Arkadyev and early Russian football
My quotes and historical detail are taken mainly from the book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ by Jonathan Wilson. The book provides great analysis on the history of football tactics. It helped me with this hard to research, especially for non-Russian speakers, period of Russian football history. Without these books it would have been imposible to have written this. Some quotes and info also come from this great article: http://www.bigsoccer.com/community/threads/dynamo-moscows-1945-visit-to-the-uk.167063/ . The book ‘La Roja’ by Jimmy Burns also helped me with the Basque tour.
Boris Arkadyev was born on September 21st 1899, in Saint Petersburg. He had a playing career, appearing as a midfielder for Russkabel Moscow, Sakharniki Moscow, RkimA and Metallurg Moscow, between the years 1920 and 1936. Yet Arkadyev was to influence football to this day with his footballing ideas, from his time as a manager.
Before the Russian revolution, football in Russia was widespread, with nearly 200 teams competing in the Tsar’s Russia. (1914 figure). After the 1917 revolution, interest in football continued to rise, with Championships of the RSFSR taking place. However, the Championships were of a poor quality and standard. In 1936, Russia finally installed a national football league, called the Soviet Top League. While the league was organised better than the RSFSR Championships, it was soon exposed that the change had come too late.
Russian football was still heavily influence by the British, most of who were long gone. One lasting relic was the ineffective and outdated 2-3-5 formation. The majority of teams outside Russia, in order to compete, had switched to a Herbert Chapman W-M formation. (3-2-2-3). The USSR did not have her weaknesses exploited, as she was restricted from playing foreign sides-the USSR only joined FIFA in 1947. As a result, all Russian teams played a 2-3-5, thinking that it was by far the best formation. A team cannot learn from their lessons if the lessons are not being taught.
The Basques come to town and Russia learns
All was to change in 1937, as Russia hosted a Basque ‘national’ team, called the Euzkadi, who were making the first stop of their world tour. The tour was aimed at raising world awareness for the Basque fight in the Spanish civil war. Interest in football was at an all time high in Soviet Russia, with most fans expecting Mother Russia to prevail.
The fans were in for a horrible surprise. The Basque side embarrassed the Russian people. Maybe complacency was an issue in the first game, with Lokomotiv Moscow suffering a 5-1 annihilation. However, with the margin of defeat being so large the excuse of complacency should not be considered seriously.
Dynamo Moscow, having seen the severe beating that Lokomotiv suffered, managed to lose to a more respectable 2-1 score line. Further face was saved when a Leningrad XI struggled to a 2-2 draw. Another blow was to come though, with the Basques returning to the capital, beating the Dynamo Central Council’s Select XI 7-4. The Select XI was regarded by many, at the time, as the best Russian side ever assembled. While the Basques may have had better players than the Russian sides-six Basques appeared for Spain in the 1934 World Cup-the differing systems were the main reason why the Basques went unbeaten in their first four games.
The state was furious with the poor results; with Soviet propaganda struggling to portray Russia in anything other than a bad way. Spartak Moscow were up next for the Basques, and the pressure on the Krasno-Belye (Red-Whites) was intense. Russia was desperate to end the humiliation, and so was the head of Spartak’s coaching council; Nikolai Starostin. (Starostin is also the founder of Spartak. Roughly six years later he served 10 years in a Siberian Gulag, as part of Stalin’s “Great Purge”)This was the Basques last game in Russia, so the game was Russia’s last chance.
Starostin noticed the gap in player quality, a small reason for the results. As a result, he recruited many players from other Eastern European clubs. He also realised the main reason that Russian teams were struggling against the Basques was due to the obsolete 2-3-5. Thus, he converted his centre-half (in modern day terms a centre- midfielder) into a third-back (a third defender in a centre-back role). The move was designed to restrict prolific Basque centre-forward Isodro Langara.
