“Inverting the Pyramid: the History of Soccer Tactics,” by Jonathan Wilson

During my final season of high-school soccer, I mostly played center forward on the varsity team. But I seldom acted how I imagined a center forward should: serving as a target man up front or lurking amid the opponent’s backline. Instead, I often retreated back into the midfield to collect the ball and distribute it to my teammates. By the end of the season, I had set up as many goals as I had scored myself. This was during the early nineties, when it wasn’t easy to find top-level soccer on television in the States. Years later, after I began regularly watching England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga, I came to realize that there was a term for the kind of center forward I had been: a false nine.

Recently, I finished reading a dense but fascinating history, “Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics,” by the British journalist Jonathan Wilson. The book details the evolution in soccer tactics, from the mid-eighteen-hundreds, when teams would regularly play with five forwards and just two defenders, to modern-day systems. The emergence of the false nine is one of the many innovations that Wilson unpacks. By tradition, a team’s center forward—sometimes called a striker—wears the No. 9 jersey. The phrase ”false nine“ has come to refer to players in that central, attacking role who do not act like conventional strikers. In 1990, F.C. Barcelona, under the legendary player turned coach Johan Cruyff, signed Michael Laudrup, an imaginative, playmaking center forward whom Wilson describes as a kind of forerunner to Lionel Messi, the player who would come to define the false-nine role. In 2008, Barcelona’s manager, Pep Guardiola, began utilizing Messi on the right side of the forward line, allowing him cut in toward goal and shoot with his stronger left foot. Eventually, though, Messi began to trade places with the club’s center forward, only to perplex defenders by dropping deep into the midfield. As Wilson explains, “the false nine had entered the mainstream.”

The book is filled with these well-researched historical insights. Wilson writes of how dribbling dominated the early days of English soccer. Then, in the eighteen-seventies, the Scottish club Queen’s Park pioneered an approach built around short, combination passes. The passing game eventually spread southward via Newcastle United, and, later, Tottenham Hotspur. Wilson devotes an entire chapter to perhaps the most dramatic modern realignment of soccer: the emergence, in the nineteen-seventies, of the Dutch style known as Total Football, characterized by the fluid interchanging of positions and vigorous efforts to win the ball back after a team loses it. And he explains how Barcelona’s pressing, possession-driven style, under Guardiola, represented the fulfillment of this lineage. I could go on—the W-M, the back three, 4-4-2, and tiki taka—but by now you’ll know if this extended journey into soccer geekery is for you.—Michael Luo


“Sympathy,” by Olivia Sudjic and “Mental,” by Jaime Lowe

Two of the most interesting books I’ve read lately, a novel and a memoir, both excavate the odd, punishing, and occasionally thrilling depths of mental illness, though in very different ways. “Sympathy,” the début novel from Olivia Sudjic, a twenty-eight-year-old British writer, is an emotionally bleached and disorienting story of contemporary obsession: its narrator, Alice Hare—the novel glosses Lewis Carroll, trading the looking glass for the iPhone—develops an Instagram-based fixation on a New York artist called Mizuko, and stalks her, inserting herself as a sort of disabling agent into Mizuko’s life. It’s hard to say whether Alice’s private derangement is a result of her obscure family history, her chemical predisposition, or simply her status as a young person whose neural workings have been replaced by the Internet. A schism opens up within her: “I noticed there was a difference between just taking [pictures] and posting them so that they were public. The first made me feel okay. The second made me feel good. Like bursting a bubble in bubble wrap, or plucking a hair from the root . . . I sensed that whatever I was doing was in some way happening on a grander scale.”

Mental,” a memoir about bipolar disorder, is also a début: Jaime Lowe, a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, published a gorgeous precursor, titled “I Don’t Believe in God But I Believe in Lithium,” in the magazine in 2015. It begins with an account of Lowe’s first manic episode, which resulted in solitary confinement in the U.C.L.A. hospital. “I was Jesus, I was Bob Dylan, I was Hitler, I was John Wilkes Booth, Derrida, Marx, the Monkey Wrench Gang, a bear, a pile of glitter, and a galaxy,” Lowe writes. She waits it out until the episode breaks, her brain “simmering and cooking and settling and emerging.” “Mental” is a personal, literary, and scientific history of Lowe’s illness, which takes her from Hippocrates to “Heathers,” from the Bolivian salt flats (the largest reserve of lithium in the world) to the Big Bang, where lithium came into being. “My medication is stardust,” she writes—even if that stardust is hell on the kidneys. Lowe writes with verve and rhythm and willed forthrightness about her endless search for stability and sanity, and about wondering which self—stable or unstable—is the real one, worthy of love. “Who was I if my actions and thoughts didn’t represent me?” she asks.—Jia Tolentino


“Admissions,” by Henry Marsh

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a memoir called “Do No Harm,” by an English neurosurgeon named Henry Marsh. It’s an extaordinary book, in which Marsh, one of the best brain surgeons in Britain, looks back over his long career and recalls his mistakes and failures—the operations gone wrong, the patients “wrecked” because of errors in judgment or small slips of the hand. “Do No Harm” must have been a painful book to assemble, but it’s beautiful to read; writing with “reckless honesty” about fallibility and death, Marsh shows us what it’s like to live with regret. Now, he’s published a second memoir, “Admissions,” which is just as good as the first. Some of the book is set in Nepal and Ukraine, where Marsh, who has recently retired from the National Health Service, performs brain surgery for the poor; its main subject, however, is aging. Contemplating the wrinkled skin of his hands—“the hands whose use has been the dominant theme of my life”—he is troubled by the knowledge that his brain, too, is “an ageing organ”; recalling how his patients have confronted their mortality, he wonders how he will confront his. This all sounds depressing; it isn’t. It feels like a privilege to spend time with Marsh, an exemplary person with lambent emotions whose fearsome skills and hidden fears are a reminder of how exultant, sad, ardent, and swift life really is.—Joshua Rothman


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