In 1925, Herbert Chapman became manager of Arsenal.
Until then Arsenal hadn’t won anything, they were just a struggling mid-table club.
Chapman had a vision for the club he said would take about 5 years.
In fact, it took him exactly 5 years.
In 1930 – 31, Arsenal won the league.
Then they became the first club ever to win it 3 years running: 1932 – 33, 1933 -34, and 1934 – 35.
Then won it again in 1937 – 38.
And Arsenal went on to become one of the biggest clubs in football.
So how did that happen?
What did Herbert Chapman do, what was his vision?
It was the same as all creativity.
He looked at what everyone else was doing and he did the opposite.
Let’s repeat that: he didn’t just copy the others and try to do it a bit better.
He looked at what they were doing and did the opposite.
In those days, football was about skill on the ball.
A player had to be able to dribble the ball, to take on defenders and go past them, still holding onto the ball.
The deeper a team went into the other team’s half with the ball, the more chance they had of scoring.
The best teams spent most of the game in the other team’s half.
But Herbert Chapman saw a flaw, and an opportunity, in that conventional thinking.
If the other team was in our half of the field, they weren’t in their half.
That meant their half was empty.
If we could get the ball into their half, behind their team, we’d have fewer defenders to worry about and more chance of scoring.
And so counter-attacking football was born.
Arsenal would fall back, drawing the other team on, until eventually they would get the ball, then pass it quickly over the other team.
The Arsenal forwards would then run onto the ball with no one but the goalkeeper to beat.
Nowadays, 100 years later, this tactic seems obvious.
All modern teams are trained in counter-attacking football.
But at the time, when Herbert Chapman began training his team that way, it was considered outrageous, counter to the spirit of the game.
They were criticised in the press as ‘Boring Arsenal’ and ‘Lucky Arsenal’.
But in 1931 they scored 127 goals and won the league by two games and 7 points.
Everyone else played the traditional ground game, gradually taking more and more territory until they scored.
Arsenal did the opposite, giving up more and more territory until the opposite team had no one left to defend.
The traditional game was all about pressuring the opposition.
Arsenal’s game was about pulling the opposition out of position.
The traditional game was all about attack.
Arsenal’s game was about turning that attack into vulnerability.
Turning the other team’s strength into weakness.
This was the first time real creative thinking had been used in football.
Like most creativity it wasn’t popular at the time.
But like the best creativity it was massively successful.
And, like all successful creativity, it was soon copied by its detractors.