As Nikolai Starostin’s brother, Alexander Starostin, recalls Spartak’s change against the Basques had been implemented before, in a Spartak tour of Norway: “Spartak used a defensive version of the W-M by enhancing the two backs with a half-back. When necessary, both the insides drew back”. (Insides=inside forwards) The tactic was successful for Spartak, seeing the Muscovites try and employ the system in Russia. The third-back was soon made redundant after a 5-2 loss to bitter rivals Dynamo Moscow; Spartak backtracked to the previous 2-3-5.
Nikolai Starostin, looking back on using the defensive W-M system again, said: “Now came the second attempt, again in a friendly, but this time in a very important international encounter. It was a huge risk.” As mentioned previously, Spartak were under huge pressure from people who ran the USSR. Numerous high-profile party officials stayed the night at the team’s training camp in Tarasovka, including Ivan Kharchenko, the chairman of the Committee of Physical Culture. Starostin recalls, in his autobiography ‘Football through the years’, “all hell broke loose! There were letters, telegrams, and calls giving us advice and wishing us good luck. I was summoned to several bosses of different ranks and they explained that the whole of the country was waiting on our victory.” Starostin sums up the Russian’s attitudes towards the match, again in his autobiography: “Spartak was the last hope”.
Spartak won the match 6-2, after they had been pegged back twice by the Basques. A debateable penalty was awarded to the home team, and Viktor Shylovski converted it on the 57th minute. Shylovski was one of the players who Starostin had drafted in, on this occasion from Dynamo Kyiv. Vladimir Stepanov took most of the plaudits, after an impressive hat-trick. Yet, Nikolai Starostin was keen to praise his brother, Alexander Starostin, who was the man who occupied the third-back role, describing his game as “brilliant”. This praise was greeted with incredulity by Russian press and Spartak ‘keeper Anatoly Akimov. Akimov highlighted that Langara, the man who Spartak had tried to target with the third-back, had scored one goal and dominated Alexander Starostin.
The Basques losing on their stop in the USSR proved to be an isolated event. They went on to beat Dynamo Kyiv, Dynamo Tbilisi, a Georgia XI and a Minsk XI. The USSR was once again embarrassed and even more angry. Lessons had been taught, as ‘Pravda’ wrote: “The performances of the Basque country in the USSR showed that our best teams are far from high quality”. Later in the same article, written under the expectant headline “Soviet Players should become Invincible”, ‘Pravda’ acknowledged: “It is clear that improving the quality of Soviet teams depends directly on matches against serious opposition. The matches against the Basques have been highly beneficial to our players”.
Now that the Basques had taught the lessons, Russia had to learn. Boris Arkadyev was to take the lessons the most seriously, and to use them to revolutionise football…
Arkadyev takes Starostin’s W-M to a new level
Boris Arkadyev took over at English founded Dynamo Moscow in 1936, after an average spell at Metallurg Moscow. He impressed initially, doing the league and cup double in his first season. After the Basques had come and made a mockery of the 2-3-5, Arkadyev, like all Russian managers, had to rethink. “After the Basque tour, all the leading Soviet teams started to reorganise in the spirit of the new system,” Arkadyev wrote. “Torpedo moved ahead of their opponents in that respect and, having the advantage in tactics, had a great first half of the season in 1938 and 1939 all of our [USSR] teams were playing with the new system.”
The Championships after the Basque tour were won by Spartak, a side that had clearly learnt from beating the Basques. Dynamo struggled, finishing 5th in 1938 and 9th in 1939. Arkadyev, under pressure from infamous KGB head and club benefactor Lavrentiy Beria, needed to solve things quickly.( In June 1937 Beria said in a speech, “Let our enemies know that anyone who attempts to raise a hand against the will of our people, against the will of the party of Lenin and Stalin, will be mercilessly crushed and destroyed.” That is just one example of Beria’s brutality.)
Arkadyev thought that despite the gap in quality between the Basques and the Russian teams in ’37, better tactics were much more important than better players. Despite two bad seasons, Arkadyev was certain that more changes needed to be made, instead of reverting from W-M to 2-3-5. At a pre-season training base, in Gagry, he changed things for the better. He aimed to use a more polished version of the W-M. At Camp Gagry, in February 1940, he spent two hours briefing the players on tactics.
