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How Villa won the 1957 FA Cup: Aston Villa 2 - Manchester United 1 Tactics

This week is a special edition of my weekly tactical review, as we go back to 1957 to examine the tactics that won Aston Villa their last FA Cup, in a 2-1 win over Manchester United and the Busby Babes - and see if there's anything that might help Tim Sherwood and his men...

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The teams

Aston Villa, under Eric Houghton, entered this match as underdogs against Matt Busby's Manchester United, who had just won the League and had lost to Real Madrid in the European Cup semi-final. In Duncan Edwards they had a player who was celebrated as the best of his generation, and a 19 year-old Bobby Charlton who was already an established first-team player. Villa had finished 10th in the league, but they were looking to win a record 7th FA Cup. Over 99,000 people flocked down from Manchester and Birmingham to see the match at Wembley.

Aston Villa's line-up - Villa were comparatively lacking in star quality but during their FA Cup run, the outside-left Peter McParland had already scored 5 goals. The Northern Irish outside-left was a regular goalscorer, running in to convert crosses, and the Claret and Blue attack tilted towards his side, via long balls and crosses. He was backed up by the captain, Johnny Dixon, who was also a decent finisher from inside-left. Their strength was built from the back, with tough tackling full-backs in Stan Lynn and Peter Aldis.

Manchester United's line-up - Busby's Babes played an early brand of their famous passing game, with Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman both very good dribblers who could bring the ball out from defence, with Johnny Berry and David Pegg surging down the wings. Bobby Charlton was only 19 during this match, but had already scored 12 goals during the season, and he was supporting an England regular in centre-forward Tommy Taylor.

Tactical set-ups

Aston Villa 57 vs Manchester United 57 - Football tactics and formations

The 2-3-5

Both sides played the 2-3-5 formation, which looks like a defensive nightmare to modern eyes. 5 strikers against 2 defenders? But fans of rugby (or even American football), might understand the formation a little more. The line of forwards are the attack and also the first line of defence, a physical block to moving the ball forward.

It was the same in the heavy tackling game of the 1950s. While passing football wasn't unknown and Matt Busby´s United were some of the best at it, the long ball was always a popular option to bypass the opposing forwards. Crosses from the wing were the most popular form of attack, towards big centre-forwards.

However by 1957 there were some changes to the formation. It had been adapted so that the inside forwards (on either side of the centre forward) might tuck in to the midfield and the central half-back - the central midfielder of the line of 3 - would help defend his back line, creating the "WM" shape on the pitch, the W of attackers, the M of the defenders.

The first half - United's quality shines through with 10 men

In the 6th minute there was a sickening collision between Villa's outside-left McParland, and the United keeper Ray Wood, when McParland charged the keeper who had the ball in his hands. It was clear that Wood was concussed, but by the rules, no substitutes were allowed so United were forced to go to ten men, with centre-half Jackie Blanchflower in goal. As commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme (of 1966 "they think it's all over!" fame)  sagely warned, it was a challenge that would open the debate up about allowing injury substitutions, a rule that was only changed in 1965.

McParland's challenge on Wood - nowadays probably an assault, but a perfectly legitimate shoulder charge in 1957. It would prove crucial, effectively reducing Manchester United to 10 men.

There was a brief period of Claret and Blue dominance as United's passing game broke down with one man less. Villa were looking to get the ball to McParland down the left , aided by Seward and Dixon behind him. However Blanchflower showed a surprising confidence in the air as a substitute keeper, and blunted their attack. Villa's attack on the right side was unimpressive,  with centre-forward Myerscough giving the ball away several times.

After 25 minutes of United survival, they gained confidence and began playing on the counter. Berry, the United outside-right, made a radical change to switch flanks and start making runs down the left wing. He was only stopped by a last-ditch tackle in the 25th minute after a lovely individual dribble.

That same flank was a danger a few minutes later when the outside-left, Pegg, found himself in space and chipped the ball to the centre-forward Taylor, making a run behind the defence which was only just cleared. That side was a danger throughout the half, with Duncan Edwards dribbling through players with ease from left-half and bringing the ball out from defence.

