Zonal Marking has become the standard bearer for tactical analysis on the web and beyond. It's creator & regular contributor to 'Football Weekly' Michael Cox took time out to speak to IBWM's David Hartrick...
It’s often said that football is a ‘simple’ game and on the surface the sentiment rings true. If you broke each match down to its most basic elements all it requires is 22 men, 2 teams, and 1 ball.
Beyond that however lies the real game, system against system in a fluid and ever changing battle. Top flight football is a movable feast for the tactician, no longer one 4-4-2 against another but a war of attrition, often played out between several formations over the 90 minutes. At the very highest level the devil really is in the detail and the demand for an inside track on the tactical battle has never been greater.
Standing at the very head of that coverage is the hugely popular website ‘Zonal Marking’. Started by Michael Cox, the site provides an unrivalled level of detailed analysis from games across the football world. Zonal Marking tapped into a desire for a different approach to football coverage and continues to set the standards for others to reach. Finding time between games to have a few words with us, IBWM's David Hartrick took the chance to speak to Michael about the site, the game, and football coverage in general…
Welcome to IBWM and a huge thanks for your time Michael. I’ve always wondered what was the genesis of the site - was it a long held dream, a reaction to something, or did you have an entirely different motivation?
My pleasure, I’m flattered you want to talk to me. The basic idea was just to look at matches in a slightly different way to normal match reports, to try and explain some of the happenings of games. I’d been watching matches and casually taking notes since about 2003ish, so essentially it was a natural development of that. I suppose it was a ‘reaction’ to the lack of tactical coverage in British newspapers as a whole, it seemed like a gap in the market, though I mean that from a ‘I hope people will read this’ sense rather than a business sense.
What’s the process involved in going into the levels of tactical detail you achieve - do you research each game on an individual basis and look for familiar patterns from kick-off, or is each match a blank slate to make notes on as it goes along?
You generally know what to expect from the teams, so yes, I research before the game and find out the sides’ usual way of setting up. I basically try and identify the formations, and specific roles of individual players, and then how the sides are matching up. Often, if it’s 4-5-1 v 4-5-1, you know what to expect. It’s much more interesting when you have one or two unusual systems that are different from each other – from a tactical point of view it makes things better, and – though I can’t really see things from any other point of view these days – I think it makes for a better spectacle too. You tend to get a lot of tactical variety in Italy which is why I cover it a lot, Germany increasingly so as well.
A friend of mine described the recent World Cup as an ‘orgy for the tactician’, obvious examples being an evolution of the ‘front 3’, the deployment of two holding midfielders, and Uruguay proving 4-4-2 wasn’t necessarily dead. Tactically is a variation on a front 3 going to be the biggest legacy from South Africa, or has another pattern emerged as the various seasons have begun?
I’m not sure the front three was a particularly large part of the World Cup. The predominant formation was 4-2-3-1 and that generally took the form of one central striker supported by a high playmaker, with the two wingers dropped back level with the holding midfielders when they didn’t have the ball. For the majority of the tournament, Sneijder and Ozil played much higher up the pitch than the two wingers they were fielded alongside, so you could argue that it was a front one, a front two or even a front four – Germany looked like 4-2-4 on the break – but probably not a front three. Spain’s system was slightly different, as their wingers were higher and Xavi was deep in the central role, so that was maybe more of a front three.
The thing about the 4-2-3-1 however, is that it’s very open to fluidity and versatility. Holland, Spain, Germany and Brazil all had starting bases of 4-2-3-1, but they were all very different shapes in reality, they’d all been turned into more individual systems that need further explanation than simply 4-2-3-1. There was an element of lop-sidedness to Holland, Spain and Brazil too, which was also interesting.
I thought that the World Cup was going to influence a lot of defensive football across the leagues and wrote a piece on it with some questionable mathematics to outline why. Porto and Greece were successful in 2004 and it prompted a wave of defensive football at the start of 2004/05 in the Premier League. It looked like my theory was complete nonsense when we had all those 6-0s at the start of the season but things have calmed down a bit. I haven’t checked the average goals per game stats, I’ll have to look them up…
Besides the text book answers of Arsenal, Chile, Spain, Barcelona, and increasingly Mourinho’s Madrid, who are the teams you really enjoy watching?
Zenit St Petersburg are good to watch, they feature a central striker who moves out wide, with a fluid midfield trio and two tricky wide players looking to take advantage of that space. Villarreal have been impressive so far this season, the movement between the forwards, the wingers, and the full-backs works excellently. Napoli are interesting because they play a 3-4-3 which is quite rare in modern football, and it’s interesting to see how they adapt to different opponents. Werder Bremen have also provided interest, they seem to change their shape regularly, they often play with Almeida and Pizarro, two central strikers, which is quite rare at the moment, and they use their midfielders in different roles to suit the situation.
Has it ever become a chore? What I mean by that is do you ever wish you could watch a game without worrying about the tactical reasons the score’s 4-3 and just enjoy the drama?
Not really, to be honest I’ve always viewed the game in those sorts of terms anyway and for the games that matter I like to watch them in an incredibly concentrated way - I can’t stand watching games at a pub for example. For me a football match is like a film with a complicated plot that you have to pay attention to, I know I’m in the minority there and in a way it must be nice to watch the game in purely emotional terms. There was a piece in When Saturday Comes recently that implied that those people who watch games from a ‘tactical’ point of view are somehow looking down on those who don’t - I think this was influenced by a book by some arrogant-sounding Australian chap that the author of the piece was reviewing - but it’s certainly not where I’m coming from. Enjoying the game is the main thing, regardless of how you view it.