“With the third-back, lots of our and foreign clubs employed so-called roaming players in attack” he outlined. “This creative searching didn’t go a long way, but it turned out to be a beginning of a radical perestroika in our football tactics. To be honest, some players started to roam for reasons that had nothing to do with tactics. Sometimes it was simply because he had great strength, speed or stamina that drew him out of his territorial area, and once he had left his home, he began to roam around the field. So you had four players who would hold an orthodox position and move to and fro in the channels, and then suddenly you would have one player who would start to disrupt their standard movements by running diagonally or left to right. That made it difficult for the defending team to follow him, and other forwards benefitted because they had a free team-mate to whom they could pass.”
The above passage needs to be examined. While other teams were using “roaming players in attack”, most of these players were roaming by their own accord. The ones who had been told to roam were part of a miniscule group. Arkadyev started to instruct his players to roam more and more, in designated areas designed to pull teams apart. This was a radical move. The fluidity of the players increased, and just like total football or tiki-taka, the movement was integral to the tactic. Arkadyev wasn’t finished though…
After three games, Dynamo’s record for the 1940 season was zero wins, two draws and one loss. Following the third game, a defeat against Dynamo Tbilisi (a side the Basques had beat), Arkadyev saved his side’s season. He made the players write match critiques on themselves and their fellow team-mates. The players became more of a team, more of a unit-a key part of Arkadyev’s tactic. The result was instantaneous, with Dynamo winning the 1940 Soviet Top League. Their record was sixteen wins, four draws and four losses. A goal difference of plus forty-four was by far the best in the league, with the second best total being plus twenty-six. Dynamo centre-forward Sergei Solovyov scored twenty-one league goals, a joint-best league total. A key feature of Dynamo, as well as a fluid system, was short-passing and a quick tempo. This is just like Ajax, The Netherlands for a large spell, and present day Barcelona.
Arkadyev provides further insight into his 1940 team and how they scored goals: “Our players worked to move from a schematic W-M to breathe the Russian soul into the English invention, to add our neglect of dogma,” he echoed. “We confused the opposition, leaving them without weaponry with our sudden movements. Our left-winger, Segei Ilyin, scored most of his goals from the centre-forward position, our right-winger, Mikhail Semichastny, from inside-left and our centre-forward, Sergei Solovyov, from the flanks.”
The immediate impact and further development
The press were in raptures with the tactic, heralding it as “organised disorder”. Opponents struggled to find ways of dealing with the system. Teams, who used to make players defend their own area of the pitch, tried man-marking. Man-marking was commonly deployed in an attempt to combat the system and was ineffective: Arkadyev just made his players play even more fluidly with interchanges recurring more regularly. Arkadyev elaborates on his thinking: “with the transition of the defensive line from a zonal game to marking specific opponents, it became tactically logical to have all the attackers and even the midfielders roaming, while having all the defenders switch to a mobile system, following their opponents according to where they went.”
The change in marking was a huge step forward for the USSR. The W-M in other countries had come with man-marking. Yet in Soviet football, teams did not realise that the “zonal game”, not to be confused with zonal-marking, was unsuitable for the W-M. Arkadyev’s tactic brought Soviet football up to a continentally competitive level.
When the Nazis invaded Russia, The Soviet Top League was suspended, with all of the players heading off to fight in the battle of The Motherland Vs The Fatherland. In 1943 Arkadyev, too old to fight, left Dynamo for CDKA Moscow (Now CSKA Moscow). He won 5 championships with CDKA, until the club was disbanded by Stalin, after Stalin blamed CDKA for the 1952 Olympics loss to Yugoslavia. (Arkadyev was manager of the Soviet Union when they lost 3-1 in the first-round of their first ever Olympics, to Yugoslavia)
Arkadyev continued to use his tactic and over time, as he tweaked his tactic to become even more effective, one of the halves became more defensive. In the present-day, we would describe this as a centre-midfielder becoming a centre-defensive midfielder. The more defensive half provided greater coverage for the back three, causing one inside-forward (a centre-attacking midfielder) to drop further down the pitch to cover the defensive halve. As a result, the W-M became more of a 3-1-2-1-3. Some even suggest that Arkadyev was the first to utilise a flat back four, including the esteemed Russian football historian Axel Vartanyan.
