Duncan Edwards… what position did he actually play?

Manchester United?s youth team, England, c 1950s.
Manchester United’s youth team in the 1950s with Duncan Edwards 2nd from the right on the back row.

Author: Tony

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When naming my best ever United XI, a difficult exercise at the best of times, the first player in my team is Duncan Edwards… playing in central midfield.

I often get many responses to my team saying that “it’s too difficult to tell how good he was” or “he wouldn’t make it in today’s game” and to some extent these queries are difficult to debate. However, when others respond that “he was a centre-half”, it’s probably time to explain what position Duncan Edwards actually played.

While having never seen him play, you only have to listen to the testimonies of the likes of Matt Busby, Bobby Robson, Bill Shankly, Bobby Charlton and Terry Venables, amongst a host of noted people in the game to realise how good he must have been. Interestingly, none of them talk about him as a centre-half. In fact Wilf describes Edwards as blend of the best of Robson, Keane and Gerrard – some testament.

I’m a firm believer that history can tell you whatever you need to know, you just have to study your history. After all, I wasn’t around during the tenure of Churchill, Kennedy or Alexander the Great but history tells me they were pretty good.

During the research for ‘Sons of United” we went back to Edwards’ roots as a schoolboy footballer to do our own analysis about his talent. We read every newspaper article written on him in this country and afterwards my only response was ‘wow’, I just wished I had seen him play.

So let me provide a brief history of his career before talking about his positional play…

Originally an inside-forward, Edwards was selected for England Schoolboys at thirteen years-old, two years below the age group and represented his country at that level for an unprecedented three consecutive years in 1950, 1951 and 1952 as captain.

He joined United as a 15 year-old half-back in 1952, completely skipped the Juniors, played three times in the Colts before being elevated into the ‘A’ team where he played against adults works’ teams in a very physical Manchester League. By December he was featuring in the reserves alongside seasoned professionals and by the following April had made his first team debut against Cardiff City aged only sixteen.

By the time he died at Munich he had featured in the United first team for six seasons, amassed 177 senior appearances, won two league titles, two Charity Shields, played in a FA Cup Final, picked up eighteen England caps (as the youngest ever England player) and was voted third in the 1957 European Player of the Year Award behind Alfredo Di Stefano.

He was still only 21 years-old but had a similar impact on the Busby Babes as Eric Cantona had on the 1990’s team, he was their catalyst. Interestingly both Cantona and Edwards had very similar statistics in terms of appearances and honours.

An opinion given often by Jimmy Murphy who though that:

“If there was one player who would have made rebuilding after Munich so much easier it would have been Duncan Edwards.”

To understand Edwards position in the team in the 1950’s it is useful to understand team tactics of that period. Historically in England, clubs had played a 2-3-5 formation with two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards. In the 1930’s the game had progressed to the WM system which was fundamentally 3-2-2-3, with two full-backs and a centre-half in defence, two wing-halves, two inside-forwards, and two wingers supporting a lone centre-forward in attack.

However, in his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, Jonathan Wilson explains:

“When the FA made shirt number compulsory in 1939, they ignored later (tactical) developments and stipulated that the right back must wear 2, the left back 3, right-half 4, the centre-half 5, the left-half 6, the right-winger 7, the inside-right 8, the centre-forward 9, the inside-left 10 and the left-winger 11, as though the 2-3-5 were still universal…”

All the contemporary football programmes at that time would layout the two teams in the centre pages showing a tactical preference for a 2-3-5 formation. Clearly it wasn’t, so how did Manchester United actually line up in the 1950’s?

Not much is recorded about tactical formations during this period but Duncan’s own book ‘Tackle Soccer This Way’, published after his death at Munich, not only gives us insight into some of the tactics, it also provides an analysis of the role of the left-half in Duncan’s own words.

Talking specifically about half-backs, Duncan explains:

“These (the left and right half) are the link men, the men who make or break a side. Have a good defence, have a good attack, but have poor wing-halves linking them and the team loses half it’s efficiency. Their job is to stop the other sides inside-forwards fetching and carrying the ball – once they have done that the game is half won – and yet at the same time see that their own inside-forwards get as much of the ball as possible.

But before a ball is kicked or a tackle made, the keynote of this position is stamina. The wing-half is never still. Either he is foraging in his opponents’ half, or else back helping his own defence withstand pressure.

