The most common way to begin any conversation about how a team plays football is to ask, “What formation does the team play?” This question might have provided a good picture of a team’s style of play once upon a time. Now, however, it only supplies further questions rather than answers. Football is an incredibly fluid game, and is constantly undergoing tactical evolution. With players moving around the field in increasingly different ways, the formation only offers a small glimpse of how a team might play.
ZonalMarking.net is a football blog written by Michael Cox that offers tactical analysis through multiple different types of articles. The most common are match reviews, in which a game is scrutinized and dissected by how players tended to move on and off the ball, where gaps were created, filled, or exploited on the field, and strategic substitutions. One of the most recent examples of such a review is the Arsenal 1-0 victory over Tottenham on September 1st. Cox attributes the Arsenal victory in this feature to two main reasons – a high defensive line Tottenham played that allowed Arsenal players (especially Theo Walcott) to run onto space behind the last defender, and Santi Cazorla’s movement inside from the left wing towards the center of the field in order to help Arsenal’s 3 central midfielders “overload” Tottenham’s midfield three and retain possession for the majority of the match. In comparison to a standard match summary, which would’ve noted the goal scorer (Olivier Giroud), the formations of the teams (both 4-2-3-1), and an assortment of different events like shots on goal, errors, and fouls, these match reviews are much more useful for understanding how the game was played, which players were important (even if they didn’t score), and why one team prevailed over the other.
While these reviews can provide a detailed look at specific matches, the site also has a number of detailed features on the evolution of modern football. One such feature, a top 10 list of “How the 2000s Changed Tactics”, is particularly useful for anyone who wishes to understand how the roles of the midfielder have changed in the past decade.
The most recent monumental tactical shift in the modern game is detailed in #2 and #1 – the fall in popularity of using a midfield playmaker strictly behind the striker (also called the #10) as well as the tackling defensive midfielder, and the rise of the deep midfield playmaker. Cox notes that, “In 2004, Gabriele Marcotti wrote an article for The Times about Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola… about how, in 2004-spec football, Guardiola was useless.” Guardiola, an unspectacular physical specimen, did not have the stamina, physical strength, or goal-scoring prowess to play as either the #10 or the tackling defensive midfielder. Meanwhile, “France, Italy, Portugal and Holland had Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, Manuel Rui Costa and Dennis Bergkamp respectively – it almost seemed essential to have a player in this mould (the #10) to be successful – helped by trequartista-less England and Germany’s early exits [from Euro 2000].”
By 2010, this pattern would completely shift due to new tactics. Guardiola’s Barcelona team had become arguably the best club side of all time due to playmakers Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets playing in front of the defense, while #10s had fallen in popularity. Cox illustrates that these changes can be attributed by the continuing evolution of tactics. The rise in the importance of the #10 facilitated the rise in popularity of the tackling defensive midfielder, a clear cause and effect: this kind of player could man-mark the #10 for the entire game, making him less effective. Meanwhile, a deep playmaker like Guardiola was tougher to follow and defend because he played further back, in front of his own defense. The pure #10 decreased in popularity, and the role became less defined, as more playmakers learned to play out on the wing (like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi) and drift across the field in order to “escape” the defensive midfielder, and drag him and defenders out of position. As a result of the evolution of the attacking midfielders away from strict #10s, tackling defensive midfielders had no clear player to mark, and tackling became less important as passing and intercepting became crucial towards controlling possession.
In addition to his features on the changing tactics of the decade, Zonal Marking has an intriguing feature on the “20 teams of the 2000s”. Cox specifically explains that, “This list is not attempting to name the best twenty sides of the decade, rather, on a site focused upon tactics, it is attempting to outline the twenty most interesting sides in terms of the way they played, or in the way the team was set out on the pitch.” Undoubtedly the most interesting part of the feature is the article on the #1 ranked team, the Greek National team that won Euro 2004. This team is known for “parking the bus” (playing extremely defensive football), and only occasionally breaking rank for a quick counterattack. Cox does concede that Greece may not have played the most watchable type of football. However, he observes that, “For a side painted as rigid and boring, Greece did brilliantly to adapt their shape to suit different opposing formations”.
Ultimately, Cox argues that Greek coach Otto Rehhagel, “stuck to the two key components of any successful tactical deployment: Firstly, he played to his own side’s strengths. They had solid, reliable defenders and a hard-working midfield, with little attacking talent. To play open football would have been suicidal. They defended solidly, and then countered at speed with numbers – and their set-piece organization was superb. Secondly, he changed his team to nullify his opponent’s strengths, and to stifle their main threats. The system against the France and Czechs wouldn’t have worked against the Portuguese, and vice-versa.” Although Greece played unattractive football, they won Euro 2004 as 250-1 underdogs while lacking the talent of most of the other nations in the tournament, which means their tactics have a case to be considered the strongest of all the teams of the decade.
After around 2011, the number of new articles on Zonal Marking has fallen, in part due to Michael Cox’s increased role as a writer for ESPNFC.com and the Guardian. Although he still writes match reviews, and other smaller features for major tournaments (such as a best XI for Euro 2012), the number of larger, macroscopic features has decreased. However, he recently announced the debut of a series of analyses of the new managers of Europe of the heavyweights of Europe, such as Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola at Bayern and other new managers at Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona, and PSG. Yesterday, the first article in this feature was released, in which Cox analyzes Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea and potential tactics he might employ. Zonal Marking strikes a nice balance between scrutinizing football on a higher level than a simple match summary or box score and avoiding over complication with too many statistics or complex football terms. Additionally, the inclusion of both single match reviews and analyses of tactical trends and ideas provides an encompassing understanding of both current and past football strategy. Overall, ZonalMarking.net is a fantastic blog for learning about football tactics and their constant evolution.