• Stephen Broekhuizen

Herbert Chapman: A Truly 'Elite' Manager

Elite football managers. The holy grail. The cream of the crop.

And the toughest thing to pin down.

What, if indeed we can define it, makes a great manager? Is it the discipline of Sir Alex Ferguson? The man management skills of Brian Clough? Or is it the results-first anti-football of José Mourinho? The high intensity of Jürgen Klopp, the free flowing 2008-11 Tiki Taka of Pep Guardiola, or the ‘run-my-players-into-the-ground-until-they-can-hardly-walk-let-alone-play-for-the-final-8-games-of-the-season’ of Pochettino-ball?

We all have our own ideas of what makes a manager great.

Maybe some would go back in time further to Bob Paisley or Kenny Dalglish, or think of those abroad like Helenio Herrera and Vittorio Pozzo. Maybe further back, still - to the founder of Total Football, Rinus Michels. Michels changed the game forever with the amazing brand of football he invented which was later taken up by Johan Cruyff, who in turn had his ideas adapted by Pep Guardiola. It is safe to say that without Rinus Michels, Cruyff wouldn’t have been the same player and certainly not the same coach. And without Cruyff, Pep would not be Pep.

Michels was named as the coach of the century. He changed the game and how it is played forever. Forget trophies, forget awards, he was a manager who changed the entire culture and history of football. Is that, then, the mark of a truly great manager?

In a lot of ways, Arsène Wenger changed the way football was played. Wenger arrived at a club with a strong drinking culture with players arriving two stone overweight for pre-season and turned that around. He got rid of the drink, he changed the diet of players and stretched more people than the Spanish inquisition. He brought modern professionalism to England, and when Arsenal had success other clubs followed suit. Beyond the new stadium, the trophies and the rise in the club’s stature, it is how he changed the game that made him truly great. This, however is not his story.

It is the story of the man who cast a shadow over Arsenal long before Arsène Wenger ever arrived. In 1925, having been nothing more than an average side for their entire existence and amid a payment scandal, Arsenal advertised for a new manager in the paper. The then Huddersfield Town manager applied for the job. With a bigger market, a tantalising move to London and more pay he saw an opportunity. Having already won the league (twice) and The FA Cup, the Arsenal board could hardly believe he wanted the job - but in 1925, one Herbert Chapman took over Arsenal.

Chapman set about transforming Arsenal. He installed a five-year plan to win trophies and in the 1929/30 season won the clubs’ first major honour; the FA Cup, fittingly beating his old side Huddersfield in the final. Chapman would go on to lead Arsenal to their first league titles in the 1930/31 and 1932/33 season. Sadly at just 55 years of age, in 1934, he passed away. But the groundwork he laid down led to Arsenal dominating the league for most of the 1930s until the war stopped their impressive run. This alone, the achievement of taking a middle of the road team to the top of the tree is enough to count him as a true great of club management, but what makes him truly special is how he, like Michels, changed football forever.


In the early days of the game the preferred formation was 2-3-5, and often teams just lumped the ball forward hoping they got a good break of the ball. Chapman went a different way - introducing the famous WM formation (3 defenders, two box to box midfielders, two inside forwards, two wide players and your striker). This formation was based around players keeping the ball on the ground and was designed to allow the opposition to have the ball near the Arsenal box when the defenders or the midfielders won the ball back, so Arsenal could spring a fast counter-attack and score.

This demanded his players were fit and had the ability to play passing football. This way of playing was quite revolutionary at the time and led to his Arsenal sides scoring a lot of goals including the club record that stands to this day, the record of 127 goals scored in the 1930/31 league season. This way of playing on the break, plus what is essentially a 3-4-3 system, became the basis that some modern formations are centred around.

Player Welfare

Chapman saw the players as athletes and as such wanted them to train that way to be fitter and stronger than their opposition. In order to ensure this extra training and the higher demands he was placing on his players didn’t negatively impact them physically, he introduced what is now commonplace in a team - having a full-time physio and masseur who were available always to the players.

Today there are teams of fitness coaches, physios, doctors and even psychologists to help the players but in the 1920s and 30s this was something that was not the norm. Him treating the players as professional athletes no doubt also gave them a bit of an edge over other sides at the time psychologically. He also believed in players playing other sports like Golf together and team building that way, as well as to have them openly discussing tactics. The players were made feel part of a club, rather than just playing for a team.

The First Real Boss

Modern fans know of the control Wenger had over Arsenal during his time - but he may have been outdone by Chapman. In the 20s and 30s boards had huge influences on decisions - but at Arsenal that changed as Chapman became, in some ways, the first true manager of the club by looking after everything. He not only looked after training, the tactical side of the game and team selection but also the transfers - again, not commonplace at the time. He designed the turnstiles and scoreboard at Highbury, and he is the one who put the famous clock in what we now know as The Clock End. He even oversaw quite a lot of the construction of Highbury.

He also looked to the future. Having watched many night games in Europe he installed floodlights in the West Stand in 1932 even though the league wouldn’t allow games at night until the 50s. He was also behind the nearby underground station ‘Gillespie Road’ having its name changed to ‘Arsenal’ - the only tube station in London named after a football club. He advocated for white footballs to replace the brown ones, he was the first to want numbered shirts and he even gave his players hooped socks to enable them to pick each other out easier.

Clubs are built on their history and tradition. For The Arsenal, that started with Chapman.

He introduced something else that was not the norm at the time - he insisted the reserve teams all play with the same style and formation of the first team so when called upon they could seamlessly fit into the system. This was the beginning of a club wide style of play that is common in today’s game. Chapman was one of the first to see the benefits of this.

Foreign Influence

Two decades before European wide competition started, Chapman was an advocate for it, often bringing Arsenal into Europe to play teams. He saw the benefit of a European competition, not only to English clubs but to the growth of the sport. He will never be credited with starting European cups, but he was calling for it two decades before it happened when it seemed no one else saw the benefit.

He was also one of the first managers to consider signing black or foreign players, signing Walter Tull in 1911 for Northampton and signing Gerard Keyser, the first Dutch player to play in England’s topflight.

Chapman was a pioneer of football in England and beyond. The success he had at Arsenal and Huddersfield and his innovations show the positive influence he had on the sport as a whole. Who knows what he could have achieved had he not died so young and who knows what might have happened for Arsenal had war not started. What we do know for sure is that without his influence on the club we would not be where we are today, and I daresay perhaps English football wouldn’t be either, such was his influence at the time.

If Wenger took us into the modern game, it was Chapman who made us matter in the first place.

For me the greatest manager ever was Rinus Michels for what he did for the game across the world, but Herbert Chapman is every bit as important to the British game. January 6th 2022 marked the 88th anniversary of his death. Perhaps as a way to celebrate him, the next time you and your friends debate the best coaches of all time, think of the Yorkshireman Herbert Chapman.

The Yorkshireman who made us The Arsenal.

By Stephen Broekhuizen (@jsbroekhuizen)