The 25th of November 1953 is the date when English football realised that its continental counterparts had vastly overtaken what they thought was possible in the sport. Married to conservative, archaic ideas about how the game should be played, married to the W-M as much as to their own nauseating hubris, they had allowed the progressive, free thinkers of Danubian descent to quietly refine and polish a system that had never been seen before. When it was brought to English shores, the history books remembered.
In his now classic book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ (2008) Jonathan Wilson tells the story of the Hungarian Aranycsapat – The Golden Team. Their influences, accolades and ultimately their downfall are all conveyed eloquently and have been the basis for this article. Ferenc Puskas will forever be remembered as the jewel in the Aranycsapat’s crown, but less is known of his teammates and the system as a whole.
The Hungarian way of playing was built upon the very antithesis of the old ‘kick and run’ style of English football. On the continent, football became a matter for intelligent debate and the Bohemian coffee houses of the pre-war era were the epicentre of all new footballing revolutions. The English purists had been raised in stifling public schools where critical thought and individualism were snuffed out like a douter to a flame.There was one way to play – the English way. This bred an innate mistrust of anything that challenged the sporting status quo and great English footballing progressives like Jimmy Hogan were never granted the plaudits they deserved in their homeland.
When football was brought to the rest of Europe, they weren’t shackled with the same years of football prejudice. They were taught to challenge and to question, to tinker and transform. They took, admittedly sound, foundations and revolutionised them to great effect.
The W-M was one such foundation. First devised by Herbert Chapman, the system catered both to the need for at least 2 defenders to remain back following an amendment to the offside rule (2 players needed between an attacker and the opposition goal-line) and also for the relentless attacking of the English ‘kick and run.’
English football was not so much a passing game but an exercise in how direct a team can be in moving the ball forward and having an attempt on goal. There was a best kept secret that coaching philosophy comprised mostly of ‘we’ll-just-score-one-more-than-them!’ Following the change in the offside rule in 1924-25, the Football League saw 1673 more goals scored, an increase of 36%.
The W-M was what arrived on European shores and almost instantaneously, innovations began taking effect. None more so than through Martón Bukovi. Bukovi noted that there was a distinct lack of tall, strong figureheads to lead the line in 1940’s Hungary. He saw his bullish, ‘tank’ forward Norbert Höfling depart to Lazio and was met with the following conundrum: attempt to replace Höfling with a similar but possibly less effective player or seek to redefine his position. Being of deviceful disposition, to Bukovi, the answer was clear.
One of the main weaknesses of the W-M discovered over time was the ability to stifle the impact of the centre-forward. As simply as man-marking, teams could sit on the centre-forward and stop him from playing passes to the inside/outside right and left and even join the attack himself. The solution? Withdraw the centre-forward to where he can influence the game again.
The birth of the ‘false 9’ began way back in 1948 when Martón Bukovi deployed Péter Palotás (then a wing half) in a withdrawn centre-forward role. Seeing success at club level with MTK, the centre-forward was dropped deeper and deeper until he was essentially a slightly more advanced midfielder. A ‘screen’, if you will, in front of the 3 half backs (left/right and centre).
Naturally this led to a congestion of the midfield and a sense that maybe too many cooks spoil the broth after all. To solve this issue, Bukovi, forever the innovator, assigned the majority of defensive midfield work to be done by 1 player freeing up space for the false 9 to drop into midfield.
It wasn’t long before Bukovi’s ideas were sweeping the nation and onto the desk of Gusztáv Sebes, the national team coach. Sebes was impressed with the new false 9 development and set about deploying Palotás in this role for his country. In 1952, Hungary won Olympic Gold using a withdrawn centre-forward. This should have proven a stark warning to the English. Innovation was being plastered onto the shop window of the footballing world but either through arrogance or apathy, and there is a question over which is worse, England didn’t heed the warning. It would prove to be an omission for which they would pay a heavy price.
Eventually, Sebes decided there was a player in his squad that could elevate the side to an even higher echelon. Hungary were 2-0 down to Switzerland and at halftime faithful false 9 Péter Palotás was subbed for Nándor Hidegkuti. Then the wrong side of 30, Sebes’ critics argued Hidegkuti may be past his prime but after inspiring Hungary to 4 second half goals, Hidegkuti’s name was nailed on and he commanded the respect of his doubters.
