Show Hide image

Intelligent football: Michael Cox and the rise of tactical analysis

The Athletic journalist’s powers of observation have transformed the way we watch the game. 

 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

On 30 April 2019, during post-match coverage of a Champions League game, Graeme Souness, the irascible former Liverpool player and manager, declared that a game of football is “quite simple”. If you’re “first to the ball”, he said, tactics might come into play. But if you’re “second to the ball”, tactics go “out the window”. “I’m fed up with people talking bull about tactics and formations… Get first to the ball, you’ve got a chance in football. Don’t get first to the ball – you got no chance. Simple as.”

At 1:51 am the same night, Michael Cox, the football journalist and founder of the tactics website Zonal Marking, retweeted footage of Souness’s rant, accompanied by a crying-laughing emoji, to his 240,000 followers. Of the 50 replies prompted by Cox’s tweet, most agreed that Souness was, in the words of one user, “Dinosouness”– a relic of a bygone age, when football was all about headers and tackles and just “wanting it more”. As Cox wrote in the resulting Twitter thread, Souness’s no-nonsense conception of football “is completely out of keeping with the approach of every top-level manager”.

Yet Cox also believes that a taste for ideas is compatible with a belief in football’s so-called old-fashioned qualities. Writing in reply to a Souness apologist, he claimed that “no one has ever suggested that desire/ability aren’t important. It’s like creating a debate between ‘chefs coming up with a recipe’ and ‘having the right ingredients.’” Or as he told me last year, during one of a series of interviews, “‘Getting to the ball first’ is not the opposite of tactics”. Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp, for example, is associated with old-school qualities: inspiring and motivating his team, playing on the front foot. But he is also credited with introducing tactical analysis to German television through his work as a pundit on the state broadcaster ZDF during the 2006 World Cup, when he was the 39-year-old manager of Mainz 05. Cox has argued that Klopp’s technique of “gegenpressing”, German for counter-pressing – making special effort to win the ball high up the pitch, in the opponent’s half, so that the turn-over of possession leads to a goal-scoring opportunity – is just the tactical channelling of attributes like “motivation”, “passion” and “desire”.

But Cox also explained that football coverage needs to reflect the reality that the game has become more "technical" and “intelligent”, a word he uses often, along with “weird”, “interesting” and “handy.” Nobody in British journalism has done more to promote this cause. Cox told me he was struck by Souness’s suggestion that there is too much emphasis on tactics in football these days. He had started Zonal Marking less than ten years earlier – in January 2010 – “because there wasn’t any”. James Olley, the chief football correspondent of the Evening Standard, says that Cox was “in the vanguard” of tactical analysis. “He opened up the niche.” In his book Football Hackers (2019), in a chapter titled “Adopting a Fresh Outlook”, the German reporter Christoph Biermann discusses Zonal Marking alongside the contributions of leading managers like Louis Van Gaal and Pep Guardiola. Tom Worville, the 26-year-old wunderkind of British football writing, said that Cox’s work had “helped shape the way I watch the game”.

Football journalists are traditionally ex-professionals, all-round correspondents, feature writers, or reporters with a “beat”. Cox is in demand purely because of his alertness to on-pitch nuances – an interest he pursues at the expense of almost every other potential topic. When the American subscription website the Athletic began hiring contributors for their UK arm in the spring of 2019, Cox was the obvious candidate – the writer to get – for its tactical analysis slot. Cox now writes three or four articles a week, as well as appearing on a brilliantly entertaining weekly podcast, hosted by Ali Maxwell, who first contacted Cox “as a very young and slightly in-awe blogger”. In his first Athletic article, Cox told readers that he’d be doing his “usual thing, writing about tactics, analysis, statistics and anything else that Graeme Souness would think is a waste of time”.

***

Cox, who is 32, with dark hair and a naturally pursed expression, was raised in Kingston, a suburb of south-west London. His mother was a social worker and his father worked for the police. He told me that as the only child of parents indifferent to football, he was forced to engross himself in a “more in-depth way than if there was someone to discuss it with”. Cox has remarkable powers of observation and a kind of patient reasonableness that allows him to expose illogical thinking about football. His memory for sporting events is stronger than for social interaction – “which I realise is very sad”. On more than one occasion, he seemed unable to recall whether he had met a fellow journalist.

Cox attended the local comprehensive – where he played central midfield for the school team, then, after a growth spurt, as a “rampaging” right-winger – and studied politics at Bristol, though he claims to have “barely read anything that isn’t a football book”. He recalled that watching TV coverage growing up, he would often think: “these guys are rubbish.” The first stirrings of his own analytic engagement with football came during the 2004 Euros in Portugal, the summer after his GCSEs. “I bought a notepad and started making tactical diagrams, noting down who was getting space, and what teams were trying to do with the ball.” (To this day, he keeps a record of his observations on all Premier League goals.) “It was a good tournament to do it for. Greece won, and they were very different tactically, which was handy. They scored three goals in the knockout phase and they were all from set-pieces.” 

