Despite fears that exposure to such brainpower might just highlight the comparative paucity of insight in our own little corner of the internet FTW thought that an interview with an actual expert would be a good finisher to the season. So, in the comfort of the Johnny Haynes Cafe at Craven Cottage and as a special pre-Champions League final treat, we managed to grab an interview with renowned tactical expert Michael Cox aka Zonal Marking:
Michael Cox on Michael Cox
FTW: Let’s start with where it all began. What about your first ever football match? Can you tell us about that?
MC: Yeah, I remember the first ever game I saw live was Arsenal vs. Manchester United back in 1995. Arsenal won 1-0 and Dennis Bergkamp scored the winner as I recall. I mean it wasn’t quite when Arsenal were challenging for the title but it was Bergkamp’s first season at the club.
FTW: And playing? How much did you play when you were younger? Do you find time to play the game much these days?
MC: I played from about 8 until about 18 every Sunday but when I started at university it was harder to find the time because I was often covering matches for the student paper and things like that. Now ironically my job means I don’t have the time to play on weekends because I have to spend so much time watching games. I still play a 5-a-side thing sometimes on a Monday night though.
FTW: Would it be too clichéd to suggest that you played as a False number nine when you played?
MC: Actually I was generally used as a right midfielder. I would have preferred to have been a central midfielder but I was never as physical as some players. In fact I think one of the reasons I love Michael Carrick is that if my ability was anywhere near that level, that’s the type of player I’d have been. He’s not the most physical but he reads the game so well. Unfortunately, I was normally shunted out to the right instead.
FTW: Speaking of your commitments to watching games, how many live games do you get to see these days?
MC: Not as many as I’d like to that’s for sure! I’m not really a regular at any club really. My local team is AFC Wimbledon or Kingstonian FC so I go to see them when I can. Premier League football is really very expensive but somehow I seem to end up spending more when I go see non-league football. In the Premier League, you get your ticket and that’s it, but when I go see AFC or someone then I’ll get some pints in before the game, maybe a pie and suddenly I’ve spent more than I would to go see West Ham or Fulham or someone. I’ve been around though, I used to go see Arsenal, Fulham plenty of clubs around the London when I was growing up.
I’d certainly like to go see more games next year. The first match I covered through press accreditation was the Europa League final this year in Dublin so hopefully I can get more chances like that. Problem is that I have to watch so much football on the weekends I don’t have the time to go see live games.
FTW: Anything in the way of international tournaments?
MC: In terms of seeing them live? Sadly not yet actually. Might well try to go to Poland/Ukraine next year. Obviously Brazil would be fantastic but I think I’m most looking forward to France 2016. For me the 1998 is still the best World Cup I’ve ever seen. It had absolutely everything an international tournament should have. I’m really looking forward to 2016.
FTW: How about your favourite stadiums? Any that you have particularly fond memories of?
MC: The old Wembley definitely. Really loved the old stadium. In fact I went to the first ever game at the new one, an Engand vs. Italy Under-21’s game. Giampaolo Pazzini scored the first after about 35 seconds. You could see him look up and think “I’d quite like the first ever goal at the new Wembley actually” so he just launched a rocket and it went it. But the atmosphere at the new Wembley seems slightly false? Slightly forced when compared to the old Wembley.
As for other stadiums, I quite like Villa Park. It’s a little old-fashioned, a little idiosyncratic. A bit like Highbury actually. Craven Cottage as well, very nice stadium.
FTW: What about a stadium that you haven’t been to? Which ground would you most like to go and watch a game at?
MC: Hmmmm...not sure. Estadio De Luz would be great to go and watch Benfica play. Always been a big fan of Portuguese football and Benfica are a huge club. It always annoys me a bit when people talk about Benfica or Porto players moving to a big club. A bigger league maybe but they’re already at big clubs. I think Benfica have the highest number of paying members in the world! Also the South American stadiums, the Maracana obviously, you know all the clichéd answers really.
Michael Cox on Zonal Marking and being a journalist
FTW: So how did it all begin? How did you get started writing about football?
Michael Cox: Well I started doing a lot of writing when I was at Bristol University, lots of student media stuff. Although the student population in Bristol wasn’t massively committed to football I never really wanted to do anything other than football journalism really. Actually my first love is cycling but I never really thought about writing about that full time. It’s a very specialist sport. Fundamentally football is a far easier sport to grasp, to play and to write about. Even from the 5-a-side stuff to the top flight, it’s essentially the same.
FTW: When it comes to your writing style you’re fairly minimalist it would be fair to say. Do you ever feel like letting loose a bit more like Sid Lowe or Tim Stannard maybe?
MC: [Laughs] Not really actually. Firstly I’m not sure I’m good enough to write like Sid Lowe or others but secondly Zonal Marking was conceived as fairly minimalist. The website is relatively plain, my name appears nowhere and its all designed to seem more objective and the writing style fits with that goal really. [Muses aloud] Minimalist, yeah that’s a good word. Sometimes I’d like to try out something different but it doesn’t fit so well with the website I guess.
