One of the football books of the year of 2017 was The Mixer written by Guardian journalist Michael Cox. Michael rose to fame through his zonalmarking website focusing on football tactics, and throughout almost 500 pages readers are taken on a fascinating journey through the tactical evolution of the English Premier League since its inception in 1992.
You could argue the best player and the best manager in England’s top flight during that time were both Portuguese, and logically enough the contributions of Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho are analysed at length in the book, as well as other Portuguese protagonists who have impacted on the EPL.
PortuGOAL’s book corner section today focuses on The Mixer. Read our interview with the author Michael Cox and enter the contest to win a hardback version of the book.
PortuGOAL: First of all, congratulations on a magnificent book. When you started the zonalmarking website did you ever imagine that less than a decade later you’d have written a best-selling book about tactics in English football?
Thanks - no, I suppose not. I felt there was probably a small, niche market for in-depth analysis of matches, but was of course surprised by the response. Analysing overall trends is probably more interesting than one-off matches in many ways, so I think a longer format is more suited.
PortuGOAL: Football is “consumed” very differently nowadays compared to a decade or two ago - a match report/preview without mentioning tactics would seem incomplete. Do you feel you and like-minded journalists/bloggers contributed to this evolution? (no need to be modest!)
I think this probably contributed, maybe more towards television coverage than newspaper coverage. World Cup 2010 seemed to be the turning point - the television coverage was dreadfully ill-informed, and it was the first tournament when Twitter was a major thing. You’d go from hearing pundits who hadn’t done their research on teams, to going on Twitter and finding, well, someone like yourself offering knowledge and insight.
I honestly don’t think the tactical impact, in itself, has had THAT much of an impact. Gary Neville joining Sky was far more important. But I do think the twitter era has forced pundits to up their game, because producers follow the same accounts we all do, and have realised that the old style of punditry isn’t good enough. It’s changed massively in a relatively short period of time, in part because of a new breed of pundit, but even someone like Alan Shearer or Jamie Redknapp has upped their game. I do think good football coverage online, everything from blogs to the StatsZone app, can take some credit for that.
PortuGOAL: Our audience will be happy to know there are important Portuguese influences in the history of the EPL. Let’s talk about some of them.
José Mourinho is described as a pragmatist and your book explains how he and Rafael Benítez brought a new approach to English football by focusing on stopping the opposition. Does this constant tailoring of the team to nullify the opposition make Mourinho a great tactical coach or a flawed one, unable to impose a recognisable identity/philosophy onto his team?
Well, I’d say he’s a great tactician. He basically knows what system to use to nullify and sometimes expose an opponent, and he usually has a Plan B and Plan C prepared, and has worked with it on the training ground. That’s probably tactics in its strictest sense. But yes, there’s obviously an argument that he’s not a footballing philosopher either, although I’m not particularly convinced this is much different from the second half of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United, for example.
I tend to think Mourinho’s impact has now become slightly underrated in terms of his overall career. With Porto he took huge underdogs to the European Cup, with Chelsea he won the most-ever points in the Premier League, with Inter he won the Treble, with Real Madrid he overcame arguably the greatest side ever to win La Liga, and then he returned to Chelsea and took them to the title again with a very impressive style of play in the first half of the campaign. There have also been problems, of course, which can’t be overlooked. But his track record of getting success everywhere he’s been, in four different countries, is unmatched in recent years.
PortuGOAL: Ronaldo has been described as the greatest counter-attacking player in the world. Do you think the fact Alex Ferguson had him in his arsenal was a big factor that persuaded the Scot to change the style Manchester United played to become a more counter-attacking team?
To a certain extent, although Ferguson’s first Manchester United title winners were very much a counter-attacking side - and the Ronaldo-led side also had the likes of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves who ensured United could dominate possession too. But yes, Ferguson’s recognition that Ronaldo offered such an extraordinary level of talent was crucial, and probably quite an underrated decision considering how much criticism Ronaldo received in his first couple of seasons. The decision to move aside Ruud van Nistelrooy, who scored so many goals but wasn’t a team player and didn’t get on with Ronaldo, and replace him with no-one was very bold, and hugely successful.
