TrawlerMeets: Zonal Marking

Posted on February 15, 2012 by

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Michael Cox is the man behind the acclaimed football blog Zonal Marking. His penchant for finding tactical explanations for famous footballing victories has been infectious, and his talents are now employed by the likes of ESPN SoccernetThe Guardian (he features, notably, on the popular Football Weekly podcast) and FourFourTwo magazine. We at The Trawler enjoy Cox’s work immensely, and indeed our own tactics features owe him an undeniable intellectual debt. As such, we were grateful when Michael had some time to answer a few questions on journalism, tactics, and football geekery.

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TT: Your one-man-website Zonal Marking is certainly a remarkable achievement. How did it start, and why do you think it became so successful?

MC: Thanks! I started it initially because I wanted to get into football journalism. I did some work experience placements etc, but there’s only so much you can impress people by making cups of tea and doing photocopying, and as someone who doesn’t drink tea, I make awful cups of tea anyway, or at least so I’m told. Initially It was just a blogspot site and I wrote about one game a week while I was working full-time. Then, I ended up leaving my job and had a few weeks of nothing, so I thought I might as well give it a go, putting effort into a proper site and seeing whether it could become popular.

I think it became reasonably popular because it focused on an area that the mainstream media doesn’t cover particularly well. The papers are full of talk about scandals, who said what, what this player has done in their personal life. I think a lot of people don’t care about that and want to talk about football. When I go to the pub with mates we talk about players, teams, what happens on the pitch, and it struck me that there’s a fair amount of people who wanted to read stuff about that. The increasing availability of stats and chalkboards helped too. And putting a lot of effort in was key. Before the World Cup I previewed all 32 teams, with varying quality. I tried to watch at least one pre-tournament friendly from each side. I barely left the house for two weeks, and at this stage I didn’t have ads on the site so it wasn’t making any money…but then I had a big spike of traffic
so it was worth it.

Your analysis focuses almost exclusively on the tactical/strategic side of the game. Is this because you think it is the most important issue to consider, or simply because you perceive it to be under-represented in traditional football journalism? To what extent are you ‘redressing the balance’?

More the latter, that it’s under-represented. Whether it’s the most important issue is doubtful, but then I think it’s so difficult to consider that question because there’s so many variables involved in football. It is, however, in my view, one of the more interesting things to talk about in football. What are the other things that are important in winning a game? Natural quality, team understanding, fitness, motivation, luck, etc etc. They’re all equally important, if not more important, but they’re fairly intangible.

How do you respond to the view (certainly not held by The Trawler) that you over-analyse football, and that the game is in reality a lot less sophisticated than you imply?

Well, I obviously don’t agree! But I must say two things: first, ZM isn’t just “what I think about football”. I have views on lots of things apart from tactics, often a game is won because of something other than tactics. But the site is about tactics. The comment that bores me is “The ref made this mistake, so tactics were irrelevant.” Well, they might not have been the key factor in the outcome of the game, but they weren’t irrelevant. Second, if people don’t want to consider tactics, they’re entirely entitled not to care. Football’s about fun and enjoying it, and people can enjoy it in many different ways.

A lot less sophisticated? Hmm… I was interested in the Secret Footballer‘s comments on this a while back:

“Switch to our world and the level of detail that goes into games still, to this day, amazes me. Every player has his own script, what to do, when to do it, information on the player he’s up against, including weight, height, age, strengths, weaknesses, even what that opponent is likely to do when the ball comes to him in certain situations. We memorise every single set piece, where we have to stand, run and end up. We even memorise this for the other players so we know where everyone else will be at any given time. You know that pass when you say to yourself: “How did he spot that?” Often he didn’t need to; he knew the player would be there because, the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making. It’s exactly the same pass after which sometimes you might find yourself saying: “Who was that to?” The receiving player either forgot to be there or was taken out of the game by a tactical manoeuvre by his opposite number. Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside.”

I’ve spoken to many analysts at football clubs, and the depth they go into is incredible, so I’m confident I’m not overdoing it!

Your journalistic work is famous for its measured use of clear, descriptive diagrams rather than overly ornate or rambling prose. With that in mind, are you ever surprised that your writing is occasionally seen as high-brow or “geeky”?

Hmm, not really. If you’re going to look at football by showing graphs and diagrams and that kind of thing, I think there’s always going to be a large element of geekiness, which I fully embrace…. A lot of football fans are geeks – they know a ridiculous amount about football, they remember irrelevant goals from decades ago, they know pointless stats. I know I do. Media and advertisers want us all to be geezers like in the WKD adverts and be about ‘banter’. Maybe there is a lot of those people, but they’re probably not the type who read blogs, which is another fairly geeky hobby anyway. Actually let’s be honest – if you spend your free time writing about football, you are a geek. We might as well be truthful…

As a blogger-turned-professional football writer, you are something of a poster boy for the ‘blogging community.’ What advice would you offer those hoping to make a similar jump?

