The beautiful game

The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines Michael Cox HarperCollins ₹991  

In January 2010, the English journalist Michael Cox set up a website, ‘’, which aimed at analysing football matches from a dispassionate, tactical stand point. The first piece published on the website (backdated to October, 2009), which was a report of Arsenal’s three-nil win over their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur, began thus: “Tottenham had the dilemma faced by most 4-4-2 sides visiting top four opposition this season—stay with their regular shape, or shift to a 4-5-1 more effective at winning and keeping position in the centre of midfield?”

To a layperson reading that sentence, the terms ‘4-4-2’ and ‘4-5-1’, in particular, stand out as nearly indecipherable. But, to a football fan, even to someone casually interested in the sport, these numbers denote a basic fact, a detail that goes to the root of how football teams are organised. When Cox started, however, these kind of reports were still rather niche, if belonging to a burgeoning field.

It was in the year preceding the launch of the website that the then Guardian columnist Jonathan Wilson had made tactics talk cool, when he published a book, Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics to substantial acclaim. Until this point, football journalism, particularly books on the sport, tended to focus on the raw romance of the game and its characters, rather than the finer, more nuanced aspects of the sport. Wilson’s book helped unshackle football reporting from some of its shabby disregard for facts—he expounded to us, with rigorous detail, the inner stratagems that have always defined the sport.

Cox’s success owes much to Wilson. Indeed, he acknowledges as much on his website. But his reportage was always excellent in its own right. It might have catered to a very specific kind of online audience, but by the time the World Cup came around in 2010, had become essential reading for the football fan.

Tactical moves

Cox profiled the participating teams at the tournament with charts and diagrams appended, showing the manner of their tactical set-up. He also reported on the matches with substantial care and precision, often including little historical nuggets to illuminate why a game might have panned out in the manner in which it did.

When a team played with a 4-2-3-1, for example, Cox illustrated the formation on the web-page, showing us the precise placement of the four defenders, the two holding midfielders, the three advanced midfielders and the centre forward. The writing here may have often been bland, but that was part of the plan: our focus was always meant to be on the tactics. For instance, in telling us how the United States regained control over a match with Ghana, Cox highlighted a shift in formation at half time, from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1, which allowed for an extra option in midfield.

Now, Cox has a new book, The Mixer, where he takes this distinctively analytical approach and expands on it to narrate a modern history of the English Premier League, to tell the story of how, as Cox puts it, teams in England abandoned “ugly, straightforward, direct football,” and embraced “a more cultured, continental, technical style.” The Premier League was founded in 1992, as largely an exercise in rebranding the English game. But as Cox points out, the year was also marked by an important change in the rules, which completely altered the landscape of the game.

Up until then, goalkeepers had been allowed to use their hands when the ball was deliberately kicked back to them by a teammate. Now, they could handle the ball only when a teammate had headed, chested or kneed it back to them. This meant that goalkeepers were now an integral part of a team’s passing moves; they needed to necessarily enlarge their skill sets, to show an adroitness with their feet that they previously didn’t require. On its own, the new law had a clear impact on the game, requiring teams to shun the negativity in their tactics that had marked the previous decade.

Enigmatic game changer

But the league’s most marked change began with a transfer of the enigmatic, but supremely talented, French forward Eric Cantona, who, in November 1992, moved from Leeds United to Manchester United, and almost instantly transformed the latter, not only with the aura of his personality, but also through his peerless flair and ability. “The purchase of a player in Cantona’s mould revolutionised [Manchester] United’s tactical approach overnight,” writes Cox. Cantona flitted into spaces between the lines of the opposition’s defence and midfield, allowing United to play a system of a kind that England hadn’t witnessed until then.

This refined approach became a prototype of sorts in the early years of the Premier League, with every team trying to play with one of their forwards withdrawn into midfield. However, simultaneously, teams also learned how to play against an opposition that fielded a deeper forward. This called for new tactical innovations, but with every improvement came a response, leading to a complete makeover in how the game is today played. In telling us the story of these revolutions, Cox allows us, as fans, to indulge in what we love most: nostalgia. But this act of reminiscence comes with the added benefit of an education, which, for some of us, might well transform the way we view the sport.

The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines; Michael Cox, HarperCollins, ₹991.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 1:24:53 PM |

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