Dynamo Moscow, without Arkadyev and with new manager Mikhail Yakushin, started a peace-celebrating tour after World War Two. Their first game was against Chelsea, and showed just how much Arkadyev had changed the originally English W-M. Dynamo hadn’t changed anything tactically after Arkadyev had departed. (The 3-1-2-1-3 developed later on) The players were just more used to their roles, the roles which Arkadyev had given to them.
The English FA fell out with the Soviet FA almost immediately, over disputes based mainly on laws of the game, such as charging. The ‘Daily Express’ pointed out that the barracks where Dynamo had to stay were from a time“when men were men and soldiers weren’t expected to have hot beds.” Vadim Sinyavsky, the Russian radio commentator covering the game, provided Soviets back in the USSR with a detailed description of Dynamo’s experience on arrival: “In England, the fatherland of football, we were met according to the English fashion: rather dryly without flags, music or flowers. Officials of the British federation coldly shook our hands and then threw us to the journalists to be torn to pieces. But we also have our customs. We do not like to talk in vain, so we decided to keep quiet for the time-being. The players were taken to the Guards Barracks to be housed, but we discovered mould on the walls, cobwebs and hard bolsters instead of pillows. We did not like this, and we went to the Soviet Embassy, where we stayed the night.
Frank Butler, a high-profile ‘Daily Express’ journalist, remarked “It is possible that the Russians do not consider that they could do themselves justice in such a game”. Paul Irwin was incredibly outspoken in his opinion of the Russians, “They are not nearly good enough to play our class of professional teams,” he retorted. “Their players are simply a set of very earnest amateurs… I say this confidently. In three hours’ football….they look an ordinary lot. Now it may be argued that they are reserving their real form for the Chelsea match. I won’t have that. No set of players is clever enough to hide its form over three hours/ There must be a flash of form, but none arrived from the Russians. They have a fairly good idea of passing, but nearly all their work is done standing still. And they are so slow that you can almost hear them think.” The British believed that a side from the home of football was far superior to any side.
There was, though, a great sense of curiosity as Brian Glanville indicates in his book, Soccer Nemesis: “Mingled with these qualities, one suspects was a strong element of curiosity, sustained by the hoary Russian myth”. Russia, deep behind the Iron Curtain, was a land that excited as well as worried the British public.
Chelsea had been spending big money, in an attempt to become top dogs in London. Muscovite newspaper ‘Izvestia’ claimed that Chelsea were: “Determined to beat Dynamo at all costs, the club has spent thousands of pounds to secure some of Britain’s best footballers. For instance [they] paid £14,000 for the famous Tommy Lawton, [just] so that he could play against Dynamo.”
Even before kick-off, Dynamo surprised people. Dynamo used two balls in the warm-up, contrasting heavily with the traditional number of one. When the Russians handed a bouquet of flowers to each Chelsea player, just before kick-off, the crowd went wild. The FA’s poor welcome and hospitality was put to shame.
Dynamo were unlucky in the first half, suffering two goals against the run of play. They also missed a penalty in the first half, and it looked like lucky was against the visitors on this occasion. One key feature of their play was expansive, flowing football: Arkadyev-style. The Russians were again the better side in the second-half and made the game even more exciting with around 20 minutes remaining. Inside-right Vasili Kartsev scored with an impressive low shot: “Steady, comrades, steady,” roared the excited sole Russian commentator, Sinyavsky, as Dynamo moved forwards. “Take a glass of water…. Yes…yes… he’s through, he’s scored. Yes comrades, you can kiss him.” Seven minutes later, Kartsev cut-backed to outside-right Evgeny Archangelskiy, who tapped home. It was a deserved equaliser for Dynamo, who despite the score line had been utterly dominant. However, it looked like Russian hearts would be broken, as Tommy Lawton justified his fee with a typical bullet header. Yet more drama was in store, as Dynamo’s Vsyevolod Bobrov got another equaliser, which was about 4 yards offside. The goal stood, to the crowd’s delight.
