Book Review: Zonal Marking

‘Zonal marking’ is now a permanent feature of the footballing lexicon, acknowledged (to varying degrees) by everyone from Pep Guardiola to Owen Coyle. Whilst its prominence might have more to do with Rafa Benitez than Michael Cox, it’s fair to say that the co-founder of ZonalMarking.net is the scribe most favourably placed to name his second book after the system.

Following the success of ‘The Mixer’, Cox’s account of the Premier League’s evolution, the author has turned his attention to European football. ‘Zonal Marking’ explores the playing styles which have illuminated the game on the continent over the last 25 years, examining the approach of dominant clubs, personalities of key players and philosophies espoused by leading coaches.

With such a broad landscape to trawl through – Cox manages to incorporate analysis of Dutch, Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German and English tactics – the book settles on a structure which lends a narrative arc to proceedings. Beginning with an interrogation of the characteristics which defined ‘Total Football’ and Ajax’s approach during the early 90s, we are taken chronologically through periods of prominence enjoyed by the major European leagues. This journey spans the ‘seven sisters’ era which defined Serie A until the turn of the millennium, through to last season’s re-emergence of English clubs as genuine contenders for the continent’s top honours.

The format allows Cox to show the evolution of European football, from predilection for touchline-hugging wingers to false 9 and back again. The degree and pace of change over the last 25 years is striking. No sooner has Holland’s emphasis on ball-playing defenders and teamwork been superseded by the physicality and individualism favoured by Juventus, AC Milan, Inter et al, than France’s collection of quicksilver forwards are defining the game (and seemingly giving Jamie Carragher a ready supply of treacle to run through).

Inevitably, England’s contribution to this evolution is less memorable, with Cox defining the Premier League as an amalgam of different European styles, in a final chapter which feels slightly shoe-horned into the chronology.

This is a minor quibble, though, which Cox compensates for in the form of a typically detailed analysis of Portugal’s influence on European football from 2004 – 2008. The country’s devotion to structure, close connection with South America and production line of fleet-footed wingers are closely scrutinised, providing some fascinating insights.

The attention to detail which has defined Portuguese coaches over the last decade is traced back to two books written by a secret agent either side of the Second World War. Football: tecnica e tatica (Football: Techniques and Tactics) and Evolucao tactica no futebol (The Evolution of Football Tactics), penned by former national team manager and Herbert Chapman protege Candido de Oliveira, are heralded as one of three key influences on the likes of Mourinho, Queiroz and Villas Boas. Cox also highlights the role played by Bela Guttmann and Jose Maria Pedroto, who pioneered the use of statistical analysts in the 1970s.

This studiousness typifies Cox’s ‘playing style’, with anecdotes involving a Barca goalkeeper turned American football placekicker and the 1950 Iranian military football team, typical of his eye for detail. Whilst not quite hitting the heights of the training ground tales that made ‘The Mixer’ such an entertaining read, the stories provide necessary light relief in a book which is consciously aimed at the xG side of the football supporter spectrum.

Cox finishes the book with a brief note on the broader genesis of tactical philosophies, arguing that Dutch liberalism, French multiculturalism and Catalan independence are intrinsically linked to the playing styles exhibited by Holland, France and Spain. It’s a welcome reminder of the influence and ideas which stem from football, although this isn’t a Simon Barnes-esque exploration of the meaning of sport. Indeed, ‘Zonal Marking’ sticks strictly to its brief throughout, providing readers with an excellent introduction to both European football history and the playing styles which have defined the last 25 years. Accusations of ‘zonal whoever’ are surely a thing of the past.