Ha not sure about that. I’ve been quite lucky. Ideally I think it’s wise to make yourself known for writing about something in particular. You probably have to combine blogging with experience of ‘proper’ journalism experience too, even if minimal; most journalism is about getting stories, not about writing extended prose, although that might change slightly.

Also I think it’s vital to look for journalism work in slightly more unusual places, I’m amazed at how many people still see newspapers as the be-all and end-all. It’s very sad, but newspapers are on the decline. If you can get work with a newspaper than fantastic, it’s brilliant experience and newsroom experience is still rightly valued highly. But I write for a betting site, for ESPN’s US site, for a startup statistics site and put together an online tactics video every week for Yahoo… it’s hardly traditional journalism. There are opportunities out there. The decline of print journalism is not the decline of journalism, although obviously it does impact upon it, I just think people have to be creative, open to new ideas and able to adjust to how the public now consume journalism.

It’s amazing that some journalists treat the internet (the main reason for the decline of newspapers) as a bad thing. It’s a ridiculously, gigantically good thing for journalism on the whole, because so much more media is being consumed. That is the raw fact. Traditional media sources may still be adapting to how they embrace the internet and there are issues with how it is funded, but the main thing is that it’s opened up dozens of new opportunities. I reckon 90% of the football media I take in every week wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the internet. Good ideas can become respected sources remarkably quickly and people with the good ideas have a good chance of being successful… anyone can make a site or a podcast, and if it’s good then they’ll be picked up elsewhere. It’s quite meritocratic, really.

With a great deal of focus on the lack of English managers at the top level, do you think a basic understanding of tactics is important in the development of youth players with a view to producing English managers with greater tactical expertise? Do you think that an institution like Match of the Day, with its constant focus on “events” and “talking points” (especially refereeing mistakes) could play a more positive role in this regard?

The first question, not as directly as it’s suggested there. Mourinho wasn’t a player and managed to have tactical expertise. A more intelligent football culture in the youth game would probably help, though.

The second question – yes, it’s an excellent point. A 3-0 win is a comfortable win, and yet that is often attributed to “player a not tracking player b at a corner” etc. OK, but what about the rest of the game that led to that incident. If one team had 70% possession and got the ball into the box 50 times compared to the opposition’s 5 times, it’s clearly not just a positional error that has resulted in one side winning. Listen to Jose Mourinho talk about his success in England and he pinpoints the 4-3-3 v 4-4-2 battle being a key part. You could watch Match of the Day for a whole season and probably not hear anything about tactics, because it’s not easy to boil it down to one incident. Part of that is the nature of television and isn’t MOTD’s fault, but equally some of the analysis is, well, not really analysis.

Obviously you’ve carved out a distinctive niche in the world of football writing, which has probably helped you to stand out from the crowd? But do you ever feel restricted by the expectation that you’ll always have a tactical response to a game? Are you ever tempted to analyse other areas of football in detail?

Not really, because now I write for other sites it’s not really a problem. Although I am often, understandably, asked to write about tactics because that’s what I’m known for, but gradually – particularly for ESPN who have been fantastic to work for – I’ve got more license to write about other things. I suppose it’s a question of proving you can do other things, which is an entirely reasonable way for it to work – I can write about tactics but that’s very specific, whether I can write about, I don’t know, hooliganism problems or the current racism row is a totally separate thing. If I was ever really desperate to have something read widely, with no care about payment, I could just offer it to a blog and then tweet about it, and people would read it, which is the nice thing about twitter.

And finally, are there any football writers (past or present) that you have attempted to emulate?

Not particularly, obviously Jonathan Wilson’s writing on tactics was a big influence, but then that concentrated on wider themes rather than individual games, I think. Actually maybe a bigger influence would be from cricket, with the stuff Simon Hughes used to do for Channel 4. He wrote a book called ‘The Analyst’s Guide To Test Cricket’ which was full of annotated pictures and tables explaining strategy in cricket. Also, even more randomly, for my previous job I was doing something similar to what a site called UK Polling Report does. That’s all tables and graphs. I briefly worked with the guy who writes that blog, and I like the way he did it as a bit of a side project to his main work.

But you also pick up stuff from elsewhere. I realised my introductions to general articles were terribly dull, so tried to be a bit more James Horncastle with them. And I was always a big fan of World Football Phone-In and knew Andy Brassell’s views of football were always particularly considered because he knew so much about a wide range of football, so for the website I’ve tried to cover a lot of leagues too. But, if it doesn’t sound horribly pretentious, because I was trying to do something different to a lot of mainstream media, it was important not to copy others.

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You can like Zonal Marking on facebook, and/or follow Michael Cox on Twitter: @Zonal_Marking

Be sure to check out the rest of our “In Conversation With…” series.

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Posted in: Football, Interviews