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Pouring the Mixer: Michael Cox on Football's Revolution

Posted on 15th June 2017 by Matt Gardiner
Michael Cox’s website Zonal Marking has become a magnet for those who live and breathe football tactics. The Mixer, out now in hardback, is his comprehensive analysis of how a new kind of tactical play sealed the success of the Premier League. Matt Gardiner  sat down with Cox to talk back-passes, false nines and the future of English soccer.
MG: You make the case very strongly, early in the book, that the outlaw of the back-pass is more key to the success of the Premier League than the launch of Sky Sports. Is this something you have always felt or did it come to you while researching the book?

MC: I’d always believed that the backpass rule made a fundamental difference to football, certainly – the difference in matches between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s is vast. I must admit, however, that I hadn’t thought too much about the precise date of the backpass rule, and the fact that it coincided with the start of the Premier League. So whenever people say that ‘football didn’t start in 1992’ in relation to Premier League-centric historical records... well no, of course it didn’t. But arguably, modern football as we know it now did – and not because of the Premier League.

MG: The book is full of great players and managers who have left an imprint on the English club game.  Which manager and player do you feel had the most impact?

MC: It’s a Manchester United double here. Sir Alex Ferguson’s longevity is astonishing – what I found is that almost every managerial revolutionary found his methods copied by rivals, and then was left behind. Ferguson was never left behind, and while he wasn’t as stark a revolutionary as Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho because he didn’t suddenly arrive from abroad, he looked to continental football in the mid-1990s for tactical inspiration, when English football was very close-minded. In terms of players, Eric Cantona had the most impact. He played a role few others did at that point, he encouraged Manchester United to play passing football rather than just looking down the flanks, and he prompted others to find their equivalent – Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola, for example. He also won the Premier League in four of his five seasons, the only exception coming when he was out suspended for half the season. He was incredible.

MG: The statistic about the number of foreign players on the opening day of the Premier league will astound some contemporary fans of English football. Do you feel that, without the seismic change of the Bosman ruling, English football could possibly have sustained that situation and still prospered?

MC: Yeah, there were only 11 foreign players who started on the Premier League’s first weekend, so 0.5 per team – as there were 22 Premier League teams for the first three seasons. There had already been a fairly noticeable increase in the number of foreign players over the next few years, and I think the increased money in English football meant it was more attractive to foreign players. I find it difficult to imagine the Premier League would have thrived quite so much without the huge explosion in the number of foreign players, however. Sadly, we just haven’t produced enough top-quality players ourselves.

MG: I can see any reader of this book heading to YouTube and revisiting key matches and moments from the last 25 years.  How many hours of football did you watch in order to write this book?

MC: It’s difficult to put a number on it. I watched around 100 full games, but it was also just about going through season review videos and finding, for example, classic examples of when Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer combined for Blackburn goals. Or going through the first-ever Premier League-era Match of the Day and finding examples of backpass confusion. Overall, a lot!

MG: You talk about many different tactical evolutions in The Mixer from the continental ‘10’ to the ‘false nine’.  Which, in your opinion, has been the most influential?

MC: Again, I’d have to go back to the influence of Cantona and the subsequent arrival of Bergkamp and Zola as number 10s – and the likes of Juninho, Georgi Kinkladze and co. They were just absolutely transformative – teammates of the former three, in particular, all said the same thing – they completely changed the way their teams played and set new standards in terms of professionalism, preparation and commitment. United, Arsenal and Chelsea have been the three most successful sides in the Premier League era and that can be traced back to the arrival of those three. 

MG: I have always felt that football would not have developed into such a global sport had teams played without strikers (a la Spain) in its early development. Are there any tactical concepts which you feel the game needs to lose, and quickly?

MC: I think we accept the concept of tactical fouling to break up counter-attacks too readily. A side like Leicester City in 2015/16, for example, were heavily based around counters, and they might only get two or three counter-attacking situations per game. If they are denied their best opportunities by cynical fouls which stop, say, four-against-four breaks, is a yellow card and a free-kick in the midfield zone adequate compensation? 

MG: Is there a new school of thought or specific tactical nuance that you believe will impact on the English game in the near future?

MC: It’s always extremely tough to predict – very few would have been speaking about the imminent rise of the three-man defence this time last year, for example, but it dominated 2016/17. You can only really look for consistent trends over the past 25 years and expect that to continue. First, the game has got faster. Second, there’s been a big shift towards universality, with attackers expected to start the defensive pressure and defenders expected to start attacking moves. So, therefore, I suppose speed will become increasingly valuable and players will be expected to be real all-rounders.

MG: Who are the key innovators in the modern game that will set the standard for the next 10-15 years?

MC: I still believe Pep Guardiola will have a significant impact upon English football, although we’re still waiting to see precisely how he will format this Manchester City side to make them successful. Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are the other two key managers, I believe. English football always likes high-tempo, aggressive football and I feel we’ll embrace their pressing-based game and that might define the next generation of footballers coming through English academies.

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