In life, it takes time to create successful ideas and concepts. Scientists and researchers spend years, even decades, analyzing and studying data to create trials or a study before publishing the results to the world. Making bold claims like a certain food additive can cause cancer or the trickle of water in the Arctic is a precursor to global warming is not something that can be thought, tested, and announced definitively in a matter of months. Soccer managers, however, cannot rely on thorough trial and error to change. With an average tenure of about one year, depending on the league, managers have a narrow window to get their tactics right, then a small window to constantly prove themselves again and again.
I mention this because it may seem odd at first to take a 17-year period and be able to identify seven overarching and different tactical revolutions in soccer in Europe. However, Michael Cox has long established himself as a tactical observer par excellence and his new book argues that the dominant soccer cultures in Europe in the recent past have existed for merely 2-4 years. Zonal Marking: From Ajax to Zidane, the Making of Modern Soccer makes the claim that we have seen six dominant styles of soccer in Europe since 1992 with each based around a national soccer culture. A seventh, emerging culture he claims is the culmination of the sixteen years of rapid change.
Cox starts the narrative with Holland in the early 1990s, an obvious place due to Ajax’s last gasp of dominance until recent years as well as the success of the national team. Similar to The Barcelona Inheritance, Cox focuses on the Dutch managers of the time, how Cruyff and the Dutch way influenced their thinking, and how van Gaal deviated from Cruyff to create his own coaching tree. Unlike Jonathan Wilson’s book, however, Cox next shifts to Italy, which was undergoing its own soccer renaissance. Again, drawing from both the domestic league and national team, he weaves a narrative of Italy trying to escape a catenaccio reputation but still being reliant on a strong defensive backbone to its tactical thinking. The first two chapters are by far the strongest arguments in the book and I daresay some of the best tactical analysis in print.
From there, the book begins to weaken simply due to its premise. The reality is in the modern game of soccer, there is not a national style of play because often there is a divide between club and country. A great example is his chapter on France, which focuses on the successes and tactics of the national side. Unlike Italy and the Dutch, however, the French domestic league was lacking at the highest level (although not at the developmental level). It’s hard to say that there was a French revolution, but more of a French national side revolution. The same can be said for the Portuguese chapter, which focused on Jose Mourinho and the moderate success of the national team. These success of this manager and national team was influenced by traditional Portuguese soccer thought, but in The Special One’s case we know how much Van Gaal and the Dutch/Spanish tradition also impacted his management.
It’s hard to quibble too much with the book’s overall premise, however, because the writing is vintage Cox. He brings a tactical insight and strategic thought to the game that only a handful of other writers can approach, and his take on the past almost 20 years of European soccer and the constant adjustments made is wonderful to read. His structure also highlights the essential nature of the modern soccer manager – adjust or be fired. Pep Guardiola spans three eras in this book because he constantly adjusts his tactics but not his style. In that way, he stands in contrast to many of the other greats named in the book who tweak and change but cannot consistently do so. The greatest value in this book (besides the usually excellent writing) is the point that soccer is an ever changing sport.
Zonal Marking is a valuable read for the more savvy soccer fan, one who enjoys a good tactical discussion or just reliving the recent soccer past in Europe. The only caution I give is to not get too caught up in the book’s overall premise of nationalistic changes to the game – enjoy each chapter as its own vignette or article and there is how you will get the most out of Michael Cox’s latest book.
Zonal Marking: From Ajax to Zidane, the Making of Modern Soccer is available via Amazon and all fine booksellers.