At the time, although foreign managers were increasingly common in English football – the national manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, was a Swede who had thrived in Italy – British appreciation of tactics lagged far behind that of the other major European football countries. Casual connoisseurship was the norm. When Cox left Bristol in the summer of 2009, he found himself in a position similar to fledgling British film critics in the late 1950s who wanted to show that popular cinema was worth taking seriously. The first step was to embrace the idea that a mass pursuit might reward interpretation – that, as V F Perkins put it, if something is “exhilarating”, it is unlikely to be “trivial”. The next step was to exploit the available technology to uncover ideas about the positioning of bodies that had been obscured by an impressionistic or superficial way of looking.

Inspiration came from English commentary on other subjects (classical music in Perkins’s case, cricket for Cox) and from journalism in other countries – France for film, Italy for football. Perkins exploited editing beds to play back films, Cox had YouTube and data websites. Where “textual analysis” was met with the criticism that films are about the human situation, not “spatial relationships”, tactical analysis prompted the backlash that it is footballers, not ideas, that win matches. 

Where Perkins co-founded a magazine (Movie), Cox established zonalmarking.net. He was soon contributing to the Guardian and appearing on its football podcast. Almost overnight a 22-year-old blogger had become a prominent presence in British sports journalism. Cox’s friend and colleague Ali Maxwell says that his trajectory helped show that there was “a new, non-traditional route to working in football media”.

The football writer Jonathan Wilson, whose historical survey of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid (2008), helped to put the subject on the agenda, worries that analytic writing is often too confident about managers’ intentions. “We haven’t a clue,” he said. But Cox told me that the parameters of tactical analysis are often misdescribed. It isn’t simply a matter of identifying “‘deliberate’ stuff from the manager, a preconceived plan”. He acknowledges that sometimes “things just happen”. He said that having a good personal relationship with the players is still “the most important thing in management”, and that when he was watching the Amazon documentary about Manchester City, he was surprised at the vagueness of Pep Guardiola’s team talks: he didn’t “really understand what he meant”.

Cox also believes that tactical errors are often over-emphasised in match reports. Too much commentary works back from the final score and implies that the outcome of a game was inevitable due to tactical decisions that resulted in particular incidents. Instead of claiming that a goal was conceded “because of a right-back not tracking his man”, Cox would rather consider the reason why that defender was forced to decide whether or not to track the opposing player “ten times in a game”. Cox prefers to characterise his activity (“analysis”) rather than a putative subject (“tactics”), and views what he does not as an exercise in divination but an attempt to observe what occurred in a game of football.

It soon emerged that there was a genuine appetite for his more scrupulous approach. In the build-up to the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, Cox spent a lot of time writing previews of the competing teams. In some cases, it was, he said, “pretty tough to find video coverage. North Korea was the big one. The friendlies were played behind closed doors.” Meanwhile, the commentary offered by the TV pundits was found wanting. “Everyone agreed it was just woeful,” Cox said. And thanks to social media, the definition of “everyone” had changed. While Adrian Chiles and Alan Shearer were being mocked for their lack of sophistication, tweets and links from @zonalmarking were widely shared. The following year, Cox was awarded the prize for best website by the Football Supporters Federation.

***

Cox’s strongest claim to be writing about more than formations and tactical trends lies with his second book, “handily entitled” Zonal Marking, as he put it on his Twitter page, which explores the impact not just of technology but of national and civic traditions on the evolution of footballing styles. In Cox's account, during the modern era, a single nation has dominated the European game, either through its players, coaches, club sides or national teams, for a period of almost exactly four years before passing the baton, often at a highly specific moment in time. Cox uses this framework to explain the emergence of players such as Messi, Ronaldo and Thierry Henry, and managers like José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. A relevant innovation might be a system or a type of player, or changes in match preparation, such as Mourinho’s decision to banish fitness routines that don’t involve a ball.

“There are some good books about different football cultures,” Cox said. “But I feel they go a bit too much towards trying to explain the country through football. I’ll finish reading the book and think, ‘I don’t really get what Baggio was’.” It will be clear to readers of Cox’s chapter “The Third Attacker” exactly the sort of player Baggio was – “neither an attacking midfielder nor a conventional forward” but an “archetypal number 10” who “could do almost anything with the ball: weave past opponents, play delicate through-balls, score from impossible angles”, the type of player “Italian football adores”. As an act of cultural explanation – at once a popular exegesis of abstruse theories and a genealogy of how we got to where we are – Zonal Marking invites comparison to The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes’s survey of modern art and architecture, and Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy.

