When tactics were not as discussed in the media as they are today, Michael Cox started writing about them in his website Zonal Marking. It began as a hobby, but then developed into something much bigger: Michael, who writes for the Guardian and ESPN, is now one of the main tactics writer in the English media. His first book ‘The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics’ will be released this Thursday 1st of June.
What will readers find in ‘The Mixer’?
It’s basically the history of the development of the playing style in the Premier League. The progress in the Premier League is often considered in financial and business terms, but I think that the change in the way that English football has been played in the last 25 years is really remarkable. If you go back to 1992, everyone played 4-4-2, everyone played long-balls, the midfielders didn’t pass the ball out well, it was all about tackling… And since then it has developed into a much more technical and tactical league. So the book charts the progress during those 25 years.
How naive were English sides, in a tactical sense?
We did not really do much tactics. You would have your specific way of playing and you wouldn’t change that too much between games. Tactics were considered a result of the players you had; they were seen as a consequence rather than a plan.
You must have watched a lot of games while working on the book. Was it a long process?
Yes, quite a long process. I think that I watched about 100 games overall. But it was also about reading news reports from the time, autobiographies and getting players accounts on what happened. The book covers the tactical development, but as much as the in-depth analysis of games, it is also about telling stories.
Do you believe that foreign influence has been a key element in the development of tactics in the Premier League?
Yes, completely. I think that almost every innovation has come from foreign players and foreign managers. In the first weekend of the Premier League there were only 11 foreign players in the entire division. It was almost completely English. Then you had a wave of generally kind of deep lying forwards, foreign players, who came over and basically made football more technical — particularly Eric Cantona, but also Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola, Juninho, Georgi Kinkladze… And I think that they changed the way their teams played. They didn’t just always go down the wings and cross the ball; they also wanted to play through the centre. And then you had the foreign managers. Initially with Arsène Wenger, who didn’t change so much tactically, but changed a lot in terms of the physiological approach to football: he made things a lot more professional. The later arrival of Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho in 2004 was a real landmark moment. They both had won the different European trophies before coming over. They had different ideas about tactics, they played different systems: Mourinho played a 4-3-3; Benítez, a 4-2-3-1 — and they also paid a lot more attention to the opposition. They prepared their players more specifically for the individual games. That was something that in England we had been quite reluctant to do, it was almost a sign of weakness if you looked at the opposition. But Benítez and Mourinho really changed that.
From all the Premier League teams that you have watched, which have captivated you the most?
The one I found particularly interesting was the Newcastle team of 1995/96, when they almost won the league. They were really fascinating because they almost didn’t have any tactics at all, didn’t talk about the opposition, played the same way every week and were really attack-minded. In more recent times: Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool team of 2014, when they nearly won the league, were really interesting because they were also very attacking. Rodgers changed his style at Liverpool. He started talking a lot about possession dominance, but they actually became a very reactive counterattacking team. In terms of a team that has changed something and then had a really big impact almost overnight, I would probably say Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. They changed their formation very dramatically and it had an immediate impact on their performances. The Premier League is at its most tactical times, and this season has been really fascinating because almost everyone has changed to three in the back and started to play in a different way.
Why do you think that Conte’s tactical switch had such a positive effect?
I think that the aspect that teams have struggled the most to cope with have been their wing-backs. When the wing-backs pushed forward and played in advance positions, it almost formed a front five and overloaded the opposition’s back four. But they combined that with a really solid structure in deeper positions. They always had Matic and Kanté in front of the back three, so even though they were playing at times with a front five, they weren’t leaving themselves vulnerable to counterattacks. I think that opponents struggled to get into the right shape to deal with that. A lot of teams found that the best way was to play a back five or a back three themselves in order to match Chelsea’s system.
For you, which has been the best tactical display of the season?
Probably Tottenham when they beat Chelsea 2-0 at White Hart Lane in January. They went with a back three to match Chelsea and controlled the game really well. The two goals were practically identical: twice Eriksen crossing from the right and twice Alli heading in, coming from the inside-left position. It felt like they had planned them. They had exploited the fact that Gary Cahill isn’t the most mobile defender and that Azpilicueta is really good on the floor but not so much in the air. They planned the overall performance really well.
