History of Soccer Tactics: 2-2-6 and the Introduction of Passing

Oldham Athletic's goalkeeper taking a goal kick during a game against Tottenham Hotspur.   (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

In football everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.

- Jean Paul Sartre

Soccer, possessing one method of scoring – put the ball in the net – and one major rule – don’t use your hands, is the simplest of games. So it may come as a surprise that England’s most famous export has a tactical history as rich as any other sport. From soccer’s 1863 codification onward, trends both strategic and sociological shaped the appearance, style, and speed of the game. Over the next couple of months, FFG, compiling information from Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, will provide an overview of the sociological and tactical factors that led to soccer as currently practiced.

We begin with the 2-2-6.

Tactical Analysis:

Soccer’s first international match, an 1872 exhibition, pitted Scotland against heavy favorites England. The underdogs managed a goalless draw using that most highly advanced of strategies: they passed the ball.

Scotland's 2-2-6

While it may seem shocking to a modern audience, passing – before this exhibition – was not a universal part of the game. Most squads lined up in a type of 2-9, with each forward almost blindly charging forward when in possession. It seems that the only true tactic was to follow a teammate in case he lost control of the ball (I’d like to imagine this functioning as a two-man Mighty Ducks ‘Flying V’). The extra defenders in Scotland’s 2-2-6, when coupled with an emphasis on actual teamwork, were more than enough to befuddle the Englishmen.

Sociological Influence:

England’s failure to develop a passing game was twofold. First, before the 1866 introduction of the offside rule (a version that was a shade of what it is now, as three defenders had to be between the player and the goal), forward passes were outlawed. Not exactly a situation that encourages cooperation.

The England-Scotland match took place six years after the offside rule was established, so it would be reasonable to assume that passing should have become more common. However, the second factor that discouraged passing’s implementation was even more difficult to overcome than either the law against forward passing or the overly zealous offside rule: passing had a reputation for being unmanly.

Soccer, in the mind of an Englishman, was meant to be played mano-a-mano, meaning “passing, cooperation and defending were perceived as somehow inferior. Head-down charging, certainly, was to be preferred to thinking.” The early Football Association meetings that led to the split between rugby and soccer revealed the British attitude towards sport. Some FA members seemed to feel that a sport’s inherent value came through the pain caused by the numerous clashes between players. In other words, “if it actually came down to skill, any old foreigner might be able to win,” a prediction that almost came true against Scotland.

In contrast, Scottish soccer seemed to incorporate passing from the get-go. This development was explained by a more forgiving offside law, granting an increased importance to working with teammates. And when it came time for the England-Scotland match, the Scottish manager, realizing his team would be at a considerable disadvantage in both size and speed, decided to place even more emphasis on passing than was the norm, a choice that confounded analysts who “seemed to have expected that weight advantage (alone) would give England a comfortable victory.”

Due in no small part to the unexpected draw, England would overcome their pathological distrust of passing, but their culture was not alone in insisting on a right and a wrong way to play the game, a shortcoming that – as FFG readers will see over the coming months – has inflicted almost every soccer nation.

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. robinoz0 says:

    a 2-9?..
    wow, because otherwise, any old foreigner might win. that line is easily one of the best sports lines i’ve ever heard

    • Blake Owen says:

      That wasn’t an actual quote from the 1800′s, to be honest. It was the author humorously summing up their feelings. It’s kind of emblematic of the idea of there being a right way and a wrong way to play a sport.

  2. bensten says:

    It is interesing so see how this split with Rugby evolved the player of the game, too. Ever watched a pro Rugby match? Those guys are buff, indestructable pitbulls. Soccer, on the other hand, seems to be a sport where size, musclature or even a good physique has little to do with world-class success–there seems to be some “element x”. As you continue through the history of the evolution of the game and its formations maybe more light will be shed…

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