But just as Cox sees football as a mix of the old-fashioned and the new-fangled, so his pursuit of conceptual precision does not prevent him experiencing football as a source of wonder and bafflement. In May 2019, I spent three nights watching football with Cox at a bar in Valencia, including the second leg of the Champions League semi-final between Liverpool and Barcelona, in which Liverpool were tasked with overcoming a 3-0 deficit. “Game on!”, Cox shouted, after Gini Wijnaldum scored Liverpool’s second goal. At the end, after Liverpool won, he said, “4-0 in a semi. Bloody hell.” The following night, when Lucas Moura’s hat-trick helped Tottenham accomplish an equally astonishing comeback against Ajax, he exclaimed: “How did he do that?”

He also embraces football as a spectacle, an occasion and an object of fetishism. When we went to watch Arsenal at Valencia’s stadium, the Mestalla, he said, “the Spanish get it right in a lot of ways – a young crowd, better gender balance, not aggressive.” As the players emerged onto the pitch, he expressed his irritation that Arsenal had been prohibited from playing in their home kit – the colour worn by all of the travelling fans – because of a UEFA rule stating that the two teams must be wearing different-coloured shorts. “I don’t like it,” he said, almost shaking his head. “It’s a shame.”     

After Cox and I watched Arsenal beat Valencia, he opened his laptop, and in the time it took Robbie Savage, the former Welsh midfielder, to perfect a hyperbole-laden minute-long selfie-video, Cox tapped out 950 elegant words for the ESPN website, one of his final freelance pieces before moving to the Athletic. The resulting article contained only passing allusion to Arsenal’s use of a 3-4-1-2 formation, but then analysis isn’t only about tactics. It’s just shorthand for an engagement with what happens on the pitch – the “actual” 90 minutes. 

***

Cox believes that Match of the Day and broadsheet newspapers still haven’t worked out how to cover football games, as opposed to players’ post-match reflections, press-conference putdowns, corruption scandals and industry gossip. But he says that the general standard of commentary has improved. He cited the work of Jonathan Wilson and the appointment, in 2011, of Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender, as the lead pundit on Sky Sports, after Andy Gray was fired for making a series of sexist remarks. Writing in the Guardian, Cox welcomed Neville’s focus on “overall strategies – not just post-commentary on goals, but discussion upon the pattern of the game, using video examples of pressing, for example, or diagonal balls”. He also observed that Neville was being rapturously applauded for doing what everyone should be doing.

Alex Stewart, the Athletic’s senior content strategist, told me that Cox’s work formed part of a “general movement towards better explaining how football actually works on the pitch rather than highlighting an individual player and saying, ‘Well, they’re very fast.’” When Cox and Neville were starting out, Stewart was working for the Metropolitan Police, having dropped out of a DPhil on medieval religious poetry at Oxford. But he might be described as the central figure of the movement’s second wave. Over the past few years, since resigning as "a copper", he has written hundreds of scripts for videos that appeared on the YouTube channel Tifo Football, which recently merged with the Athletic. Stewart maintains a fairly low profile – the videos are illustrated, and even Stewart’s words are frequently delivered by his colleague, Joe Devine –but his reach has been vast. Tifo’s 2018 video “What Happened to Two-Man Striker Teams?” has received more than 1.5m views.

Stewart is happier than Cox to speculate on the intellectual tools required for analysing a game of football. Looking back on his varied professional journey, he said that “the ability to spot patterns and create links between things was a consistent feature of the things I have done.” He watches football with the sound muted and treats it not as something with any emotional content, or even as a human narrative, but as an exercise in observing “how people are moving in relation to space, or to the ball”.

The challenge is to bring this unusual form of insight to what Stewart calls “the broad interested audience”. He talked about a “middle ground” between the reductive and simplistic on the one hand, and the opaque and portentous on the other. Of his own work, Cox said, “You do have to be able to formulate an argument in a structured way. You do have to find themes. It’s not just a scouting report.” Tom Worville, who works with Cox at the Athletic, distinguished popular tactics writing from the German website spielverlagerung.com, which he said offers “deep tactical theory, near-theses about pressing structures”. Tifo’s five-minute videos “break down the game in easy-to-consume, obvious terms” and make you “feel like you’ve been watching a team for the whole season”, while Cox “dives down into the specific plays and explains things with screen grabs, which is just really effective. He presents it in a way that my Dad could read an article and come away understanding and maybe start viewing the game differently.”

