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Evolution of Systems of Play, Part II
John Bluem picks up the narrative at the 1954 World Cup

The Hungarian team, 1953
By the 1954 World Cup, the attacking center half was on his last legs. Attention now switched to the center forward, in particular the so-called withdrawn center forward utilized by the Hungarians. Chapman’s invention of the third back killed off the attacking center half and also changed the role of the center forward from the talented all-rounder to the strong, powerful battering ram who battled the stopper.

Brawny center forwards were not available in Hungary. Marton Bukovi, coach of a top club in Budapest, Voros Loboga, got around the problem by bringing the center forward back to play in midfield. The role of the center forward was assumed by the two insides. The M had been turned upside down. These changes were the basis for the great Hungarian national team formed in the 1950s by Gustav Sebes.

The weakness of the three-back game was exposed when coaches began to think about attacking space. By withdrawing the center forward, the center back had to make a choice — follow his man and expose the central attacking space, or leave his man free to protect the central space. The fullbacks, when confronted or not confronted by the withdrawing wingers, were faced with the same problem. Defenders always have had two responsibilities, to mark and to cover. In 1953 Hungary crushed England, 6-3, at Wembley. The following year, to prove it was no fluke, Hungary defeated England, 7-1, in Budapest.

Through a series of training drills known as three-man combinations, the Hungarian players Puskas, Kocsis, Bozsik and Hidegkuti built up a great understanding. First developed around 1951, the combinations largely were based on positional switching allied to the wall pass. Later, between 1954 and 1956, these combinations were further developed to involve not two players, as in a wall pass, but three.


The great Hungarian team of 1953-54 had one player who was generally considered to be inferior to his colleagues. At the time no one could understand how left half Joseph Zakarias managed to keep his place in the team. It is now clear that Zakarias was not a left half at all but a left-center back.

Way back in the 1860s, the English had started playing soccer with one fullback; in 1872 the Scots had made it two; in 1925 Arsenal had introduced the third back, and now here were the Hungarians with approximately three-and-a-half fullbacks.

The 4-2-4 formation
The essential features of the 4-2-4 system introduced by the attack-minded Brazilians in 1958, two center forwards and two center halves, already had been seen in the Hungarian game. While the Hungarians concealed their system through place-changing, the Brazilians’ rigid formation had Vava and Pelé clearly operating as twin center forwards. It was no longer possible for any opponent to play with one center back. Within 12 months of Brazil’s World Cup success, almost the entire world had switched to the 4-2-4.


The 2-3-5 and 3-4-3 formations that have been discussed were not referenced in a numerical way at the time. They were simply the Pyramid and the W-M. Following 1958, all the talk was about the 4-2-4. Methodical coaching was on the rise, and identifying formations with numbers gave them a more modern scientific sound.

Despite the four fullbacks, the 4-2-4 as played by the 1958 Brazilians was far from a defensive scheme. An exhilarating feature was the attacking role of the two outside fullbacks. On attack, the formation became 2-4-4, enabling Brazil to commit as many as eight players to the offense.

The new role demanded fullbacks who were quick-moving, with a fair share of the forward’s talents, the ability to exchange short passes, and, once in attack, to shoot accurately. Quite a change from the W-M days when a fullback’s main functions were to stay deep, win the ball through hard tackling and deliver long downfield passes. As Brazil spent most of its time on the attack, little attention was paid to its defensive adjustment. When its opponents had the ball, Brazil’s left winger, Mario Zagallo, quickly withdrew into midfield, changing the alignment to 4-3-3.

The 4-2-4 succeeded in 1958 because the Brazilians’ extravagant attacking talents allowed them to maintain relentless pressure on their opponents. But it contained a serious weakness. When forced into a defensive mode, the 4-2-4 was dangerously underpopulated in midfield.

To be concluded in Part III next month...

Editor’s note: John Bluem is men’s coach at Ohio State University and a member of the NSCAA National Academy staff. He is the men’s college representative on the NSCAA Board of Directors.