The graphs, diagrams and match reports on Zonal Marking are pored over by thousands of football fans the world over and have helped push tactical analysis towards the centre of mainstream football debate in the United Kingdom. Set up in January this year, the phenomenally successful website received an average of 210,000 visitors per week during the World Cup and counts tactical mastermind Jonathan Wilson among its many admirers.
Variously believed to be the work of either a particularly public-spirited professional coach or a crack team of disaffected former Opta employees, the force behind ZM is in fact one man: Michael Cox. He very kindly agreed to grant his first interview to Football Further.
FF: A simple question to begin with. Why write about tactics?
MC: On an ’emotional’ level, it’s something that’s always interested me. There’s something of interest in almost every game, and you spot patterns and long-term trends that are actually more important, if less exciting, than one-off moments of magic.
On a less romantic note: because to create a successful blog/site, there has to be a niche, a particular area of interest. It seemed like a bit of a gap in the market. My favourite blogs are the ones that focus on specific areas: Les Rosbifs about English players abroad, or European Football Weekends about away trips. You know there’s going to be a constant theme, you know they’re the definitive source on that area, you know it’s going to be well-researched and display good knowledge. There should be more sites like that – down to really specific things. I love tactics, but if ZM already existed, I would have done it about something else; another niche area.
I write down the teams in full, along with numbers. I also have a magnetic mini chalkboard thing with counters, which is better than drawing a diagram out with a pen. Then it’s just a case of making notes about everything that’s notable, and then finding patterns. People sometimes think that the site is a bit know-it-all, but it’s amazing the number of times that I note something like “the left-back gets drawn to the ball too easily,” and the opposition score by exploiting the space in behind the left-back within ten minutes. As for not missing anything, Sky+ helps! It also means you can go back and pause the game when the camera angle switches to views where you can see the whole pitch, to see what’s going on.
Interest in tactics in the United Kingdom has only really gathered pace since the publication of Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting the Pyramid in 2008. Why have British football fans – and journalists – been so slow on the uptake?
Probably because no-one had done it well until Inverting the Pyramid, and Jonathan’s book was not just very detailed and fascinating, it was accessible, enjoyable and not like a boring coaching manual. It was a story. It probably took someone as good a writer as Jonathan to do that – just like when ‘underground’ music genres break through into the mainstream, it takes a good band to do it. There’s a hell of a lot of research that went into the book, a lot of it original. But it’s like any innovation or invention. After the wheel was invented, people probably wondered why no-one had done it before!
There’s a significant body of thought in the UK that asserts that the importance of tactics is wildly exaggerated and that games are really determined by more prosaic factors like hard work, effort and good old-fashioned luck. What do you say to people who tell you tactics don’t matter?
They certainly matter. They don’t matter as much as you’d think if you only read ZM, but then it’s a tactics website. (An oft-repeated complaint in the comments section is that ZM focuses on the tactics, when actually the game was decided by a refereeing decision, a lucky deflection etc. Which is entirely fair – tactics aren’t the only thing, or arguably even the main thing – but it misses the point: it’s a website about tactics. It would be like an article on a website about drums saying how good the drumming on, say, a Beatles track is, and people commenting, “But how can you ignore the guitars and the vocals?”) Tactics unquestionably do matter – you can see that simply by shifts in the way games progress following a substitution, and by trends that occur over the long-term. If it’s not about tactics, how come the pyramid has been inverted?
A common observation on ZM is that, for example, a team playing 4-3-3 will always be able to dominate a team playing 4-4-2 in central midfield and is therefore always likely to prevail against them. If that is the case, why do so many highly paid and well regarded coaches persist with what appear to be unbalanced formations? Can it really be that simple?
There’s definitely patterns, although it’s never simply an x > y thing. With 4-3-3 and 4-4-2, 4-3-3 obviously tends to dominate the centre of the pitch, and that’s more important now than 20 years ago because there’s so much more focus upon possession than there was 20 years ago. 4-4-2 is a more direct system, but people can still be successful with it, in certain circumstances, and maybe only up to a certain level. Some managers are just set in their ways, some aren’t good at embracing change and understanding how the game has progressed. But using a new system is quite brave considering how little time managers are given these days, as it’s often a gamble to get a group of players to play a different way.
The success of ZM has prompted a marked rise in the number of people blogging about tactics. Do you think there’s room for detailed tactical analysis in mainstream football media – perhaps as a complement to traditional match reports – or will tactical writing always be confined to the wilds of the blogosphere?
There’s certainly a place for it. Whether it’s online or in print, it’s difficult to say without bringing in the wider issue of the decline of print journalism and the rise of online journalism. But it has to change slightly, simply because football viewing has changed so much in the past 15 years, and newspapers haven’t quite caught up. Fifteen years ago, you’d have two Premiership matches on TV each weekend, and for the rest you’d only get 5-10 minute highlights on Match of the Day. That was it – if you wanted to know more about the game, you’d have to either go to it, or you’d read about it in the newspapers. Nowadays, there are four games on [TV] a weekend, Sky do 45-minute highlights of every Premiership game, and you can watch pretty much every game on the internet through dodgy websites. So many more people are watching the game, that there’s less of a need for a report that simply says what happened. You need more – analysis, insight, etc. Sometimes I sit down and read a match report and think, “Why am I bothering? I watched the game, I don’t need to be told what happened.” That’s a slight exaggeration but is rooted in truth.
