Herbert Chapman is number 39 in 90min's Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next eight weeks.
Many managers are known for their masterminding of particular successes, effortlessly integrating into a club and bringing it glory over a short period of time.
Few, however, left a footprint as big as Herbert Chapman did at Arsenal. Furthermore, few, if any, are so fondly remembered for their contributions to the sport as whole.
That's because, there was only one 'maker of champions'.
A less than inspired player in his day, Chapman played for numerous sides over a 16-year career, failing to ever assert himself in the physical aspect of the game. On the other hand, his mind offered a far greater weapon.
Starting life out as a manager with Northampton Town, he quickly rose to prominence after guiding the Cobblers to the Southern League title. He was duly snapped up by Leeds City, in his native Yorkshire, vastly improving the team's displays before the outbreak of World War One was to bring league football to a halt. Chapman stepped away from the game, and in a teasing moment of foreshadowing, became manager of a munitions factory.
Two clubs that strayed more towards the unfashionable than the well-known were where he would forge his legacy, beginning with Huddersfield Town, whom he took charge of in 1921.
Leading the Terriers to two First Division titles and their only FA Cup triumph to date in four years painted a fine picture for casting their gaze over his CV. However, what wasn't visible was the vast quantity of dedicated work Chapman bestowed upon himself off the field.
A typically dedicated manager, he oversaw every facet of the club; working with reserve sides and scouts thus allowing him to make shrewd acquisitions, as well as imposing new coaching regimes and tactical innovations.
It was unheard of for a football manager to place such burdens on their shoulders. You told the team how to play, and made substitutions. No more, no less. But this man was different.
Chapman’s methods and results were garnering attention up and down the country. Down south in London, no club based in the capital had produced a First Division champion, with a growing ambition in the city to end that sequence. At the time, Arsenal were no more than a mid-table outfit with a lingering fanbase supporting a club with limited backing.
Southern League (1908/09)
|FA Cup (1921/22, 1929/30)|
|First Division (1923/24, 1924/25, 1930/31, 1932/33)|
Instilled as the club's manager after answering Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris' advert, the Gunners sought to end that and made the bold move of making Chapman England’s highest-paid football manager in 1925. The Yorkshireman signed a five-year deal - what he felt necessary to implement his vision for the club - and set about immediately to inject his philosophy, just as he had done in west Yorkshire.
What makes a truly great manager? Is it tactical ingenuity, silverware, or perhaps a lasting legacy? In most cases, all of the above.
Chapman had all three.
However, he set about forging the path towards his legendary status in a manner so out of keeping with the times, that his work was nothing short of revolutionary in every respect.
It is often said that his life story ‘is largely the story of how English football came of age’.
He became an advocate for a number of improvements and modernisations in the game. With his role in the flashing lights of London providing him with the backdrop he was in need of to firmly imprint himself upon the sport.
While he forever ingrained himself in Huddersfield folklore, he knew in order to fully emit his knowledge and master his craft, he needed to move to the big city.
Setting about doing so almost immediately, he introduced floodlights to Highbury, something unheard of, allowing his side to train on their home stadium after dark, while also setting about increasing spectator comfort at Highbury. Furthermore, he acted as a key figure in organising the first radio broadcast of a live match.
Equally, Chapman is also credited with introducing numbered shirts to the game and using rubber studs on boots. While none of these ideas was accepted as standard until after the Second World War, Chapman was instrumental in the development of these now universally adopted features.
Understandably, it is often said that his life story ‘is largely the story of how English football came of age’.
Arsenal lost 7-0 to Newcastle in October 1925 in what ultimately became the turning point in Chapman's, at this point, short reign. A change in the offside rule reducing the number of defending players that need to be in place from three to two, lay the foundations for a new era in English football.
Chapman duly responded with the 'W-M' formation.
Referred to as a 3–2–5, 3–4–3, or more precisely a 3–2–2–3, the set up consisted of three defenders who kept close to the goalkeeper during defending, while spreading out to prevent a long ball counter attack when in a defensive position.
The introduction of a centre-back to stop the opposing centre-forward came into effect, while a holding midfielder was a non-entity, as two central midfielders were urged to act as box-to-box players, tracking back and surging forward in equal measures.
Meanwhile, two pacy wingers sit slightly further forward, looking to make crosses inside whenever capable, with the forward assisted by a playmaker acting in the space between the lines.
Expensively acquired Charlie Buchan and Jimmy Brain were Chapman's key strike duo, while Joe Hulme provided frightening pace down the right hand side.
Despite Brain's 33 goals, Arsenal finished second in the league during the 1925/26 season as the new man at the helm ended the campaign trophyless. Nevertheless, having finished 20th the season prior, improvements were abundantly evident.
Many of the self-proclaimed scholars of football labelled the new formation as a defensive step backwards. On the contrary though, it was a philosophy focused on balance, something that had been previously disregarded in the English game, and would proceed to shape the modern approach of European football.
Innovations and revolutions aside, Chapman didn't lift silverware in north London until 1930, with an FA Cup triumph over his former side Huddersfield. At this point, Arsenal were a force.
It had taken years for Chapman's perseverance to pay dividends. Yet, Arsenal were not only revered as a revolutionary club, but as a titan of the English game that became the model from which aspiring clubs would follow.
Two First Division titles followed in 1930/31 and 1932/33 as the 'maker of champions' reaffirmed his title-winning credentials, and lived up to his promise of delivering silverware within five years.
Rightfully adored by Huddersfield and Arsenal fans alike, he will live long in the memory.
However, filling trophy cabinets should not be epitome of his legacy. Moreover, neither should be his aid in bringing nuances like shirt numbers to the game. Or implementing the famous clock at Arsenal's home that has become a symbol of his tenure, as a new time in the club's history began.
Instead, it should be one of a footballing renaissance, the sculpting of the modern game, broadening horizons and revealing to people there is a platform for new, fresh and unheard of ideas.
Northampton Town 1907-1912
|Leeds City 1912-1918|
|Huddersfield Town 1921-1925|
Chapman's influence became the blueprint of modern football management. Tactical versatility, linking football business with sport, and sculpting something greater than the sum of its parts. In many people's eyes he is the grandfather of modern football management.
Were it not for his premature death 1934, Chapman could well have been heralded as the greatest British manager. While his life was cut short before it began, he easily merits inclusion in the discussion.
A legacy of innovation.
The legacy of Herbert Chapman.
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