Soccermetrics Interview #5: Michael Cox (Part 1)

Michael Cox is better known to thousands of football fans as the creator of Zonal Marking: a site about tactics and formations in football matches around the world.  The moment we saw the famous formation graphics on the site we became fascinated with Michael’s work, and I’m sure a lot of people felt the same.  We caught up with Michael to get his thoughts on tactics and formations in football and how data have improved our understanding of both.

This is Part I of our interview.  Subscribers to the Soccermetrics Newsletter will view Part II first.

[Interview originally conducted 4 December 2012.]

(Howard) So Michael, tell me a few sentences about yourself.

(Michael) I run a website called Zonal Marking, about football tactics. It started as something of a hobby but grew into something bigger a couple of years ago – now I write for the Guardian and ESPN amongst others, and just about manage to find time to keep ZM going.

What motivated you to start Zonal Marking?

Basically, the lack of tactical analysis and discussion about actual football in British newspapers. Personally I have little interest in the majority of things – transfer rumours, club takeovers, players’ personal lives – that happens outside of the 90 minutes. I think football is a fascinating sport, the most popular sport in the world for a reason, and we often undersell it by not looking closely enough about the actual game.

In a way it’s not really about tactics – I explore it from that point of view, but it’s more about simply analysing the game. ‘Tactics’ is a decent, all-encompassing term for it – but really it’s whatever happens on the pitch.

I believe you have more of a humanities background than a hard analytical one, is that correct? How has it served you since you started ZM?

Yes, that is true. When it comes to ‘proper’ analytics, I’m a complete amateur, but I studied political science at university and worked in a related area that involved statistics and graphs all day. I was naturally a mathematician when younger, and I’ve always had an interest in that side of sport. My interest in politics generally lied with the strategic side of things, so there was a link there.

How much traffic does your site receive?

It varies, but around 15,000 or so visitors a day.

So how do you watch the games?  Are you able to glean tactical insights from a single viewing, or do you watch matches multiple times?

It varies, but usually just once – then I go back and look at individual moments again. It’s rare that I watch a game in full more than once – usually only in really frantic games, like when a side have tried to press Barcelona.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Trying not to repeat myself! And trying not to go overboard with the tactical side of things. Not every game is decided by tactics – sometimes tactics is a relatively minimal part – so it’s important to differentiate between something that is interesting, and something that is crucial.

I think of tactics as a combination of match formation and strategy (player movement, etc.). How does one support the other?

That’s a very tricky question to answer, though I’d say that match strategy is more like a combination of formation and tactics. The formation provides the framework for what you’re trying to do, everything else happens within that, but it involves so many things – movement of players, pressing without the ball, what players do with the ball.

Is it really helpful to focus so much on a team formation?  Is it still relevant today?

I think it is – it’s not the only thing, and generally not the most important thing. But it provides the basis for everything else. If you have a 4-2-3-1 against a 3-5-2, as I saw in the QPR v Aston Villa match at the weekend, then the 4-2-3-1 has a numerical advantage on the flank and has to use that to its full potential. The 3-5-2 has an advantage at the back, so should be defensively secure. From then, it’s about how sides can exploit the opposition’s weaknesses in whichever zone they think it right.

[To be continued in Part II.  You can read it if you subscribe to the Soccermetrics Newsletter.  You are a subscriber, right?]