Did you ever think the site would grow to the level of popularity it now enjoys? For example during the recent Shearer/Ben Arfa debate, Zonal Marking became the corner stone of the argument for a more ‘intelligent’ level of football coverage…
That was nice - although I’ve never made the site out to sound intelligent, I don’t have a strapline going ‘football coverage…only intelligent’ or anything like that, but in terms of popularity no, I didn’t. I hoped it would be well-received and basically hoped to find people that saw football in the same kind of terms and appreciated the emphasis upon tactics, and I was confident it could sustain a decent audience. But I’ve been delighted with its popularity, of course – but also not completely surprised in another respect, because football fans are not uneducated, ill-informed, and stupid, which seems to be the impression in some quarters in the mainstream media. In fact, as obvious as this might sound, football fans know a hell of a lot about football. The amount of detailed knowledge we all have about minor events that happened ten years ago…irrelevant statistics…that kind of thing, is amazing. People dedicate a large part of their lives to following football, so it’s not surprising that they seek out intelligent discussion and analysis - if people view my site like that, great!
While I know it’s a broad question what’s your take on the level of football coverage currently on offer in all media? I’ve argued that we are currently at the zenith as every group is covered for in some capacity whether you’re the devotee or the most casual of fans.
I know what you mean. The Internet means almost anyone can set up a site or a podcast, and there’s an insane amount of football coverage out there now. Remember in the old days in the off-season when there’d be no football news in the summer, there’d only be about four stories on Teletext, and the papers wouldn’t have anything on it? Now you’d barely notice the off-season in terms of volume of blog posts on football…
…and that, of course, is not to say it is anything like a bad thing because some of the stuff I read that is exclusively available online – I’m talking the blogs by people like Danny Last, Chris Mann, Tim Hill, Tom Williams, Iain Macintosh and of course IBWM - is outstanding and I think some of the people who haven’t embraced ‘new media’ would be absolutely astounded if they read some of that stuff for the first time.
In terms of quality ‘it’s varied’ I think would be the fair answer – but then it’s a varied audience, so that’s natural. The World Cup saw a pretty low point reached with certain aspects of the coverage – the public backlash at some of that was fairly audible and I think and hope people will learn their lessons.
The one thing I always say when anyone asks me this question is that the least pundits, journalists and commentators can do is be positive. I’m not saying lie and hype a 0-0 bore into some match of the season, but there’s no point complaining about how bad a game is if you’re being paid to inform and entertain people about it. I love people like Andy Gray and David Pleat because they’re so enthusiastic about the game. A lot of people aren’t massive fans of Gray but I love how excited he gets and how you can tell how much he loves football. He does this thing when something amazing happens in a game he’s commentating on and he says something like ‘Cor, no wonder we love this game!’ - I love that, that’s exactly how I feel. Pleat’s the same, he starts his broadcasts with ‘Good evening everybody!’, brilliant. You might think it stupid that I consider such a small thing so important, but just with saying that it shows that he acknowledges and respects his audience, and he’s also understood that this is a show - a spectacle that he’s introducing. Some others could learn from that.
Has anyone in the game ever used the site for analysis and similarly, has anyone in the game ever spoken to you to correct something you’ve written about?
I’ve had nice emails from people working at a couple of Premier League clubs which is nice, I’m not sure to what extent the analysis helped. No dissenting voices from within the game, as yet.
Is there a part of you that harbours a desire to one day get the chance to work with a football club in a ‘consultancy’ role? Although this season’s going extremely well so far *ahem* I know for a fact Brighton & Hove Albion will take any help that’s offered…
Not particularly I must say. I certainly wouldn’t turn down such a role, but really it wasn’t something I’d considered or something I think particularly likely to happen. I think of myself as a writer who happens to write about tactics rather than a football coach who writes – if that makes sense – and there’s possibly a huge difference between what fans want to read as ‘entertainment’ and what clubs need to know in terms of their own team, or in terms of scouting future teams.
You recently made your debut for Football Weekly, the Guardian’s Podcast hosted by someone readers of this site will know I harbour a huge amount of respect for - James Richardson. How was it and are you in line for further appearances?
Yes, I’ve done it twice now and it’s very enjoyable. It was a bit of a challenge first time around as it’s not something I’m used to, but I was asked back for a second time so I can’t have been a disaster and I’m in the swing of things now. Like so many I was an absolutely huge fan of Football Italia and as much as the quality of football was fantastic and it’s great to reminisce about the Serie A legends of the 1990s, the thing everyone always mentions was how good James Richardson was so to be appearing alongside him is honestly a great honour.
I was a keen listener for a few years so getting to go on it is great. In fact, listening to Football Weekly on Tuesday and Friday mornings on the train was genuinely always the bright spot in the ten hours between leaving my house for work in the morning and returning in the evening - I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of it like that, so I’m very conscious to try and contribute towards an entertaining show when I’m invited on.
And finally with another huge thanks for your time, the question that everyone has to answer in agreeing to an interview with the site – favourite Maradona moment?
The first one that springs to mind is the Klinsmann style dive across the pitch when Argentina got the winner against Peru in the qualifiers last year, it just speaks for itself. Of all the bonkers things he did as a player…for a manager to behave like that, absolutely awful and absolutely fantastic in equal measure!
The exceptional site in question can be found at www.zonalmarking.net and in the unlikely chance that you haven’t come across it, you should immediately head there to understand what all the fuss is about. You can follow the Michael on twitter as @Zonal_Marking and the site also has a Facebook page you can join.
The Guardian’s Football Weekly Podcast is available through iTunes and on the newspaper’s website at www.guardian.co.uk/football/series/footballweekly. Michael’s appearances to date have been on this season’s 23rd September and October 28th pods.
If you’d like to read more from David, please visit his fantastic blog, I know who Cyrille Makanaky was.