***

A potential obstacle in this quest for lucidity is the use of football “analytics” – the number of passes completed by a team, for instance, or kilometres run by a player. But here, too, a popularising impulse has been increasingly visible. In May 2009, the month that Cox left university, the statistics company Opta started a Twitter feed (@optajoe) that supplied football data directly to fans for the first time. Cox formed part of an effort to promote the use of data in football analysis. He is a particular fan of the metric known as Expected Goals (xG), a tool that screens out the identity of the shooter to assess the statistical likelihood a goal would have occurred in a given scenario. xG has been the subject of much reflexive derision of the Souness variety. After the former Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, invoked his team’s xG quota in an interview, Jeff Stelling, the Sky Sports presenter, dismissed it as “the most useless stat in the history of football. What does it tell ya?” Cox says that what it tells you is how a team actually played. A team’s xG average, he explained to me, is “a better predictor” of future performance than any single result. Cox noted that few players manage to “outscore” their personal xG average and that using xG to generate odds had worked “very well for the betting companies”.

Openness to a more empirical approach is “partly a generational thing”, Duncan Alexander, Opta’s chief data editor, told me. But Jonathan Wilson argued that there were earlier glimmers of sophistication in English football culture. He said that the 1990 World Cup – when Pavarotti sang and Gazza cried – revealed the power of a single tactical change: “England switching to a back five early in the tournament and it being manifestly successful suddenly opened people’s eyes.” He also noted that though Andy Gray has become “a figure of fun”, his early work on Sky “took punditry in a new direction”.

Cox has stressed the foreign influence during the 1990s, with the arrival in the Premier League of Eric Cantona, Ruud Gullit and Wenger. But these developments mainly concerned individual player-positions such as the “floating attacker” or the “sweeper”, as well as changes in diet and fitness. For the most part, cohesive approaches to footballing strategy came later, with the arrival, in 2004, of Mourinho at Chelsea and Rafa Benítez at Liverpool: “the entire feel of the league changed massively overnight”, Cox told me. And while Andy Gray could be “pretty interesting”, he believes that, like many former players, he didn’t sufficiently revise his view of how the game is played – the duty of any pundit.

A recent battleground between rigour and romanticism was the latest attempt by Manchester United to find a manager who could replicate the success of Alex Ferguson, who led the team for 26 years. Cox says he has “never read an entirely convincing account of why Ferguson was so good, and I’m not sure his players can explain it either”. Cox was similarly mystified by the decision to give Ferguson’s old job to one of his former players, Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Solskjær was initially hired, back in December 2018, as a temporary stand-in following the dismissal of Mourinho. Writing for ESPN, Cox described it as “possibly the most surprising appointment in the history of the Premier League”, and said that it was difficult to see “any genuine benefit” in the fact that Solskjær – in the favoured phrase – “knows the club”.

In the months after Solskjær joined as caretaker manager, United won some big games, notably away to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. Graeme Souness claimed that Solskjær had “got the dressing room all playing together” and noted the team’s “winning mood”, a “different feel”, “a swagger”, the “tune” he had got from the team. In March 2019, Solskjær was given the job on a permanent basis. The team’s form since then has been patchy. But Cox said that even during the initial bounce, they hadn’t been playing “that well”. Duncan Alexander told me that after the PSG match, a lot of coverage said “they were back playing ‘the United way’ – attacking. They only took five shots in the game. People weren’t accurately reporting what was going on.” (United were knocked out in the next round.) Cox said that United's problems were “obvious" both from the data and "just watching the games".

But strict accuracy is often disparaged as a killjoy impulse – a threat to football’s natural romanticism. Duncan Alexander said that if you had pointed out that United’s initial form was “massively unsustainable”, that the data about their performances pointed to a future downturn, you were seen as “going against the heritage-monolith thing”. And even the past greatness being hankered for was being misconstrued. Cox strongly doubts the existence of a “United way”. He thinks that unlike Barcelona or Ajax or Real Madrid, United have always been flexible and pragmatic, driven by a burning desire for glory, not a “grand footballing philosophy”. When Solsjkaer was first appointed, Cox wrote that “the obsession with meeting indistinct criteria based upon revisionist views of previous successes can only hamper the club”.

***

There’s a crucial difference between Michael Cox and British film criticism in the 1960s. Though textual analysis became influential, even ubiquitous, it proved to be at odds with the direction of film practice. By the time V F Perkins was the age that Cox is now, his favoured directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Max Ophuls, were either fading or dead, and his decades as a critic coincided with the retreat from careful, calibrated technique that he called “the death of mise-en-scène”.

