Over the last century many teams who have been successful either at international or club level have introduced new revolutionary playing systems, whether this be the great attacking Hungarian side of the 1950s or the highly defensive Italian Catenaccio system. This article aims to briefly describe the evolution of different playing systems over the years.


At the very beginning football was a chaotic game with no real structure except for teams trying to score as many goals as possible due to every outfield player having an attacking role. In 1863, the English Football Association introduced an offside rule stating that "any player in front of the kicker was offside and unable to play the ball". Also a slight change occurred with an attacker being brought back as a half back to assist the lone defender (see Fig 1). This offside rule resulted in football becoming a dribbling game and it became difficult to score.

The different player positions are represented by:
Fig 1

Playing System Type: 1-1-8

Date: 1860-70

Teams using system: England & Scotland


Therefore, in 1868 the offside rule was altered so that "an attacking player must have three players between him and the goalline when the ball was last played (by a team-mate)." Roles and responsibilities of players became better defined and the 1-1-8 system eventually developed further from a 1-2-7 to a 2-2-6 system used by Queens Park Rangers in the 1870s and finally to the 2-3-5 pyramid formation operated by Uruguay to win the 1930 World Cup final. The latter kept an offensive spirit with two wingers supplying the three forwards. However, whatever the formation, the offside law still made it difficult to score goals.

Thus in 1925 the offside law was again modified so that only two players were required, not three, to be nearer the goalline when the ball was kicked. This resulted in a large increase in the number of goals scored. To stem this, Herbert Chapman the manager of Arsenal introduced the innovative WM shaped system (Fig 2).


Playing System Type: WM

Date: 1925-40

Team using system: Arsenal

Fig 2


The traditional 2-3-5 formation was altered so that a player dropped back from the half-back line into the centre of defence, to become a third centre-back or stopper. The two full-backs now were pushed out towards the touchline to mark the opposing wingers. This system is an early version of the 3-4-3 with every one of the five defenders having to mark his opposite number. Individual players were given very specific roles to play in attack and defence.

During this period, Italy won the World Cup in 1934 and 1938 by mixing the defensive elements of the older 2-3-5 pyramid system with the attacking aspects of the W-M formation.

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