“The principle mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.” (Arthur Koestler)
The 1930s, in myriad frightful ways, were years of relentless discord, tumult and suffering. With the world reeling from the Wall Street Crash of 1929, fascism took European politics in its icy clasp and so began the best part of fifteen years’ worth of conflict and outright decimation. For football, however, the thirties was a decade of positive change and rapid methodological development. No better were these advances demonstrated than by Herbert Chapman and his famous Arsenal side of the period.
Chapman, who had harboured ambitions of becoming a mine engineer following the conclusion of an underwhelming playing career, came to management rather unintentionally after being unexpectedly offered the chance to manage Northampton Town by an old friend in 1907. By 1925 the Yorkshire-born coach had made a name for himself by winning two Football League titles and an FA Cup with Huddersfield Town, achievements which caught the eye of Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris as he searched for a new manager at Highbury.
At the time Arsenal were a relatively well-resourced club but had struggled for success, often to be found fighting against the perils of relegation from the First Division. Upon his appointment Chapman put in place a five-year plan to transform the North London side into genuine title contenders, a blueprint which he realised with marvellous efficiency.
Having achieved a number of promising top-half finishes in the league, Chapman lifted his first piece of silverware with Arsenal in 1930 as his talented side overcame his former club Huddersfield with a 2-0 victory in the FA Cup final. It was to be a triumph which paved the way to a decade of Arsenal dominance, league titles following in 1931 and 1933 before Chapman’s untimely death mid-way through the club’s march to the 1934 championship.
Ahead of the 1934/35 season Arsenal appointed George Allison as their next permanent manager following Joe Shaw’s brief tenure as caretaker. The former journalist promptly guided the Highbury outfit to a third consecutive league title, also wrapping up the 1936 FA Cup and the 1938 championship before the decade was out.
Chapman may have passed away just four years into the 1930s, but his visionary methods remained at the very core of Arsenal’s serial success throughout the decade. While his role in floating the idea of a European Cup, pioneering squad numbers and lobbying for floodlighting have become famous stitches in the rich tapestry of footballing lore, Chapman’s major contribution to the game was in terms of tactical development.
From the early days of professionalism in England, right through to the 1920s, the 2-3-5 ‘Pyramid’ formation had dominated the scarce tactical thinking of the vast majority of clubs. Chapman, seeking a better balance between defence and attack, implemented a ‘third back’ in order to create what was essentially a 3-2-2-3 – better known as the ‘W-M’ formation. By the time the thirties came around Arsenal had come to master the system, the front three of Hulme, Lambert and Bastin giving the team unrivalled firepower against opposition who were still adapting to the new era of tactical sophistication ushered in by Chapman and his players.
A visionary manager who got the very best out of those whom he coached, Chapman’s Arsenal were both the laboratory and the crucible for the development of British football in the 1930s; the defining team of the age. There will be more articles on this decade to come, but the narrative of thirties football is not complete without acknowledgement of the transcendent on and off-field influence of the great Herbert Chapman.