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Gusztáv Sebes was the coach who perfected the Hungarian style (©UEFA)
Sebes' gift to football

By Jonathan Wilson

Nándor Hidegkúti - Sebes' deep-lying striker - here seen "performing" at training at Craven Cottage prior to the England match.

There are very few teams who can genuinely be said to have developed a whole new style of play. The AFC Ajax of Johan Cruyff certainly did, as did Herbert Chapman's Arsenal FC. It is questionable, though, whether either made quite such a profound impact as the Hungary side of the 1950s.

Old methods
England had invented football, and, when Hungary arrived in 1953, they still played in the style of two decades earlier. Chapman had taken the 2-3-5 system, which was practically universal, and, largely in response to the change in the offside law in 1925, tinkered to produce a formation more attuned to counterattacking.

Béla Guttman - architect of the 4-2-4 system

Conservative culture
He withdrew the two inside-forwards back into midfield, and dropped the centre-half - the old No5 position - back into a central defensive role between the two full-backs, creating what was effectively a 3-2-2-3, the W-M. The English were happy with this; there had been no major changes to the laws of the game since 1925, and so there seemed little need to change tactics.

Hungarian innovation
In Hungary, though, tactics were a matter for public debate, and a significant advance was achieved when Béla Guttman, then the coach of MTK Hungária FC, withdrew not the two inside-forwards, but the centre-forward. Realising this left him defensively vulnerable, he also dropped another midfield player back into the defensive line, creating what would become known as the 4-2-4.

England coach Walter Winterbottom

Brazilian style
Gusztáv Sebes soon adopted the tactic for the national team; Guttman would later carry it with him to Brazil, where it formed the tactical basis for the gloriously fluid teams of Pelé, Jairzinho and Garrincha.

England baffled
In England, by contrast, the game was almost robotic. The No2 (right-back) marked the opposing No11 (left-wing), No3 (left-back) marked No7 (right-wing) and No5 (centre-back) marked No9 (centre-forward). Faced with a Hungarian team who interchanged positions, played with two additional forwards and had a central striker who did not even spearhead the attack, they were simply baffled.

To me, the tragedy was the utter helplessness
Harry Johnston

'Utter helplessness'
"To me, the tragedy was the utter helplessness, at times, of being unable to do anything to alter the grim outlook," the England centre-back Harry Johnston wrote in his autobiography.

Altered pitch
But it was not just tactics that turned the game in Hungary's favour. Sebes had prepared meticulously for the game. He became almost obsessive, borrowing three footballs from the Football Association so his side could practise with the heavier English ball, and altering his training pitch so the dimensions matched those of Wembley.

Team play
Sebes was also extremely astute politically. He had impeccable socialist credentials having organised workers at the Renault car factory in Paris between the wars, and regularly insisted that his side played 'socialist football'. The goalkeeper of the Golden Squad, Gyula Grosics, is sceptical about whether Sebes himself believed that claim, but it was music to the ears of the regime. Certainly the Hungarian style was far more rooted in team play than the individualistic English game.

Tactical awakening
Its victory at Wembley that November afternoon was the beginning of the modern age. England were slow to learn, losing 7-1 in Budapest the following May, but learn they did, progressing themselves tactically through 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2 with which the FIFA World Cup was won in 1966.

Major event
It would seem like madness now anywhere in the world to suggest that players should not switch positions, to argue that movement off the ball was not part of football; fluidity these days is everything. The Hungary victory in 1953 took the world a long way towards recognising that.

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England 3-6 Hungary (1953)
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