Brian Glanville was full of praise for Dynamo, writing: “From first to last their football remained cogent and incisive, a triumph of socialism over individualism, for the ball was never held by one man, but transferred bewilderingly and immediately to another.” Former Arsenal inside-forward, Alex James, disagreed with Glanville, in his column for the ‘News of the World’ “[Dynamo’s success] lies in teamwork to which there is a pattern. There is no individualist in the side such as a Matthews or a Carter. They play to a plan, repeating it over and over again, and they show little variation. It would be quite easy to find a counter-method to beat them. This lack of individuals is a great weakness.” James is wrong; Dynamo did have great players, but they played as one.
Dynamo manager, Yakushin, agreed with Glanville’s thoughts. “The principle of collective play is the guiding one in Soviet football,” he said. “A player must not only be good in general; he must be good for the particular team.” When asked about Stanley Matthews, he responded: “his individual qualities are high, but we put collective football first and individual football second, so we do not favour his style as we think teamwork would suffer”.
The British were astonished at Dynamo’s play. The ‘Daily Express’ journalist Frank Butler described the game as “one of the most entertaining exhibitions of football ever seen on an English football field.” Former Glasgow Rangers captain Davie Meiklejohn wrote in the ‘Daily Record’: They interchanged positions to the extent of the outside-left running over to the right-wing and vice versa. I have never seen football played like it. It was a Chinese puzzle to try to follow the players in their as it was given [sic] in the programme. They simply wondered here and there at will, but the most remarkable feature of it all, they never got in each other’s way.” Chelsea left-back Albert Tennant moaned “We could hardly keep up with them”.
Dynamo stayed unbeaten in their tour of Britain. They beat Arsenal 4-3 after a hugely controversial game, where Dynamo fielded twelve players at some points and the Russian referee made some favourable decisions towards Dynamo. Asides from that dodgy game, the Russians did themselves proud. Their last match was a 2-2 draw with Rangers in front of 92,000 at Ibrox. Cardiff manager, Cyril Spiers, remarked after a 10-1 defeat: “[Dynamo] are the finest team I’ve ever seen. They are a match for nay side in Britain. They are a machine, not an ordinary football team.” Despite Dynamo outlining at the start that they would not play a national side, many wanted to see this happen. LV Manning in the ‘Daily Sketch’ was one outspoken advocate of Dynamo facing a national side: “They are already firmly established as the greatest club side ever to visit this island from overseas and are set for a triumphant tour, during which I doubt they will ever be beaten by a full English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish XI. Whatever difficulties are in the way, they must be given full internationals – preferably at Wembley or Hampden.”
Dynamo were greeted as heroes when they returned back to the USSR. A 90-page booklet with autographs, cartoons, photos and match-reports was quickly produced. The Russian authorities were ecstatic with their undefeated players. They used this as propaganda. Diplomatically it had been a failure, but Dynamo, using Arkadyev’s methods, had shocked the creator.
Despite the success of the Dynamo tour being down to Arkadyev, relatively little praise was given to him. The man should be praised and known as the one who was brave enough to change radically. He made Russian football respectable. He learnt from the Basques, taking the bog-standard W-M to new heights. His tactics staggered Britain. He laid the foundations for total football, with quicker passing, and crucially, interchanging players. The Hungarians then took this idea to Wembley, battering England 6-3. The great period of Dutch football, “total football”, was based on Arkadyev’s philosophy. Johan Cruyff took this to Barcelona. Pep Guardiola used it at Barcelona with Messi. He is now at Bayern München, with success expected. Remember, it all stemmed from Arkadyev telling his players to roam.
Boris Arkadyev should be regarded as a footballing legend. Pass and move football isn’t Dutch or even Hungarian, it is Russian. Arkadyev wrote two books; ‘Football tactics’ and ‘Midfielders play’. They are football bibles in Eastern Europe. They should be football bibles for world football.