After Brazil had won the World Cup in 1958 using a back four, the rest of the world were forced to react. Almost overnight the old-school W-M formation, which dominated tactical thinking almost everywhere else, seemed outmoded and needed revision. As a result, teams essentially took one of two routes – and the route they chose was determined almost entirely on national grounds, with that choice continuing to have an effect on the basic tactical template in those countries today.

The revolution in Brazil was actually a process of evolution, with the 2-3-5 line-up enduring even after the 1925 change in the offside law which prompted a rethink in Europe. However, when the Hungarian coach Dori Kurschner was appointed at Flamengo in 1937 things started to change.

Kurschner wanted the centre-half and two inside-forwards to play deeper, but the change in style was unpopular with many and the coach was forced out in 1938. The club turned back to Flavio Costa, the man Kurschner had replaced and who had acted as his assistant.

Although Costa had undermined his boss at every turn, mocking his new tactical outlook, he privately recognised the wisdom of the formational changes. He repackaged Kurschner’s ideas as “the diagonal” by pulling one of the half-backs a little deeper and advancing one of the inside-forwards, thereby beginning the process that would eventually culminate in the creation of 4-2-4 in the early 1950s.

Swiss influence

The tactical developments in Switzerland were far quicker. Karl Rappan, who was fed up with seeing his semi-professional players at Servette overrun by fitter opponents in the 1930s, pulled back his half-backs to flank the full-backs, one of whom operated as a sweeper behind the defence – the verrou (bolt) – creating a 1-3-3-3 formation.

The Swiss influence over football in Italy was particularly strong at the time. Vittorio Pozzo, who coached Italy to World Cup success in 1934 and 1938, spent two years with Zurich club Grasshoppers, while Francesco Cali, who captained Italy in their first-ever international in 1910, was educated in Lausanne. Furthermore, most teams in the north of the country fielded at least one Swiss player in the years between the wars. These influences probably helped sow the seeds for the arrival of the Italian catenaccio defensive system, which took off in the 1950s.

Giuseppe Viani, one of the pioneers of the system, claimed he had devised catenaccio while taking a dawn walk by the docks at Salerno in 1947 and saw a fishing boat using a reserve net to sweep up any fish the main net had missed.

By pulling a half-back behind the back three, Viani began the process that would lead to Milan and Internazionale becoming major forces in European club football in the 1960s. By then the system had evolved to feature a sweeper, a marking centre-back, a right-back who would tuck in and mark, an attacking left-back and a right-winger – the tornante (returner) – who would shuttle back to fill the space left by the narrow right-back.

Elsewhere in Europe, subtle and not so subtle variations began to appear, often quite independently of each other.

In the Soviet Union, Boris Arkadiev had been dabbling with a back four from the mid-1940s as he sought a platform for the “organised disorder” of his highly mobile midfield and forward lines at Dynamo Moscow. The famous Hungary side of the early 1950s used their left-half, Jozsef Zakarias, so deep that he almost functioned as a fourth defender, while in England the process was much blunter, with a half-back dragged back to make the back three into a back four.

By the mid-1960s, another Soviet coach, Viktor Maslov, had developed a “pressing” game, in which his players hounded the ball in packs, confident that his zonal marking system was sophisticated enough not to leave opponents free in dangerous areas. And in Holland it became apparent that pressing was even more effective when combined with a high offside line.

During the 1960s, Europe effectively split into two camps: one half preferring a libero, and the other half favouring a back four and a pressing game. In general terms, the north – Britain, Holland and, eventually, Scandinavia – went with pressing, while the south – Italy, Yugoslavia and Spain – adopted the libero. Two key exceptions were Germany, who only really ditched the libero in favour of pressing in the mid-1990s, and the Soviet Union who combined pressing with a libero.

It’s tempting to speculate why this should be, particularly as, in western Europe, the split mirrors the Protestant-Catholic divide – even down to the odd hybrid position of Germany. Could it be that those brought up with a Protestant work ethic feel the need to always be doing something, hence the constant movement of pressing? It could equally be the case that in the warmer climate of southern Europe a more reactive style of football was preferable. Whatever the reasons, few countries seem to have diverted from the stylistic path that they adopted following the demise of W-M.

There are, of course, revolutionaries, the likes of Arrigo Sacchi who brought a pressing 4-4-2 to Milan or Jim Smith who used a 3-5-2 at QPR, but they self-consciously went against the grain.

The back three

Italian football under catenaccio got used to having three de facto centre-backs with one wide player who covered the length of each flank, so it makes sense that it is there that the revival of the back three has been at its strongest. Italian football likes the comfort of a packed centre, but found last season that its preferred 4-3-1-2 was too narrow.

Udinese and Napoli showed that by pulling a midfielder back and advancing the full-backs they could have width higher up the pitch. In fact, so widespread has the shift to 3-4-3 been in Italian football that, on one weekend in January earlier this year, 13 of the 20 sides playing in Serie A deployed that formation at some stage. But then they were preconditioned to do so.

The great split of the 1960s – the divide between pressing and playing with a libero – continues to shape football today.

By Jonathan Wilson