A Whole New Ball Game
With the May 30th release of Michael Cox’s second book, Zonal Marking, now seems like a good time to reflect on his first book, The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines. Published in the summer of 2017 to coincide with the 25th season of the Premier League, Cox’s tactical history offers a thoughtful and sophisticated walk down memory lane.
Like many football fans, Cox’s Zonal Marking website was one of my main introductions to tactical thinking, and he remains the first journalist I seek out when trying to supplement my own sense of what has happened in a game. So rather than simply waxing lyrical about his tactical history of the past 25 years in English football, I want to try something more useful.
To that end, this will be the first of 25 posts, each devoted to a chapter of Cox’s book. Rather than analyzing or summarizing Cox’s argument, I will try to provide videos from relevant games to supplement Cox’s history. Think of it as a kind of long-running book club with YouTube support. My hope is to post weekly, so if you don’t already have a copy of The Mixer, you should definitely get one now and start reading along. Hope you enjoy it.Embed from Getty Images
The opening chapter of The Mixer focuses on the introduction of the back-pass rule, a change that Cox (not alone) likens to the 1925 introduction of the modern offside rule in its immediate and positive impact. Even the best rule changes, however, require an adjustment period, and this Match of the Day clip from the opening weekend and mid-week of Premier League action demonstrates some of the growing pains discussed by Cox. The opening goal in the sequence, by Lee Chapman against Wimbledon for Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United, is discussed by Cox (6-7).
Ironically, given that two more of the highlights show Leeds benefitting from the new rule against Aston Villa mid-week, Cox identifies Wilkinson’s side as one of the biggest losers in the rule change. Another team that suffered (along with Liverpool and Nottingham Forest), were George Graham’s Arsenal. Cox discusses this goal from Norwich City’s comeback win against Arsenal on the opening day of season, with stalwart defender Tony Adams being of two minds and getting caught out (7).
(For more on Norwich City’s remarkable campaign in the opening season of the Premiership, see the next installment.)
One more gross error discussed came from Nottingham Forest defender Stuart Pearce–but while on international duty, giving up an embarrassing goal against European minnow San Marino in a 1993 World Cup qualifier (10-11). Cox judges it the most famous misplaced back pass of the era.
On the other hand, Cox also identifies Paul McGrath as one of the great individual winners of rule change, claiming that “no other defender adjusted so impressively to the new law, and the Irishman became the template for the modern centre-back, as managers increasingly required ball-playing defenders rather than old fashioned cloggers” (11). Those ball-playing skills are most notably on display at 3:57 and 4:40 in this well-deserved highlight reel.
The second half of this opening chapter focuses on legendary Manchester United goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, whom Cox identifies as an important innovator on the goalkeeping side of the rule change. This is perhaps ironic given how much Schmeichel’s international side, Denmark, benefitted under the old regime in Euro 92, a tournament that underlined the need for change. As Cox notes, Schmeichel himself was later embarrassed by his team’s use of the back pass to kill games: “How can you win football matches like that?” (13).
Nonetheless, Schmeichel recognized that the new rule required a new kind of goalkeeping. Sadly, I wasn’t able to find a video highlighting Schmeichel’s distribution via thrown balls, which Cox deems his most decisive contribution to the development of a new model for keepers. His goals, on the other hand, are the stuff of youtube magic. Here’s his contribution to United’s Boxing Day 1993 (not, as Cox would have it, ’94) goal against Blackburn Rovers,
his consolation goal against Rotor Volgograd in 1995,
and his goal for Aston Villa, the first scored by a goalkeeper in the Premier League (13-14).
If Schmeichel’s hands offered a new model, though, his feet remained fallible. Cox singles out this final goal in a 3-0 loss to Everton in the second game of the season (14).
I’ve also included this extended highlight from the 4 January 1994 clash between Liverpool and Manchester United, primarily because it was such a great game and gives a flavor of the early Premier League (of which, more next week). Notice how United are clearly seeking to extend their lead rather than to hold onto it–a better time or a less tactically astute one? You can also see one example of Schmeichel’s unproductive distribution that enraged Sir Alex Ferguson, Cox’s point in introducing the game, at the 3:03 mark (15).
Cox ends by noting that Schmeichel was one of four foreign goalkeepers to play in the opening season of the Premier League, together more than 1/3 of the eleven foreign players in the league at the time. I’ll be back next week to discuss Eric Cantona and the opening of the Premier League to foreign talent.