FTW: And in terms of football writers who do you most respect or read avidly? You’re not allowed to say Jonathan Wilson by the way.
MC: I really like Jonathan Wilson, [FTW facepalms at this point] Andy Brassell as well. I’m a huge James Horncastle fan. He’s so very poetic in his writing compared to me. The introductions to his articles are fantastic. Pete Jenson from the Daily Mail as well, he does Spanish stuff and he’s excellent.
FTW: Now that we finally have a free summer, what can we expect to see coming up on Zonal Marking in terms of more long term pieces like your article on the role a central midfielder in 2010?
MC: Well obviously match reports are my bread and butter but there’s actually a disappointing lack of a gap this summer. The Copa America starts very soon and the Gold Cup in North America. Fulham begin their Europa League qualifying in less than a month! But hopefully there will be some more general articles soon although nothing concrete yet.
FTW: With regards to the website, at what point did you feel that you’d really made it? That things had really taken off and that you could do this professionally?
MC: Good question. I mean in terms of income I get more money from my freelance stuff but there wasn’t really one moment. There wasn’t a particular time that I could pinpoint but I really put a lot of effort into covering the World Cup I guess. Doing a preview of each team and stuff like that, maybe that would be it.
FTW: And now Zonal Marking is so big that you’re appearing on podcasts all over the place and doing lots of freelance work for others. What’s it like being on Football Weekly for instance? How much research do you have to do for going on a podcast like Football Weekly?
MC: Actually it’s not that much really. For each one it’s about an hour maybe? It’s more just long-term research, constantly learning new things and remembering players or games etc. I can’t really wing it through a podcast though. There are some people that just feel comfortable going in and chatting whereas I like to make sure I’ve seen all the games that week and I’ve thought about them. But the Guardian is great. Sean Ingle in particular is so helpful and friendly, he’s an absolute pleasure to work with.
FTW: And for all those aspiring young bloggers out there, any advice for them maybe? [Suspiciously loud cough]
MC: Well it’s very important to put your idea forward and make it different. If you end up re-hashing the old arguments it’s really rather dull. The articles that stick in the mind are ones that offer a new take on the matter really. Also it’s about building a reputation. Twitter is great. Most bloggers are on it but if you use it well and use it regularly then it can really make a difference. If you don’t have a unique selling point then you have to be a really fantastic writer. To be honest there is real market saturation so you have to be good or different to stand out. Same with podcasts. Gary Andrews from TwoFootedTackle? He’s doing a series on homophobia in football which is really good and different. Almost documentary style.
Michael Cox on television punditry
FTW: Do you feel there is an increasing market for your type of analysis? That at some point people will collectively reject the tyranny of Alan Shearer and that people like you will become more prominent in the media?
MC: [Laughs again] Maybe, maybe. But then the blogging world has opened up so much. I think that one of the reasons that my website has become so popular is because nobody else was really covering that niche. There’s a lot I don’t know about football for instance the financial side so I really admire Swiss Ramble who does it so well. I think there are so many interesting concepts out there that aren’t really covered. Take player fitness for instance. Why take Xavi off 15 minutes before the end but work him hard in training tomorrow? What sense does that make? I don’t know, maybe it does actually help but it’s not something that being covered.
FTW: Do you feel that maybe a programme like “Sunday Supplement” could be done with the likes of yourself, Jonathan Wilson, Chris Mann etc? Sitting around and just chewing the fat over whatever issues you want to talk about that week?
MC: Maybe. Not sure about that one. The problem is that the internet has changed how football is covered. Before it was just Match of the Day and that was it. There was nothing to really compare it to. I think MOTD has gotten worse but that might just be in comparison rather than in absolute terms given that it’s now competing with Football Weekly. It’s also difficult because, to be fair to MOTD, it has to appeal to 10 million people whereas I’m appealing to 20,000 but I don’t think it’s sustainable for it to be so bad.
FTW: Like Shearer not knowing who Hatem Ben Arfa is?
MC: Exactly! Exactly. That’s not about specialist football interests, that’s just doing your research. I made a point of watching at least two friendlies for each nation in the World Cup last year so I would be prepared but I don’t feel that Alan Hansen or the others knew a thing about teams like Algeria when they turned up and it’s disrespectful to the viewers. In fact if you look at the BBC tactics blog, its quality, it’s very good. I don’t know why the BBC is sidelining that when they have 90 minutes each week on TV. And the BBC also have the World Football Phone-In which is fantastic! Andy Brassell and Tim Vickery in particular, they’re just so knowledgeable. I mean Andy just knows so, so much but he’s never condescending or patronising which is a real skill.
Michael Cox on international football
FTW: Moving on to international football, what do you think of accusations that it’s falling behind club football? Lots of people think Spain were poor champions considering how few goals they scored, the tournament generally was defensive. Do you think international football is falling behind the club game and how do you see it developing from here?
