In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends. Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else. I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.
More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s. The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution. It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.
The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football. Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe. This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to present on any of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose). Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.
Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout. However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English. It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.
I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.
Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is. I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers. Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.
What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff. Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.
Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read. It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments. I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian. If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you. If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!
One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained. I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!
The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book. An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers. Hopefully something that catches on.