Cox, by contrast, has been highly fortunate in his timing: “What I like is technical football, passing football, that’s kind of always been my thing.” He said that he “absolutely loathed everything” about the flashy Real Madrid team of the early 2000s. “They sold all their defensive players, piled up on attacking players” – the so-called galactico transfer policy, which brought in David Beckham and legendary French midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who takes a bit of a beating in Zonal Marking.

Although Zidane serves as the current manager of another – albeit decreasingly – star-studded Real Madrid team, that model has long since ceased to dominate. Mourinho’s successes at Porto, a comparatively small team that won the 2004 Champions League, showed that tactical nous was more important than individual virtuosity, while the appointment, in 2008, of Pep Guardiola as Barcelona manager re-introduced intricate passing (‘tiki-taka’) as well as emphasising players trained in the same youth set-up, instead of buying full-fledged superstars. Cox’s career has so far coincided with a golden age for all the qualities he prizes – intricacy, intelligence, cohesion.

Reflecting on the developments he has witnessed over the past decade, Cox said that of the two Dutch managers who worked at both Ajax and Barcelona, the charismatic Johan Cruyff had been less influential than the stony-faced Louis Van Gaal. One of the revelations of Cox’s book is that these two managers, both associated with bringing the Ajax tradition of “Total Football” – a tactical philosophy emphasising the fluidity of roles – to Barcelona, were “remarkably different in almost every respect”. Van Gaal believed in the collective, Cruyff in the individual.

At the moment, Van Gaal’s reputation is slightly tarnished by his frustrating time managing Manchester United between 2014 and 2016, whereas Cruyff is seen as the mentor of the hyper-successful Guardiola. But Cox’s book works hard to relocate connections obscured by mythology, hearsay or prevailing fashion. He points out, for example, just how much Guardiola, the inheritor of a Dutch-Spanish tradition, learned between 2013 and 2016 as manager of Bayern Munich, a team that Van Gaal had managed a few years earlier. Cox told me that, for the time being, it looks as though it is Van Gaal who has really “set the tone for future football”. If you watch Guardiola’s Man City team, he explained, the players “move so structurally” – in a rigid system, as Van Gaal would have wanted.

I asked Cox about the possible next stage of tactical evolution – what might supersede things like counter-attacking, possession play and “gegenpressing”. He said that the Italian manager Maurizio Sarri, especially during his time in charge of Napoli, had devised a system that involves retaining the ball in a defensive area and inviting the opposing players to press high up the pitch and then to pass through them. “That’s something slightly different from what other teams have been doing.” During the 2019-2020 season, he was delighted by the inventive attacking styles of Sheffield United and the Italian side Atalanta. He also said he was keeping a close eye on women’s football, an industry where various countries are currently “tussling for dominance”.

***

Zonal Marking ends with a chapter on the years “2016-2020”, in which England carries the baton previously held by Holland, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain and Germany. Though English football doesn’t boast a proud history of technical innovation, it has become, during the Premier League era, an effective “importer of ideas” and, increasingly, a culture where new thinking is embraced. (Cox's 2017 book about the Premier League is titled The Mixer.) 

As we were leaving the Mestalla, we learned that in the other Europa League semi-final, Chelsea had beaten Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties. For the first time, both the Europa League the Champions League finals would be contested by clubs from a single country, and in the week that Zonal Marking was published in hardback. No single football result can tell you very much, but a full sweep in the European finals amounted to confirmation of the book’s thesis. Cox resisted any obvious display of pride, simply observing that this was “handy”.

As things turned out, the following season – the expected end-point of English hegemony, in Zonal Marking – marked the changing of a guard in “a wider way”. Cox said that the hiatus imposed by the pandemic forced football coverage to become “ambitious and off-the-wall”. Cox published essays on subjects such as AC Milan’s fortunes in 1999 and the tactical strategies that Guardiola might cook up during lockdown. But since football resumed in the summer, Cox has shown that he doesn’t need a halt in fixtures to approach the game in imaginative ways. Since June, he has written or co-authored around 50 articles. Topics have included the “cat” and “dog” types of centre-back, Lionel Messi’s ten stages of greatness, why the Portuguese forward Diogo Jota gets opponents sent off, and a guide to beating Liverpool. 

 

During a recent conversation, I asked Cox to compare himself to a footballer. At first he demurred. Then he replied: “Well, David Beckham was good at one thing, right? Kicking the ball accurately over long distances – which he applied to passing and crossing and free kicks.” Cox says that he doesn’t do “90 per cent of what most football journalists do”. But that’s the advantage of the current climate – the climate he did so much to form. “You can be a specialist,” he observed, “and get away with it.”

 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?