It’s great if there’s more interest in tactical stuff, but my favourite two blogs for tactical stuff are yours and Arsenal Column, both of which pre-dated ZM. (I also love Tim Hill, not sure when he started). That probably says a lot – I think writing about tactics is fairly niche. A few people have set up blogs that they’ve told me were inspired by ZM, which is a tremendously nice, but I think you have to be really into it. As I said before, I think the ‘success’ of ZM (not my words!) is not necessarily because of the subject matter itself, but because it was about something different, something in particular. The blogosphere is, I think, on the verge of being potentially really ‘big’ in football, as it has been in political coverage. There’s a lot of great writers and importantly, some pros who do great blogs too (proper blogs, not just online newspaper columns called ‘blogs’) like yourself, Iain Macintosh or Kay Murray.
It’s been said that the classic playmaker is a dying breed, but the World Cup featured plenty of influential creative players – including Xavi, Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Özil – who played in advanced, central positions behind a lone central forward. What’s changed?
I’m not sure I quite see them as a classic playmaker. They’re not like [Juan Carlos] Valerón, Rui Costa, and [Juan Román] Riquelme. Sneijder and Özil played very close to the forward, which might be a new role as you’ve discussed very nicely. Sneijder didn’t really do much playmaking, did he? He was essentially there as a goalscorer. Özil was superb, but he only did well when he was given space between the lines. Australia pressed high and left him free. Ghana let him wander in behind the midfield. England had no proper holding player. Xavi was a strange case. I don’t think it was his best position, but he was still incredible because he’s Xavi. Spain just played such a distinct possession-based approach that they could put a central midfielder in a number 10 role. I’m not completely convinced anything has quite changed in terms of the decline of the playmaker, although a lot of people disagreed with that piece in the first place. But I think they tend to be higher or deeper or more versatile than ten years ago.
Full-backs have become such important attacking elements in recent years that they often spend more time in the opposition’s half than their own. Why, then, do we keep referring to teams playing with a back four? Is it not time to accept that a 4-3-3 is really more akin to a 2-5-3, that a 4-2-3-1 is really a 2-4-3-1?
There’s a case for that. I’m a bit of a traditionalist though. On ZM for diagrams and notations I state that I take the side generally in their ‘defensive’ shape, where full-backs retreat into a solid back four. The exception comes when a side presses intensely, so that even when defending, they’re high up the pitch. Chile’s alternative shape, called 4-2-1-3 on ZM, was probably more of a 2-4-1-3. But I don’t really like that, the same way I don’t like five-band formations like 4-1-3-1-1 – it overcomplicates things. Even if 4-3-3 is wrong, people still know what it means, which is the main thing.
England’s failure at the World Cup was variously attributed to fatigue, lack of heart, lack of technique, lack of tactical flexibility and an inability to play anything other than blood-and-thunder 100mph Premier League football. How do you see it?
I thought tactics came down to it a lot, I stand by everything I wrote after the Germany game, because nothing has changed since then. [Fabio] Capello got a lot of things wrong. His basic mistake was that not one of his attacking players was in their favoured position, so it’s no wonder they looked lost. Tactically it was a complete disaster. The criticism of Capello has been tremendously harsh, though. He got things wrong, but you have to have faith that a manager as experienced and as successful as him can learn from his mistakes.
Assuming that studying tactics so intently has not completely diluted your passion for the game as a spectacle (!), which teams do you enjoy watching?
No, quite the opposite! People often ask if it makes football less enjoyable, but it’s not the case. Games that many people find boring, I find fascinating, and the more knowledge you have about football, the more you enjoy it. I’m convinced of that. Last season I had two particular favourites – Roma, who had a tremendous, unique formation that worked brilliantly, and a wonderful free-flowing approach to the game. Benfica were also a great side – [Óscar] Cardozo, [Javier] Saviola, [Pablo] Aimar, Ángel di María and Ramires in the same team, with [Maxi] Pereira and [Fábio] Coentrão attacking from full-back. Tremendous. I also like Zenit St Petersburg and Palermo at the moment.
What is it about Zenit and Palermo that particularly floats your boat?
Zenit are interesting because of their system: a striker who drifts to the flank and allows space for midfield runners. Danny is also a great player to watch; frustrating and underwhelming, but very, very talented. Palermo is mainly because of [Fabrizio] Miccoli and [Javier] Pastore, who are two of my favourite players around at the moment.
What advice would you give to people who want to develop their tactical understanding of the game?
Read ZM! No, I think there’s only two key ways: 1. Watch a lot of football; and 2. Read a lot of good writing about it. The emphasis falling on point one.