- Paperback: 448 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins - GB (1 May 2020)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0008291179
- ISBN-13: 978-0008291174
- Package Dimensions: 13.9 x 12.5 x 0.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 272 g
- Customer Reviews:
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 56,897 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Zonal Marking: The Making of Modern European Football Paperback – 1 May 2020
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Praise for Zonal Marking
‘An excellent recent history of European football’ New Yorker
‘A wonderful overview of tactical development in European football.’ Matthew Syed, The Times
‘A fascinating assessment of football in 2019.’ Observer
‘Cox, a tactics obsessive, largely ignores the soap opera of football to explain what actually happens on the field. In this book, speckled with well-told anecdotes, he traces the tactical development of the game over the last 30 years.’ Simon Kuper, Financial Times
’Revelatory stories, lucid tactics and wry anecdotes combine… The secret weapon of Cox’s readability is the use of telling quotes from those who actually play the game.’ When Saturday Comes
‘An entertaining and brilliantly researched look at football tactics.’ FourFourTwo
Praise for The Mixer
‘Thanks to his meticulous research and his focus on strategy, Mr Cox finds a fresh perspective on a story that football fans will think they already knew.’ The Economist
‘The Mixer, by Michael Cox is a very unusual football writer in that he specialises in the game as it’s actually played, rather than the gossip or folklore around it. The Mixer is a tactical history of the English Premier League, with telling anecdotes on every page. It’s deeply informed and a pleasure to read.’ Financial Times
‘Intelligently written. Impressively researched. Fascinatingly addictive. Michael Cox is like a cartographer, remapping the landscape of the Premier League so we see the contours of it afresh. That’s some feat.’ Duncan Hamilton, two-time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year
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Top international reviews
But it is even more than that! It's not just about tactical concepts like "space", "verticality" and "gegenpressing”. The book is also full of quirky anecdotes, interesting quotes, vivid descriptions of particularly important matches, goals and individual contributions. As such, even though the analysis of each chapter is sharp and well-argued, the book is never dry. For every discussion of Dutch obsession about the concept of "space" there is a series of quotes by Van Gaal and Cruyf taking pot-shots at each other followed by a brilliant move-by-move description of a Bergkamp goal. For every look at Mourinho’s new approach to physical conditioning or Juve full-backs switching sides, there is an anecdote of Hristo Stoichkov punching a photographer at the hospital where the wife of his buddy (and rival), Romario, had given birth. It’s great stuff!
The structure of the book works extremely well. Each part deals with the particular contributions by a given European football nation during its particular period of dominance. This includes that nation’s league, clubs, national team, players and – most pertinently – the coaches from those nations. This allows Cox to go through all of the features that make modern football what it is today - but with an added historical flow and an appreciation of certain influencers and innovators as well as national characteristics. In places, it veers close to feeling contrived, but it never is. Just when I feel that Cox is about to take a point a bit too far, he provides a counter-argument himself. It makes the book feel balanced and thoughtful, and its structure is not a straightjacket.
All the chapter transitions happen smoothly, and to me, the author never seems to think that certain features “belonged” to one footballing nation/coach/player and them alone, then and forever. On the contrary, it weaves a story of how loads of clubs and national sides have been inspired by Ajax’ playing from the back, later by Italian tactics, then by French speed, followed by Mourinho’s focus on transitions, then by Spanish possession obsession, afterwards by German gegenpressing, all of which are then well and thoroughly mixed and showcased in the multinational English Premier League. Nations and individuals inspiring each other and creating new and better results. A good example is Guardiola and his thesis (tiki-taka), anti-thesis (high-intensity German pressing) and synthesis (a Spanish-German hybrid full of innovative tactics and increased unpredictability compared to Guardiola’s own Braca).
The narrative really works terrifically. In the epilogue, Cox even goes a bit poetic about how distinct national characteristics are still present and are still important. Happily, in this day and age, European nations only clash for 90 (or 120) minutes at a time. The rest of the time, football is about inspiring and being inspired across national borders. The author even wonders if the lack of English football innovation stems from the fact that English footballers are relatively more reluctant to move abroad in search of new opportunities compared to their Spanish, French and German counterparts. Maybe that is why the Premier League has not been won by an English coach since Leeds in 1991-92 (when it was called First Division)? It’s an interesting point that the “birthplace of football” has had the least marked influence on the rest of Europe, while it now incorporates players and coaches from all over the continent, providing the perhaps most thrilling league of them all. Made me personally think of broader cultural and political parallels to Brexit, but that’s a different story of course.
I also enjoyed that the book goes beyond “European” and beyond “modern” football. All of the chapters are anchored in the historic traditions/achievements/disappointments of the nation in question, going back half a century or more at times. This provided me with even more insight about eras of which I have only superficial knowledge. Likewise, influences from Latin America and Africa are included where appropriate, allowing certain chapters to have a flair of e.g. Brazil or Argentina – without losing focus.
I thoroughly enjoyed Cox’s previous book, The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines, which focused on 25 years of Premier League history. However, in my opinion, Zonal Marking – the Making of European Football is an even better book and an even bigger must-read for any football fan. It provides analyses and showcases patterns but without sacrificing drama and memorable moments. It is thoughtful but never dry. My only slight gripe is the lack of illustrations (of formations or tactics – such as in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics) or photos (of particularly memorable moments or teams). They would have added something extra and helped illustrate some of the tactical points – just as Cox usually does on his website, zonalmarking.net. It’s a minor thing, however, and it does not stop this from being an exhilarating, well-researched, thought-provoking page-turner! Perfect for a summer without football – or at any other time, of course!
There a few areas that are fudged to fit that format but it’s worth it to protect the easily followed train of thought from the era of Cruyff / Van Gaal to the Klopp / Guardiola era.
But there are a couple of howling omissions.
Alex Ferguson who won the European Cup Winners Cup with... Aberdeen, and then dominated the Premier League for two decades is widely regarded as the greatest team manager of all time yet is barely mentioned. Nor is his strategy of dominating possession for 70 minutes before throwing the kitchen sink (and the keeper) in an all out attack. During their prime Utd often won games from behind and played the most exciting climactic football in living memory. It was this climactic strategy on the pitch during the late 90’s that won the club its global fan base today.
A strategy that delivered both footballing and financial dominance at the club level. At one point Man Utd’s sales revenue was more than Barca and Real combined and this was down to Ferguson’s unique tactic of having the fittest players and bringing each game to a huge climax.
The other big omission is Brazil. They won the World Cup several times during this period (‘94 and ‘02 and only lost the final in ‘98 because of the Ronaldo implosion) playing a samba / beach football style.
They dominated the World Cup (for a decade) playing with two defenders! Brazil was a triumph of technique over tactics and strategy. But this was the height of aesthetic football not Pep’s Barca, hence the enduring phrase “it’s like watching Brazil”.
Otherwise there’s no obligation to cover everything. But it does seem like these are two very large gaps in an otherwise very expansive and informative read. I can understand these omissions because they don’t fit the structure.
I wouldn't necessarily split the chapters by country. Probably better to do it by date. Still great stuff.