PortuGOAL: Here in Portugal opinions are divided when it comes to Carlos Queiroz’s coaching ability, perhaps influenced by his last and unsuccessful spell as Seleção manager. You explain in the book how he was crucial to United’s success. How so?
Ferguson absolutely loved him. Queiroz was brilliant tactically, encouraging Ferguson to play different systems and play without a fixed centre-forward which was a large reason for their excellent European Cup record in the mid-late 2000s. He also worked absolutely relentlessly on defensive shape when required. He seems the classic example of someone who’s excellent in terms of analysis, tactics and coaching, but maybe isn’t the best in terms of man-management. But that’s what Ferguson was brilliant at, so they formed a wonderful partnership.
PortuGOAL: Leaving aside tactics just for a moment, judging by their performances in the EPL, how would you rank the following Portuguese players in their respective positions, i.e. top 3, top 10, outside top 10:
Cristiano Ronaldo - If you take every Premier League player at their peak, Ronaldo is the greatest. I’d argue that Thierry Henry was top-class for a longer period and therefore is still the division’s outstanding player, but Ronaldo reached a level no-one else managed.
Nani - A funny one - he was largely disappointing for long periods, but throughout 2010 he was absolutely exceptional, stepping up to replace Ronaldo brilliantly. He’s probably not in the 20 best Premier League wingers in terms of overall impact but he was outstanding for a short period.
Ricardo Carvalho - Just a very good defender, capable of defending intelligently or in more of a physical, aggressive way. Judging him alone is difficult but his partnership with John Terry is probably in the top five we’ve seen.
Paulo Ferreira - Just a typical solid right-back. He always seemed better under Mourinho than other coaches, although he was excellent in Chelsea’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford in 2010, which was basically a title decider. He’s probably top ten - maybe top five. In truth, Gary Neville is a long way ahead of everyone else in the right-back ranking, I’m not sure we’ve had many world-class players in that position.
Raul Meireles - I was never a particular fan, although he could play a variety of midfield roles. I tend to think that, when a big side is struggling, the player who runs around a lot gets a huge amount of undue credit and I think that was Meireles at Liverpool. He scored a few goals at Chelsea but was largely forgettable. I’m not sure he’d be in the top 50 central midfielders the Premier League has seen.
PortuGOAL: There are currently three Portuguese managers in the EPL, and next season there will almost certainly be another one, with Nuno Espírito Santo’s Wolves running away with the Championship. Can you explain why Portuguese coaches are “in fashion” in England?
To a certain extent I think clubs are genuinely fascinated to find the next Mourinho - that was probably the case with Andre Villas-Boas. But that’s secondary to the fact that Portuguese football seems to produce a huge number of hard-working, studious and intelligent coaches. It’s probably more about the ‘supply’ than the ‘demand’ here.
PortuGOAL: The Mixer is all about England’s top division, but you spend a lot of your time watching, analysing and writing about other leagues in Europe. When is the book looking at tactics in other European countries coming out?!
Ha, that would be the obvious sequel. I am fascinated by the different style of football around Europe, how a Premier League game still looks different from a La Liga game, how a Portuguese forward is different from an Italian forward. It would be nice to look at those differences, how and why they still persist despite so much movement of players and managers between different countries.
We thank Michael for taking time to do this interview. If you do not follow him on Twitter yet, make sure you do for great tactical insight to football all over Europe. His Twitter handle is @zonalmarking.
Article update: Congratulations to João Graça from Lisbon whose name was drawn out from the dozens of correct answers received. A copy of the book is on its way to him. The question proved tricky, no doubt because of the somewhat surprising answer of Luís Boa Morte (296 EPL appearances).
Thank you to everybody for entering. Keep track of this section of the site for more book contests in the coming weeks.