The main part of his defensive job is to keep check of those inside-forwards.

Yet obviously he cannot do it through close marking, in the way that the full-backs and centre-half do their job. Rather he has to rely on his own speed to get him back in defence once his own side has been suddenly robbed of the initiative.

His dominance of mid-field is the deciding factor in any match. When a line of forwards is sweetly and smoothly mounting an offensive, notice where the move starts. Invariably it is with some enterprising wing-half. Conversely, if a side’s attack is starved of the ball, watch and see who is winning the mid-field duels. It must be the other team.
The wing-half needs all the defensive skill, power of recovery and hardness of tackle of the full-back, yet he must ally these to the enterprise of the inside-forward.”

What Duncan is describing here is nothing like the role of a centre-half, even in the modern game. He is clearly describing a central midfielder, using the term ‘midfield’ on numerous occasions and his ability to ‘dominate’ a game. He continues:

“Two-footed he must be, for every reason under the sun. Not only must he be able to kick the ball hard with his left or right foot, but must be able to shoot too – powerfully and with complete control over direction. He must have the initiative and confidence to burst through the middle suddenly when everybody on the other side is waiting for a pass. And when his side is piling on the pressure he must prowl just outside the goal area waiting for the pass or the loose ball that will enable him to fire in a shot when everyone else is crowded out.

Then his two-footedness is a prize asset is switching the direction of play suddenly. The wing-half moving away to his left can suddenly pivot on his right foot and slam a long ball away to his right-winger. There is nothing like a change in direction to splinter a defence.”

Duncan was primarily right footed, however his school master made him play game after game with only his left foot until it was as good as his right. Thus not only was he truly two-footed, but was good enough to play on the left side of midfield for both Manchester United and England.

In terms of his passing game, Edwards explained:

“However, most of the wing-half’s passes will go to his own wing man or inside-forward. Those to the inside-forward are generally of the push-and-run variety, and he should immediately move into a position for the return pass. The pass to the winger is harder, and wherever possible it should be masked.

Styles of wing-half differ greatly, depending on the needs of the team.

Some are allowed to concentrate on attack, while others are pulled back into a defensive role – particularly if the other side have an especially brilliant inside-forward who needs checking. Some play a delicate, probing type of football like Tottenham’s Danny Blanchflower, while others, like myself, recognise their strength and rely on power.
My own idea of the top class wing-half is that he should defend and attack with equal competence, and he should always remember that he is nearest thing to perpetual motion the game will ever see. It is a position that will sap a man’s strength both physically and mentally. Yet it is infinitely satisfying.”

Duncan’s description of himself in the last paragraph, ‘perpetual motion’ was also the moniker given to Bryan Robson in his heyday, characteristics that you would find in most players portrayed as ‘box-to-box’ midfielders. Once again, Duncan is not describing the attributes of a central defender.

In fact, this description probably gives us the best indication of the type of player Edwards was, even if Bryan Robson was more prolific in goalscoring terms.

Moving on to tactics, Duncan also provided a fascinating insight into United’s style of play in 1957:

“Our five-forward plan is a searching test of stamina and fitness. We play one inside-forward – generally Bobby Charlton – about ten yards behind the rest of the forwards to establish a link with the wing-halves. Once Charlton has collected the ball, or it has been passed to another forward, he immediately moves into line with the rest of the attack, so that from a goal-keeper’s point of view Manchester United on the attack must look like a red tidal wave.”

This in actual fact would look like seven players all attacking at the same time: the two wide players such as Berry and Pegg; two centre-forwards in Taylor and Viollet; one (deeper) inside-forward in Charlton (or Whelan)’ and the two half-backs in Edwards and Colman. As Duncan points out, if United then lost the ball, it would be up to him and Eddie Colman to get back with some urgency.

Duncan’s explanation illustrates that United played an incredibly fluid system during the mid-1950’s, but it wasn’t exactly a 3-2-2-3, the classical WM formation, as many would believe.

It is also interesting to see that in this description, that United were using a dual centre-forward tactic with Taylor and Viollet up front along with the two wingers…a formation more akin to 3-2-1-4 (or even an early 3-3-4) with Bobby Charlton playing deeper like an attacking midfield player, a role he became famous for during the mid to late 1960’s.