MC: I think that sadly it is falling behind club football. I find it really disappointing actually, I love international football. I must be one of the few people who actually enjoy international friendlies as well. I like seeing how different groups of players come together and function. But I think the international game is becoming less relevant. There’s too much money in the club game.
Also it was really disappointing to see how negative teams were without the ball in South Africa. It was only really Chile and Spain that tried to press high up the pitch, everyone else just retreated to their half and waited. Germany were fantastically entertaining but they were still essentially based on a counter-attacking game. They got early goals against England and Argentina and battered them but when they didn’t get one against Spain it meant that Spain were comfortable to retain their shape and not leave the kind of gaps that England and Argentina did. Overall the technical quality of that game was fantastic. Both sides passed the ball so well throughout.
FTW: Do you feel that because Germany, Spain and the Netherlands all played 4-2-3-1 contributed to the feeling that the games were somewhat a war of attrition?
MC: Yeah, to an extent. Yes and no really because the strange thing about 4-2-3-1 and I suppose all formations is how different they can be. Spain had Xavi deep and a lop-sided front three which was quite similar to Brazil whereas Germany defended with two banks of four and it was much closer to 4-4-1-1 than Spain. I think the main problem was the defensive mindset of teams. Even Chile, who were really attack-minded were still involved in so many low-scoring games.
FTW: Do you feel that South Africa was a blip or that this is a longer term trend? That it’s easier to coach teams to defend well rather than attack when you only have a limited amount of time with the players?
MC: That is probably an issue. If you look at winners records in the knock-out stages of tournaments recently it’s insane. Spain conceded one goal in 2010, no goals in 2008. Italy conceded one goal in 2006 and ditto Greece in 2004. So yeah there is a big focus on defence. But then there is another way to look at it. Maybe international football is just getting less glamorous now. In the 1980’s, 1990’s we weren’t used to seeing Italian or Spanish players week in, week out. It was something really special. Nowadays I watch Leo Messi pretty much every week so there isn’t that much in the way of surprise when he plays for Argentina.
FTW: What are your thoughts on the current scandal engulfing FIFA with Mohammad bin Hammam and Jack Warner and Sepp Blatter all being charged?
MC: I actually don’t have much of a view on the matter. It’s obviously a complete farce and there need to be changes at the top level and in terms of how the top officials are elected but how we go about that I’m not sure. It’s hard to come up with your own viewpoint, but I’m a big admirer of David Conn’s work on the subject. What is disappointing is that this will be what non-football fans will think of about football rather than the good sides of the game.
Michael Cox on football and the future
FTW: Okay, including club football now, what do you see as the broader trends we can expect coming up in the next few seasons?
MC: I think that Barcelona are the ultimate example of this and we’ll see it more and more that players become more rounded and less specialist. More of a slightly total football vibe. The way they move between three and four at the back is fascinating. I mean [Marcelo] Bielsa and Otto Rehhagel always want a spare man at the back, they also want fluidity. It’s interesting to see how that will develop. Also I think that the language might need to change. We still think in terms of defender, midfielder, attacker but that’s not how players operate on the pitch. Of course it’s always difficult to predict future trends though.
FTW: David Winner has a theory that upbringing affects the way people perceive space. In “Brilliant Orange” he argues there is a common link between Dutch architecture, art and football. How do you see that?
MC: I think I believe it. I haven’t done the research really to know of course but it sounds a very viable theory. I do think that surroundings shape the way you perceive space and at the top level it’s all about the extra yard. It doesn’t sound like much but that’s how tight it is. Players are dealing with the closest spaces possible. I mean Barcelona and Villarreal in particular are great at dragging players and making space for themselves. I mean there are some really interesting differences between football from different areas of the world. Cesar Menotti has this theory that there is a left-wing football that is about creativity and attacking flair and a right-wing football that is more cynical, based on stopping the opposition. So there are lots of theories about how different styles evolve, some really great ideas.
FTW: Would you give us a few teams you’ve particularly enjoyed this year?
MC: Villarreal, sadly they fell away. Udinese are another. Actually its interesting how many teams failed to do it for a full season. Lazio started well and fell away. Napoli were great except against the big teams. [FTW points out Dortmund] Yeah they were great to watch weren’t they? Blackpool in England were great but the attacking at all costs attitude was stupid at times. Never fully got on board with that bandwagon. The same with Charlie Adam. He looks great in highlights but tends to give the ball away too much when you watch an entire match. Actually Spurs were also really strange how they fell away but they were really good. I don’t think van der Vaart suited any of their strikers really which was a real problem.
FTW: Finally if you could have one wish for next season what would it be?
MC: Hmmm...more equality in football would be nice but that’s never going to happen. Seeing title challenges from different teams. Also seeing the Portuguese, Greek and Dutch leagues rising again would be great. Between Ajax, Benfica and Celtic there are eight European cups. That’s unlikely to ever happen again really. Also I’d love to see teams like Villarreal and Dortmund stay together. That would be great.