How Gusztáv Sebes Helped Change Soccer

Class in sports can be interpreted is many ways. Be it through behavior, performance or one's influence on a game, an individual or team can show their class to the world. There have been many exceptional teams throughout the history of soccer that have shown class on and off the field. While it's difficult to choose just one, the 1953 Hungarian National Team showed true class in a performance that had long reaching historical repercussions on the game.

In 1953, Hungary had the world's number one ranked team, were the reigning Olympic champions and hadn't lost in 24 straight matches. Led by Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarians played a style of football he called socialist football, a precursor of the Total Football style later made famous by the Dutch side Ajax. The idea was fairly simple, but at the time it was revolutionary. Sebes demanded that every player pull equal weight, being able to play all positions on the pitch. The system provided a tremendous amount of flexibility and challenged the far more conservative footballing tactical conventions trumpeted by English coaches and media at the time.

On November 25th, 1953, Hungary traveled to Wembley to face the England National team, in a friendly labeled "The Match of the Century" by the English sporting press (nice too see nearly 50 years later, nothing has really changed). The English expected to remind the soccer world that they were still the dominant force in the sport. Instead, Hungary crushed England 6-3 and helped to turn the evolutionary path of soccer tactics away from the traditional and rigid 2-3-5 and WM formations, towards more fluid and innovative formations.

Sebes deployed his Hungary team in a 2-3-3-2 formation that flummoxed the English who were unable to cope with the fluid tactics. England was consistently pulled out of position by the deep-lying center forward Nándor Hidegkuti and the brilliant playmaker Ferenc Puskás. The more out of sorts the English formation became, the easier it was for the Hungarians to bypass their markers and create chances.

England's reliance on an inflexible tactical formation and a rigid mindset cultivated by the positionally assigned numbering system employed by the FA, couldn't cope with Sebes' tactics and by halftime, Hungary led 4-2. Another two goals in the second half completed the rout as Kidegkuti finished a hat trick and the English soccer community was left stunned and shocked. England had never lost a match at Wembley before that day and the result would spark a mass tactical rethinking that forever changed how managers and teams approached the game.

England traveled to Budapest for the return match on May 24th, 1954 and was demolished 7-1. The result stands to this day as one of England's worst defeats and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the result six months earlier was no fluke.

It was these two classy performances that showed the kind of flair and style that a more offensive oriented tactical formation could bring to the game. The tactical thinking that dominated English football could no longer be defended. With the false belief in their tactical superiority gone, English managers and officials finally looked towards the European continent and began to pay attention to the tactical innovations being made there. Matt Busby began playing more European clubs with Manchester United, making sure his team participated in the early European Cup tournament despite objections by the FA. Don Revie copied Hidegkuti's style of play to great success during his time at Manchester City, Sunderland and Leeds.

The idea today of a 4-2-4 (a formation pioneered by Sebes and two other Hungarian coaches, Béla Guttmann and Márton Bukovi) or a 2-3-3-2 may not sound revolutionary, especially in the modern game dominated by 4-4-2/4-3-3 style formations, but it was. Using these new and often laughed at tactics, Sebes and Hungary changed how the game was played and helped to end decades of stale tactical thinking.

No longer could England claim to be the leader in soccer and the authority on how the game was played. New ideas and new tactics had to be explored and embraced as the game developed and changed during the subsequent decades. Those not willing to adjust were left behind.

In those two historic defeats of the England National Team, Gusztáv Sebes and the Hungarian National Team showed their class on the field and in doing so, helped to forever change the game of soccer. 

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