an almost unprecedented move, organised formal tactical sessions as a part of the club’s training regime.
From 1930 onwards, trophies flowed into Highbury at an incredible rate. A hat-trick of league titles were won in 1930/31, 32/33 and 33/34, those successes being supplemented by the aforementioned 1930 FA Cup and several Charity Shield victories. By the winter of 1934 Arsenal were on their way to a third title in four years and were unquestionably the strongest team in England despite rebuilding what had become an ageing squad.
Tragedy, however, was just around the corner as, shortly after New Year 1934, Chapman was suddenly taken ill with pneumonia and died on the 6th January aged just 55. His premature death rocked the football community, the game having lost its most visionary and pioneering manager. Arsenal went on to win yet another league title that season and again in 1935, Chapman’s enduring legacy being demonstrated by those who had played under him and still living on in Arsenal Football Club today.
I will leave the last words to Jonathan Wilson, who wrote extensively on Chapman in his book, Inverting the Pyramid:
“What was significant was not merely that Chapman had a clear conception of how football should be played, but that he was in a position to implement that vision. He was – at least in Britain – the first modern manager, the first man to have complete control over the running of the club.”