Book Review: The Mixer
by Michael Cox
Published by Harper Collins
Rarely does a day pass when someone in my twitter feed is seen to proclaim ‘football didn’t start in 1992 you know’ and the phrase ‘since the advent of the Premier League’ is held up as an abomination to place alongside a Piers Morgan aphorism or an attack of swine flu.
Any objectors are a hundred percent right of course but that said, the Premier League is undoubtedly a defined ‘thing’ and not merely an object of the imagination. That its beginnings mark the arrival of seriously big money in football is its clearest claim to historical notoriety, while at the time of writing, its life span comprises more or less that of a generation; making it easy to appraise and comfortable to summarise.
As the EPL stretches into its second quarter century of existence, it will become more difficult to grasp as a concept and young writers of the future will be as puzzled at mention of Lee Chapman or Jason Wilcox as they are now at the names of Norman Whiteside or Steve Nicol.
Michael Cox has therefore provided a very neat service in assessing the first few years of this undoubtedly enthralling sporting junket. Emerging with the brilliant Zonal Marking website over a decade ago now – an exhaustive blog devoted to soccer tactics characterised as much by its author’s willingness to engage enthusiastically with contributors to its contents section as for the insightful posts themselves – Cox has carved himself out a career that is testament to how hard work and talent can rise to the top and provided an inspiration to many young bloggers that if you are good enough, you can get noticed.
But Cox’s analysis, while perhaps not quite matching the sheer majesty of Jonathan Wilson’s history of global football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, is highly entertaining all the same. In his refusal to reduce football tactics to one single metric of choice at the expense of all others (yes, I mean you xG), his is an eclectic view that gives house room to psychology as much as it does to analytics; to finance as much as it does formations.
So the dramatis personae includes Eric Cantona as the man who kicked it all off, the long throw axis of Tony Pulis and Rory Delap, Antonio Conte tearing it up with 3-4-3, the hapless André Villas-Boas, Kevin Keegan leaving tactical awareness to others and numerous accounts of English sides being outwitted by wilier foreign opposition.
That the haul of European trophies in the EPL area is meagre is unquestionable given the money at its members’ disposal although it’s very much the central argument of the book that it has been the overseas influx that has led to the revolution in English football in recent times.
But anti-modern football ranting apart, there’s a glossing over some of the tactical innovations of the 1970s and 1980s. What, for instance, of Brian Clough who decreed that football was meant to be played on the ground and not in the air? What of Ossie Ardiles? Arnold Muhren? Frans Thijssen? Jan Molby? What of the Liverpool teams that religiously kept possession en route to title after title and the greatest run of European success we have yet witnessed?
Open mindedness in football certainly isn’t the preserve of the past twenty five years and Cox would I’m sure be the first to admit this. That he has gamely accepted the Premier League narrative with a shrug of the shoulders and crafted this engaging trawl through its strategic ups and downs is undeniable.