England vs Hungary at Wembley. The 25th November 1953. Dubbed ‘the match of the century’ by English newspapers. Some of the finest players of their generation would do battle: Stanley Matthews, Ferenc Puskas, Nándor Hidegkuti, Zoltan Czibor the list goes on. It’s true to say that English football is nothing if not publicised and sometimes there is a tendency to overvalue the ability of the England national side. This time seemed different however and to miss this match was to resign any interest one might have had in football.
The match would end 6-3 to Hungary with Hidegkuti scoring a hattrick. England had been humbled in their own back yard, relentless conservatism giving way to free thinking and giddy optimism. In many ways, England and Hungary directly mirrored each other’s war-time values less than a decade before. In the footballing world, Hungary had learned and adapted from mistakes of the past where England let complacency and past glories cloud their judgement.
The false 9 was so effective as it left England’s centre halves with a dilemma they had not been exposed to before. Their job was to mark Hidegkuti but when he disappeared deep towards the halfway line, in following him they created space in behind and in dropping off they allow him time and freedom to dictate the play. Harry Johnstone, England’s centre half that day later admitted “the tragedy was the utter helplessness … being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook (Inverting the Pyramid, page 114). It was a victory for bravery and wit. Although individual genius had shone through, it was a victory for system. A great bastion of why when all is said and done, the tactical set-up of a side is the greatest tool in a football club’s arsenal.
So far was English football from that of the Hungarians that Kenneth Wolstenholme, the British television commentator for the game, was deeply engrossed in Puskás’ ability to juggle the ball a handful of times while waiting for the first whistle. Flair was something entirely alien to the English game and so when it erupted in front of it, the reaction was either of gormless amazement or quiet disdain. Never was it thought that this innovative approach could be adopted.
Frank Coles, a writer for the Daily Telegraph, wrote with firm assurance “Hungary’s superb ball jugglers can be checked by firm tackling.” Despite the humiliation on home turf and the apparent overt message the English game was falling behind, the reaction of the British media is that their way, ‘The English Way’, somehow remained superior. Baffling.
At this point in time, the Aranycsapat was just getting started – thrust onto the world stage once again and revelling every bit in the glory they were bathed in. A run of 36 unbeaten games saw them taken to the very pinnacle of world football, the World Cup final.
And then they lost…
…blowing a 2-goal lead to eventually lose 3-2 to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup. What should have been the pinnacle of a project 6 years in the making since Martón Bukovi first deployed a false 9 ended in misery. Either through bad luck, poor planning or their own rigid belief in system, ultimately the Aranycsapat came up short.
There was an unspoken feeling that this side were too defensively porous. A marriage to fluidity makes it very difficult to maintain shape at any point in the match. This is why even despite all the innovation and changes to the English game, there was still a hidden secret that we’ll-just-score-one-more-than-them was still constricting the minds of football coaches.
Even in the game that was the concrete stamp of Danubian superiority, they still conceded 3 to an England side that, it was believed, were lucky to get one. This ended up being their downfall, despite their brilliance simple mistakes at the back cost them the ultimate prize.
The Aranycsapat slunk away almost as quietly as they had arrived. Returning to fury from the Hungarian supporters, Puskás was hidden away, manager Sebes’ son was bullied and beaten at school and even the goalkeeper was arrested.
Eventually, Sebes was replaced with a 5-man team headed ironically by Martón Bukovi but they were never able to recapture their form or the hearts of the once adoring fans. Now Hungary sit 52nd in the world rankings, only 3 better than Qatar. As for Sebes?
He took up a series of small coaching roles retiring in 1970. The great Ferencvaros forward Tibor Nyilasi recalls Sebes making lunch for him and his friends when they were children playing in Budapest. He would take them to his apartment and show them footage of the great 6-3 victory. “He was like a grandfather, he only lived for football.”
England would later find the perfect harmony of flair and function as they lifted the 1966 World Cup, but the Hungarian humbling would be one that would sit in the mind of English football for long after it occurred. Even today, there is a Great British arrogance in football, a rigid belief that the Premier League is ‘the best league in the world’ by the virtue of being ‘ours’.
Footballing conservatism is nothing new, but once in a generation there is a new idea that sets the world alight. Unable to capture the ultimate glory, the Aranycsapat did capture the hearts of millions and will be rightly remembered as one of the finest sides in footballing history. Until the next evolution, the false nine remains a credible and intelligent option even today.