Unfortunately there is very limited video coverage illustrating the Busby Babes formation at that time. The best example available is the 1957 FA Cup Final, however an early injury to goalkeeper Ray Wood meant that United played most of the game with only ten men so tactical analysis is difficult. Although interestingly, due to Wood’s injury, it was the only senior game that Duncan Edwards actually played at centre-half.

Given United’s success during this period, the tactics described by Duncan clearly worked, although as Jonathan Wilson alludes:

“Busby’s United may have been fluid in British terms, and their brilliance is not in doubt, but they were still orthodox (meaning they used the WM) in European standards.”

While Wilson may be correct, it does pose the question of how were United so successful in Europe (two successive semi-finals) if we were using such an orthodox system? Our very young team were defeated by Real Madrid in 1957, the eventual winners, and then the team was ravaged by the Munich air tragedy in 1958 when many tipped us for eventual success.

Imagine for a minute that Edwards survived, where would he have played as tactical formations developed further?

After the 1958 World Cup, many teams adopted Brazil’s successful 4-2-4 system, with dual centre-halves, but again as Jonathan Wilson explains:

“In practice, the 4-2-4 almost never appeared in that form. In possession while attacking, it would be 3-3-4; out of possession, a 4-3-3. The system was widely adopted in this way.”

It would have been interesting to see how Duncan Edwards would have been used once the new tactics of 4-3-3 became popular in England. While he could certainly have played as a classic centre-half (he was good enough to play anywhere), it would have been strange for Matt Busby to choose to underplay one of his most potent attacking strengths. More likely, Busby would have found someone else to take up a role alongside Mark Jones (maybe Jackie Blanchflower) and continue to use Edwards in central midfield in the way Leeds United did with Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner.

In fact United only really started using dual centre-halves in the early-to-mid 1960’s with Foulkes and Stiles after moving to 4-3-3 formation, a system they deployed for most of the 1960’s.

Sadly we will never know.

However, during Duncan’s time at Old Trafford, he was only selected as a centre-half on one occasion, a Youth Cup tie against Plymouth in 1955, and even then he managed to join the attack and notch a goal.

In his own words, he was clearly deployed as a central midfielder in an attacking 3-3-4 formation, and but for Munich he would have been known as one of the greatest ever midfielders to grace the game.

I would highly recommend reading both books mentioned in this article. Duncan’s book regularly appears on Ebay while Jonathan Wilson’s book can be easily found on Amazon. Additionally, the DVD of the 1957 FA Cup Final is widely available too.

Finally, for anyone interested, my best ever Manchester United XI is:

Schmeichel; Neville, Ferdinand, Stam, Byrne; Best, Edwards, Robson, Charlton; Law and Ronaldo.

However, everyone will have their own opinion on that… something history can’t resolve.

Duncan Edwards entire youth career is chronicled in Tony’s book “Sons of United”. There are over 100 pages covering the Busby Babes from 1952 up until the Munich Air Disaster. “Sons of United” is available by ordering online at www.sonsofunited.com or contacting Tony direct via Twitter.

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3 Responses to “Duncan Edwards… what position did he actually play?”

  1. pre Munich Red says:

    I was fortunate enough to see Duncan play on several occasions and believe me he could have played anywhere. He had just about anywhere irrespective of tactics. Incidentally I am also old enough to remember Winston Chuchill and he was anything but great.

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  2. Van Rouge says:

    “In fact United only really started using dual centre-halves in the early-to-mid 1960’s with Foulkes and Stiles”

    Nobbie at centre half !!!?

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  3. pearta says:

    as i am 47 year,s old and my older brothers are in their sixtie,s,my late father used to watch duncan and the team from 1951 onwards,he would say to my older brothers that he had never seen anyone kick a football like that in his life,he also seen matt busby play in practice match,s whilst serving in the army during the war,sadly my father died when i was 4 years old so i never got to speak to him about football,my brothers would often talk to me about the way my father spoke to them about football,the day the babe,s died my older brothers and mum,dad were in australia as part of the ten pound poms.when he heard the news he cried for the whole day and day,s thereafter.great article about the that golden era of the great game,very interesting and makes me very proud to be a manchester united fan to this day.

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