A masterpiece on football tactics

“Zonal Marking: The Making of Modern European Football” by Michael Cox

This is a story of art vs. science in football. It is the difference in management style between individualistic approach of Johan Cruyff vs. the meticulous organisation of Van Gaal, the clash between the magic of superstar player Roberto Baggio vs. the conservatism in manager Arrigo Sacchi, the contrast between European flair vs. the tough tackling English tradition.

This is also the debate over how to utilise space, over playing from the back, catenaccio vs. zonal marking, the role of the “water carrier”, what to do during the transition, where to put the third attacker and the third defender, the choice between inverted wingers or wide forwards, how to use the full backs, where to place the playmaker, what kind of sprints players have to make, how to win a “second ball”, how to counter-press, and eventually, how to score goals and win a match.

In short, this is a story of football tactics.

Zonal Marking brings us on a historical tour of tactics in European football that began in The Netherlands, then progressed to Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, detoured to Argentina (for a particular false 9 role), back to Europe in Germany, before finishing in England where all of the European styles eventually mixed up together in the 2010s Premier League.

And what a fascinating journey. The evolution of football tactics was narrated using some of the most memorable matches in both club and country across these 7 main European footballing countries, with the long analysis of 1990s Italian Seri A in particular brings back many fond memories for me, with nostalgic mentions of great (but probably a bit forgotten) players such as Moreno Toricelli, Gianluca Pessotto, Angelo Di Livio, Paulo Sousa, Zvonimir Boban, Marcio Amaroso, Ariel Ortega, Taribo West, Marco Delvecchio, Christian Panucci, etc, among the usual superstars such as Pirlo, Ronaldo, Maldini, Nedved, Vieri, Nesta, Batistuta, and Totti.

The book also spills the drama, tensions, and the behind-the-scene infightings. I was particularly surprised when learning about how tactically inefficient Zidane was for France, how Del Piero and Inzaghi did not actually get along but Marcello Lippi can still make it work for them at Juventus, how difficult it was at first to adapt the whole Barcelona team to Lionel Messi, and what really happened when Mourinho opted to use Diego Lopez instead of Iker Casillas in Real Madrid’s goal.

But ultimately, the sheer majority of this book are filled with deep tactical analysis of the matches, and the specific role of the players in them, that would make us see them in a completely different light.

It is an explanation of why Rivaldo and Giafranco Zola initially played at left midfield of a 4-4-2 instead as a number 10, why Roberto Carlos played a wingback role at Inter, why Dennis Bergkamp scored more goals than target man Marco Van Basten, why attack-minded Sinisa Mihajlovic can become a defender wearing no 11 shirt, what is Guardiola’s “15-pass rule” and why did his Barcelona team fielded a 3-7-0 formation in FIFA club World Cup final.

It is also an explanation why Portugal specifically produce great wingers, why Claude Makelele was Real Madrid’s best player during the galactico era, how did Germany beat Brazil 7-1, why Ozil was ineffective in Arsenal, why Ribery and Robben were integral in Bayern Munich, why defending champion France lost to a debutan Senegal at the opening of World Cup 2002, and how on earth can Greece won the Euro 2004.

In a way, this book is like the prequel of Michael Cox’s first book, The Mixer, that tells about the evolution of tactics in the Premier League, as Zonal Marking ended in the same spot as The Mixer in English football, which fitted nicely. It is another masterpiece by Michael Cox, intriguing from start to finish, I enjoyed every reading minute of it.