This is one of the best football books I've ever read. Michael is of course renowned on the internet for looking at individual football games and analyzing them well beyond the typical questions of whether a goal was "stunning" or a red card was "unfair". He looks at patterns - running patterns, passing patterns, tactical patterns. With Zonal Marking he is able to take his brilliantly analytical approach and apply it on a macro scale, looking at the development and evolution of modern European football over the past 25 years.
But it is even more than that! It's not just about tactical concepts like "space", "verticality" and "gegenpressing”. The book is also full of quirky anecdotes, interesting quotes, vivid descriptions of particularly important matches, goals and individual contributions. As such, even though the analysis of each chapter is sharp and well-argued, the book is never dry. For every discussion of Dutch obsession about the concept of "space" there is a series of quotes by Van Gaal and Cruyf taking pot-shots at each other followed by a brilliant move-by-move description of a Bergkamp goal. For every look at Mourinho’s new approach to physical conditioning or Juve full-backs switching sides, there is an anecdote of Hristo Stoichkov punching a photographer at the hospital where the wife of his buddy (and rival), Romario, had given birth. It’s great stuff!
The structure of the book works extremely well. Each part deals with the particular contributions by a given European football nation during its particular period of dominance. This includes that nation’s league, clubs, national team, players and – most pertinently – the coaches from those nations. This allows Cox to go through all of the features that make modern football what it is today - but with an added historical flow and an appreciation of certain influencers and innovators as well as national characteristics. In places, it veers close to feeling contrived, but it never is. Just when I feel that Cox is about to take a point a bit too far, he provides a counter-argument himself. It makes the book feel balanced and thoughtful, and its structure is not a straightjacket.
All the chapter transitions happen smoothly, and to me, the author never seems to think that certain features “belonged” to one footballing nation/coach/player and them alone, then and forever. On the contrary, it weaves a story of how loads of clubs and national sides have been inspired by Ajax’ playing from the back, later by Italian tactics, then by French speed, followed by Mourinho’s focus on transitions, then by Spanish possession obsession, afterwards by German gegenpressing, all of which are then well and thoroughly mixed and showcased in the multinational English Premier League. Nations and individuals inspiring each other and creating new and better results. A good example is Guardiola and his thesis (tiki-taka), anti-thesis (high-intensity German pressing) and synthesis (a Spanish-German hybrid full of innovative tactics and increased unpredictability compared to Guardiola’s own Braca).
The narrative really works terrifically. In the epilogue, Cox even goes a bit poetic about how distinct national characteristics are still present and are still important. Happily, in this day and age, European nations only clash for 90 (or 120) minutes at a time. The rest of the time, football is about inspiring and being inspired across national borders. The author even wonders if the lack of English football innovation stems from the fact that English footballers are relatively more reluctant to move abroad in search of new opportunities compared to their Spanish, French and German counterparts. Maybe that is why the Premier League has not been won by an English coach since Leeds in 1991-92 (when it was called First Division)? It’s an interesting point that the “birthplace of football” has had the least marked influence on the rest of Europe, while it now incorporates players and coaches from all over the continent, providing the perhaps most thrilling league of them all. Made me personally think of broader cultural and political parallels to Brexit, but that’s a different story of course.
I also enjoyed that the book goes beyond “European” and beyond “modern” football. All of the chapters are anchored in the historic traditions/achievements/disappointments of the nation in question, going back half a century or more at times. This provided me with even more insight about eras of which I have only superficial knowledge. Likewise, influences from Latin America and Africa are included where appropriate, allowing certain chapters to have a flair of e.g. Brazil or Argentina – without losing focus.
I thoroughly enjoyed Cox’s previous book, The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines, which focused on 25 years of Premier League history. However, in my opinion, Zonal Marking – the Making of European Football is an even better book and an even bigger must-read for any football fan. It provides analyses and showcases patterns but without sacrificing drama and memorable moments. It is thoughtful but never dry. My only slight gripe is the lack of illustrations (of formations or tactics – such as in Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics) or photos (of particularly memorable moments or teams). They would have added something extra and helped illustrate some of the tactical points – just as Cox usually does on his website, zonalmarking.net. It’s a minor thing, however, and it does not stop this from being an exhilarating, well-researched, thought-provoking page-turner! Perfect for a summer without football – or at any other time, of course!