Decades of Dominance: The Chapman Years

So much better than Bill Nicholson

This is the second part of an, uh, well, I'm not sure how many parts look at the history of Arsenal. The first part, covering inception to 1925, is here in case you missed it.

There was a period of time when Arsenal were just kind of struggling along - they were not playing well, not winning championships, and not really doing much of note. Then, one day, a new manager was put in charge of the club and that manager changed the club from the bottom up - new training methods, new game tactics, and an entirely new philosophy about running a club, both on and off the pitch. Does this sound familiar? It should, but it isn't who you think it is. If you like Arsenal for its history, its traditions and its legacy, then you like Arsenal in large part because of one man's contribution to the club - Herbert Chapman.

After a two-year run in which Arsenal finished 19th and 20th, clearly something needed to change. That something was the manager - Leslie Knighton just wasn't getting it done. If there were sports shout radio in the early 20th century, callers would have been baying for blood after that 19th place finish, but there wasn't, so Knighton got that one last year to right the ship. He didn't, so he was dismissed, and Chapman was lured away from Huddersfield Town in the summer of 1925 for the princely annual salary of £2,000.

Chapman's first move as manager was to sign Charlie Buchan from Sunderland. Buchan was Sunderland's all-time leading scorer, with 209 goals in 370 appearances. Buchan was immediately made Arsenal's captain. Buchan's arrival coincided with a fairly major change in the laws of the game - prior to 1925, an attacking player needed to have three players between himself and the goal to be onside, but from 1925 on only two defenders (including the goalkeeper) were required between the attacker and the goal in order to be onsides.

Knowing that the laws were changing, Buchan went to Chapman with an idea. Prior to this time, the center-half would be very free to roam - he'd move up into midfield more often than not, which resulted in a sort of strange 2-3-5 formation when the outside midfielders would also move up. This was great for attacking, not so much for defending. Buchan suggested that the center-half stay at home, and anchor the back line, and having two of the five front-line players drop back into midfield. This resulted in a 3-4-3, or "WM" formation (WM being how it looked on paper).

Arsenal weren't the first team to do this, but they did it very well and paired it with something that football, up to this point, had never seen - the counterattack. Chapman had been a player (which was somewhat rare in management at the time) and he realized that if he could get his players to pounce, instead of waiting for the play to come to them, Arsenal could be unbeatable.

Chapman was also aware that organized tactical discussions between players and the coach didn't really happen team-wide; sometimes, the coach would say something to his defenders in the dressing room before the game, and let the attackers do whatever they wanted, or sometimes two midfielders would get some instruction and nobody else would. Chapman started giving his whole team tactics and formations, and started to get all of them to work towards the same end - scoring goals and preventing the other team from doing so. This Chapman quote, in particular, warms my aesthetics-be-damned heart:

It is no longer necessary to play well. They [the team] must get the goals, no matter how, and the points. The measure of their skill is, in fact, judged by their position in the League table, and they have to bend all their efforts to ensure it is a good one.

So with all that, the Arsenal set out on the 1925-26 season determined to improve on that atrocious 1924-25 campaign. And boy, did they - they finished second. It was, however, a bit of a false start, as the rest of the decade saw them stay firmly entrenched in mid-table. One of Chapman's other innovations, though, was that he had set up a five-year plan for success; he knew it would take time to both bed his ideas in and find players to fit his system, and he convinced the Arsenal board that it would be worth the wait.

Chapman set out to build a fast, attacking side (how much of this is starting to sound familiar?), signing players like David Jack, Joe Hulme, Alex James, and Jack Lambert, who would be able to take advantage of this new system (and a young man named Cliff Bastin, about whom more later) - but also signing solid defenders like Herbie Roberts and Eddie Hapgood, who almost couldn't be more Englishly named, in order to shore up the back line at the same time.

With all the pieces in place, Chapman started to unleash his beast on the unsuspecting First Division. And in 1930, the fifth year of his plan, Arsenal, led by the attacking trio of Jack, James and Lambert, beat Sunderland 2-0 to win the FA Cup. The 1930-31 season saw Arsenal win their first-ever First Division championship, and in some style - 66 points from 42 games, which is oddly low, but an astonishing 127 goals scored (Manchester City scored 93 this season, and Real Madrid scored 121), including 38 by Jack Lambert, and 9 in a single game (9-1 against Grimsby Town).

But what's a brilliant success story without some scandal? In 1927, the FA found that Arsenal had tried to circumvent the salary cap that was in place with illegal off-book payments to Charlie Buchan; Chapman was not found guilty by the FA, but Sir Henry Norris, the chairman at the time, was and was then banned from football, to be replaced by Samuel Hill-Wood. If that name sounds familiar, it should - after Samuel, his son Denis, and then his grandson Peter, continued the Hill-Wood family's chairmanship of Arsenal until today (Peter Hill-Wood is basically the King of Arsenal at this point, though, his day-to-day role being taken over by Ivan Gazidis).

So here we are in 1932, and Chapman's done what he set out to do - he's changed Arsenal for the better, and set them up well for the future. They won the League again in 1933-34, but Chapman didn't see it; he contracted pneumonia in January of that year, and passed away January 6 at the age of 55. The system and structure he set up, though, allowed Arsenal to be one of the most dominant teams of the 1930's, winning five league titles (and finishing second once), two FA Cups, and five Charity Shields (now the Community Shield). So, it's fair to say that Arsenal wouldn't be Arsenal without him.

Oh, and about that Bastin fellow. He quickly became indispensable in Chapman's teams, and he ended his career as Arsenal's record goalscorer, a record that stood for a very long time - Bastin retired in 1947, and his record of 178 goals for Arsenal stood until 1997, when Ian Wright scored his 179th.

I've used a lot of words in this piece, but until you see the list of the things Chapman invented, discovered, or pioneered, you still may not have a sense for how revolutionary he was, because all the stuff he did is commonplace now. Here's a list!

- The use of white footballs was his idea
- Numbering on shirts? His idea
- Stricter, more structured and comprehensive training? Yep, him
- The use of advanced recovery techniques such as masseurs and physiotherapists? Him again
- Regularly playing friendlies against Continental teams? His idea!
- A pan-European tournament involving top teams from each league? Chapman thought of it first! (he didn't implement it, but it was his idea)
- Trying to sign players no matter their race or nationality? He was one of the first. It didn't succeed much because of the prevailing culture of the day, but at least he tried.
- Floodlights at Highbury? He had them built in 1932, almost 20 years before anybody thought it would be a good idea to play games at night.

There is a tremendous urge when writing about history to over-romanticize things that are generally pedestrian. A lot of people did a lot of things over a lot of years, and most of them are not worth noting. That doesn't mean they weren't worth doing, but that most things are unremarkable. Herbert Chapman, though? He was truly remarkable. He was one of those people who truly made an impact, and I am continually grateful that the impact he made was on my favorite team.

Next up: The Post-War Years. (WW2 meant there was no soccer played from 1939-1946)

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