Football has turned into a tactical war where those with the most knowledge come out as winners. However, it was not always like this – in fact, football’s beginnings were drastically different.
In the earliest days of the game, there were no specific formations or positions. Football was played like a children’s game of kick and run – the ball was kicked long and all the players ran after it. In the 19th century there were no defense, and the line-ups reflected the all-attacking nature of these games.
We found large amounts of data on the early formations used, but for each one the common factor was a large number of attackers. At that time, the teams had six, seven or even eight offensive players and these games were full of goals.
1-2-7 was the most popular formation in the 1860-70s. With only one center back, two halfbacks, and seven forwards. The strategy at that time was mostly based on long balls and dribbling.
There were several variations depending on front line and the way of attacking.
In 1863, the offside rule in football was formalized with the creation of the English Football Association. The rule stated that any player in front of the kicker is offside and thus cannot play the ball. The kick-and-run style of play disappeared in seconds and the players had to move on to a more individual style of football. They dribbled the ball as far as they could towards the opponent’s goal with several teammates on either side. Players rarely passed the ball and there was no real formation.
Because of the lack of dribbling and the poor number of goals, the FA changed the offside rule. Forward passes were allowed again as long as there were three players between the receiver and the goal line. With the new rule, teams began to play a more organized style of football which led to the creation of tactical formations.
England vs Scotland 1872
We say organized formations but many of them were not even close to what we can see today on the football pitch.
In the first ever international game between Scotland and England in 1872, England played with seven or eight forwards in a 1-1-8 (1 defender, 1 midfielder and 8 forwards) or 1-2-7 formation (1 defender, 2 midfielders and 7 forwards), and Scotland with six forwards, in a 2-2-6 formation (2 defenders, 2 midfielders and 6 forwards).
Unlike the English, who played a game based on individual skills, the Scots relied on short passes and teamwork. By passing the ball among each other, they were able to make it to an unexpected 0-0 draw against a highly favored England side.
Scotland surprised England by actually passing the ball among the players. The Scottish outfield players were organized into pairs and each player would always attempt to pass the ball to his assigned partner. Ironically, with so much attention given to attacking play, the game ended in goalless draw.
However, three months later the teams played a rematch which was full of interesting details.
Local newspapers reported that each player wore different colored stockings. This was done primarily to indicate to a player in possession of the ball the positions of his fellow-teammates and opponents on the field, by watching their pedal extremities; and, secondly, to enable the spectators to identify a player by his festively colored stockings.
England responded to their previous scoreless display against the Scots by adopting the 2-2-6 formation favored by their rivals. It suited them very well.
The press noted several players had exceptional games. England forwards Kenyon-Slaney and Vidal for their attacking play and Goodwyn and Howell for their excellent service. Scotland’s London-based forwards Kinnaird and Renny-Tailyour excelled, too, but the Scottish team could not match England’s strength.
Kenyon-Slaney opened the scoring straight from a throw-in after just a minute. After the teams changed ends following the goal, England continued to push forward and dominated play. A shot by Bonsor was initially saved by Scottish goalkeeper Gardner, but his mistake allowed the ball to slip through the posts.
Scotland stood their ground however and soon found the net. An excellent dribble by Kinnaird allowed Renny-Tailyour to score. Gibb scored Scotland’s equalizer, but that was all – they tried and could no longer match England’s stamina.
Thirty minutes later, England struck again, as Kenyon-Slaney scored yet another goal from a throw-in. Chenery secured England’s first victory with the team’s fourth goal at the end of the match. Even the umpires had a busy match, having to restore order on numerous occasions when the over-excited crowd spilled onto the playing field.
Today we have great tacticians like Jose Mourihno or Pep Guardiola who raised game to a higher level, but in the 19th century playing football with six or seven attackers was extremely fun.