It was a tough 45 minutes to watch for Villa fans as the side failed to outplay United's ten men. Tough tackling in the centre restricted both sides to attacks down the flanks, but Villa were posing only a limited threat down the left via switching the ball to McParland. Meanwhile United were also only able to attack down one side, but their left wing, via Edwards, Pegg and the roaming Berry was dangerous and connected well to their forwards.

The second-half - Villa sink in their claws

The early second-half continued in much the same way as the first, as both Charlton and Berry went on early dangerous dribbles. Around the 53rd minute, Taylor was brought down on the edge of the box and from the resulting free-kick the ball came to Pegg, who was unmarked but put the ball wide in what could have been a crucial chance. United continued to look dangerous, with even Ray Wood coming back on the right wing in the 58th minute as a terrible example of how to care for a concussion -  though he had a couple of decent moments dribbling down that side!

However the Busby Babes were tiring and dropping back. With Blanchflower in goal, they lost control over the centre where the Villa trio of Dixon, Jackie Sewell the inside-right and Pat Saward the left-half began to control the game. Crucially, up front, Myerscough began drifting left and swapping positions with McParland, creating a much more dangerous situation in the box.

In the 68th minute, they worked the ball out to the right wing. Les Smith's initial cross was blocked but Dixon collected and chipped it across the box where McParland charged in with the same fierce attitude as in the first-half to head it past the keeper. Even in the slow footage of the 1950s, the acceleration of the ball shows the power of the header.

McParland marked his place in Villa - and Manchester United -  history with the famous cup final tally of "two goals and a goalkeeper".

The villain for United fans had got the breakthrough to become a Villan hero and with United pushing men forward, he punished them again in the 73rd minute. Taylor gave the ball away in the middle of the pitch and the ball was worked out right again, where the right centre-half Crowther was overlapping and lofted a ball into the box to McParland whose header down reached Myerscough. He blasted it against the crossbar, but McParland darted onto the rebound and lashed it home. His aerial power had won the day against the tiring defence.

McParland's second goal finally broke down the United resistance '- and angered their fans.

United's class shone through and they set up a series of attacks in the dying minutes. From a corner, they finally got a reward when Tommy Taylor rose highest to nod home in an impossible dipping arc below the crossbar in the 83rd minute, but Villa held out to win the game.

Tommy Taylor's 83rd minute goal for the irrepressible Manchester United side - but it was too little, too late.

What happened next?

In the gentlemanly fashion of the times, Johnny Dixon (pictured at the top of the article raising the Cup) wished "Best of luck to United next year". Unfortunately neither of the two sides of a great Cup final would have much luck, with Manchester United suffering the worst tragedy in their history. In February 1958, returning from a European Cup game, their plane crashed on the runway at Munich.

6 of the players who had lined up for the FA Cup Final died as a result - Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, Liam Whelan and Tommy Taylor. Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry never played again from their injuries. Matt Busby famously rebuilt the side around Bobby Charlton who went on to a series of triumphs culminating in the 1968 European Cup, but United lost a generation of gifted players.

Aston Villa were relegated two seasons after their FA Cup win, only to return to the top division in 1960. McParland continued with Villa until 1962, helping their promotion campaign from Division 2, as did Johnny Dixon. Stan Crowther was actually signed by Manchester United as an emergency player after the Munich air disaster, given special dispensation to play in the FA Cup when he would normally  have been cup-tied, but lost the 1958 final with United to Bolton Wanderers.

Manchester United fans should be supporting Villa this weekend - they're currently tied on most cup wins with Arsenal, with 11 FA Cup trophies to their name. Villa remain on 7, yet to win another since that day 58 years ago.

Lessons from the past - could it happen again?

It's unlikely that Tim Sherwood's men will line up in a 2-3-5 for this year's final, or that they could get away with injuring the opposition goalkeeper and reducing them to 10 men for the rest of the match. However the idea of the underdogs winning via a strong striker in the air has a certain narrative attraction.

A little bit of 1957 tough tackling and direct play against Arsenal could be just the thing to secure another FA Cup trophy 58 years later.

For those interested, the whole 1957 FA Cup Final match is available on YouTube:


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