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Book Review: Zonal Marking, Michael Cox

A book nominally about evolving tactics that delivers so much more

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I have two jobs: I am a sports writer and a college football (American football) scout. In other words: I am a sports nerd. I don’t just want to know what a thing is, I want to know why.

Process is more important to me than outcome. I read books because I want to read great writing. I don’t care all that much about the story or subject — yep, I’m weird.

If anything, I’m more of a nerd for the tempo and rhythm and structure of words and books and columns than I am for the “Levels” concept Peyton Manning ran in his heyday or why Don Brown insists on running two-trap — apexing his corners — rather than two-man, particularly when he switches to his Cheetah package.

I do have an exception: football tactics. This is a subject I will consume regardless of the quality of the writing, and most of it is indeed nauseatingly bad. Finding myself on a Bulgarian blog reading about the interesting use of inverted wingbacks using Google translate is not as uncommon as it probably should be.

My two niche’s within the niche: Guardiola and Cruyff. I have read everything about both. And I don’t mean that colloquially. I mean literally. If there is a book about Pep or Johan— in English — I have read it.

Tactical writing is hard. Too often it is bogged down by cliches and jargon. They’re not the typical cliches that the tactical class like to so denounce, but they’re used just as liberally.

Jargon among tactical writing is typically used to keep you out and the writer in. They want you to know just how complex this stuff is and why only someone with such a superior brain as theirs can get it. There’s an awful lot of crossing the drawbridge and then pulling it up.

And here’s the thing: football tactics are not that hard (which should make for greater writing, incidentally). Expand the pitch offensively, shrink it defensively. What you do in-between — the formation, the fluidity, the names — is where the fun and games come in. And writing about those elements should be fun!

What’s interesting about Pep and Cruyff is they inspire the very best and the worst of this style of writing.

Pep Confidential” by Marti Perarnau is a masterpiece. It’s not just an all-time Pep book or an all-time sports book. It’s an all-time book. Period. I pick it up a couple of times a year, if only to inform my own writing. It is not bogged down with jargon. though it has all the information you need to know about Guardiola’s tactical concepts. It is, in reality, the story of an artist trying to do artsy things in a sport that has become all about business. And it is a fascinating journalistic document.

On the other end, you have the recent “Mastering the Premier League”. To call it dog poo would be insulting to a well coiled turd. Like most tactical books, it probably would have been a solid blog post, but was bloated into a book without any sense of direction or story.

It is the opposite of Confidential. It is dripping in nonsensical jargon and diagram upon diagram. Every sentence serves only for you to think the writer and Guardiola are tactical savants. And yet I left (I couldn’t even finish), thinking football isn’t so hard and that I know it isn’t because this lad is trying so hard to make it seem hard — if any of that makes sense.

There have been more high profile offenders. I have never bought into the Jonathan Wilson circle jerk. I thought Inverting the Pyramid was OK, a book with a bright idea but dripping with overwriting, as though the complexity of the sentence was supposed to imply complex ideas. We get it, J.Will, you’re smart. The Barcelona Legacy, by contrast, was fantastic, a writer at the top of his game — more interesting for how it related to Mourinho, however, and probably should have been marketed as such.

Because of the Wilson experience I entered Michael Cox’s first book “The Mixer” with trepidation. It was being met with similar praise to “Inverting the Pyramid”. Here we go again, I condescended.

Then, I actually read the thing. Wow.

The Mixer is a remarkable book. It is well thought out, well paced. It gives equal weight to narrative quirks and football-ease. If you could only read one book about Premier League football, that is the one I would recommend.

And then came “Zonal Marking: The Making of Modern European Football” last summer. I was ready to be disappointed. These spaces had been explored before, I fretted. Nothing will be new.

And part of that is true. If you have read about Europe’s great sides over the decades — either individually or as a collective — or have followed quality tactical blogs — like the namesake “Zonal Marking” — then much of the information has been covered before.

I held back because of that. It came. I saw the fan fair. I resisted. The months past, I kept staring at it. Get it over with, I thought. But I resisted again.

(This is where I explain to you that on average I spend a few hours in Waterstones a week — also where I write — and buy two books a week — not including little Kindle numbers. It is an addiction. I have officially been cut off by better half until I churn through an agreed upon list of 12. I know the Waterstones staff are worried. I am eight down.)

Then, a kindle deal. Two quid or something like that. It would be shameful not to help a good writer at that price, even if I opted not to read it.

So I opened it, and I couldn’t put it down. The thing was knocked out in two days, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend all my non-reading time thinking about it. Tasks fell by the wayside, including a transfer column that should have been completed for this very site.

Zonal does what it says: it takes you on a trip through the evolution of modern football using tactical concepts and through the prism of each country who helped advance the game. Included are Holland, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain, and Germany, with fun detours all along the way.

You know a tactics book is good when all you want to do is simultaneously read and fire up Football Manager in a bid to replicate all that you just read; when you get angry at the very concept of space and time for not giving you enough hours to finish the book in one sitting.

There is not a lot of new information in Zonal Marking, but it is the best information told the best way. Gone is much of the jargon. In come the stories, the evolution, the theories. This is sports writing at its finest. It tells you what, because it has too. Then it tells you why because it wants too. And you don’t really want to hear about or be anywhere else.

The book is a marvel, one of the finest across any genre in recent years.

Rating: Five Yellow Jerseys.