Would you say that Mauricio Pochettino is amongst the best tacticians? And how would you define his team’s style of playing?
Yes, I think he is really good. He is unique amongst the top managers in the Premier League in the sense that he hasn’t won a title before, everyone else is older and have more experience, but he has created a really good team at Tottenham. To define it, I would say that it is essentially based on a lot of physicality, on pressing and winning the ball very high up in the pitch and on keeping a high defensive line. The physical capability of the players, such as their full-backs’ ability to split up and down the line, has been crucial. They have been really good at pressing, staying really compact and organised. It is also important that Christian Eriksen has had a good season. He is the player that provides the creativity needed so that it isn’t just about running a lot.
Staying in North London, what do you think of Arsenal’s performance while playing a back three?
Playing with a back three has helped Arsenal a lot. They were struggling with the previous system. This formation has given new responsibilities to the players and it has worked nicely. It has also brought the best out from a couple of young players: Rob Holding has been really good in defence and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been excellent as a wing-back.
Up in Manchester, what are the main handicaps that Pep Guardiola has faced while trying to develop his football idea at City?
He made a big play at the fact that he was surprised by the number of long balls and second balls in English football. I think that he might be surprised by the extent to which Premier League players aren’t used to train in the tactical manner he used at Bayern and Barcelona. Maybe he has been frustrated because his players have been slow in understanding and embracing his methods. That’s probably the major factor explaining his struggle this season. But they are gonna sign a few players this summer — in defensive position that is much needed. I don’t think that Guardiola’s methods have become obsolete, but I’m not sure that they suited the squad nor the mentality of the players in terms of tactical training.
What about his counterpart at United? His team has been accused in some matches of being too reactive rather than proactive…
Yeah, I would certainly say it’s true. They are always reactive in big games against big oppositions, and I don’t think there something wrong with that, but they probably need to be a bit more attack-minded and creative in some home matches against smaller sides. This season they drew so many games at home, but they also missed a lot of chances. With a couple of new players they will be a better and more attacking team. I think that they are currently lacking a player in the final third. It looks like they are going to get Antoine Griezmann. He would solve a lot of their problems in terms of linking attacking midfield areas with stretching areas. Overall, I don’t think Mourinho has done too much wrong; it has been a good season for United.
Alongside Tottenham and City, Klopp’s Liverpool is also known for its pressing. What does a team need in order to apply a successful high pressing approach?
It has to be really fit to do it for 90 minutes, and a defence that is comfortable high up the pitch. It also needs to be really organised; pressing is about fitness, but also about organisation. If you press and you leave a gap, then there can be huge problems. Being really organised and also running really hard is a difficult mix. When a team gets it right, it is impressively effective.
Out of the top sides, has any team surprised you tactically?
To be honest, not really. There was such a big divide between the top-7 and everyone else. But if I had to pick someone, I would pick Burnley; it is interesting how they defend really deep and then counterattack really quick and play long balls. But it has not been a particularly interesting season in terms of tactics outside the top of the table. There have been a lot of poor sides struggling not to fall to the bottom of the table.
Time for a really ambiguous concept: how would you define ‘playing good football’?
To me, playing good football is having a particular style and having an identity. Whether that is playing possession football, playing counterattacking football, playing with width…whatever it is, I think that having a good defined attacking philosophy is really important. Personally, I like to watch teams who like to keep the ball, but I don’t necessarily like to watch to two teams against each other who both want to keep the ball; I prefer when you have a clash of styles. The good thing about football is that there is still a wide diversity of styles.
Do you feel that people talk more about tactics nowadays?
Yes, I think that there has been a big change in the last few years. Partly because of the coverage online, but also due to some pundits, like Gary Neville or Jamie Carragher, who talk much more about football in a tactical sense. I think that people have realised that this is an area of football that can be covered in depth in an interesting way without being too technical.