In Zonal Marking, Michael Cox takes the reader on a tour of the evolution of European football tactics. Each section is dedicated to one of Holland, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and England. The trip through each of these countries explores the tactical evolution, cultural impacts and the key figures (coaches and players) that shaped the evolution.
In Holland, as expected, the effect of Johan Cruyff, the backpass rule and Louis Van Gaal’s 1995 Ajax team were pivotal to the tactical evolution and particularly their use of ball-playing central defenders. The impact of the Dutch culture on their national team is also explored. After back passes were outlawed, the ball-playing liberos in the form of Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard took centre stage.
The evolution of Italian football highlight how the rigidity of football philosophies in coaching was broken by pure number 10s like Baggio, Zola, Totti and Rui Costa. In Spain, it was all about how the Tiki-Taka of Pep Guardiola (influenced by Cruyff) influenced not just La Liga but also the Spanish national team. For France, most of the tactical evolution was in the national team and not in the local league. From the evolution of wide forwards to the water carriers that have defined an era of midfielders. In all, Zonal Marking is an exciting exposition of how tactics have evolved in the major European leagues over the last two decades. The little snag I had was the excessive description of specific goals that were used as examples of specific tactical innovations. Most of them seemed excessively detailed and it was like anecdotes were being forced to suit narratives. One of those correlation/causation things. In all, it is an excellent football read.