Jonathan Wilson On Tactics: Zonal Marking, Liberos And English Shortcomings

In the first part of a two-part interview with Blizzard Editor Jonathan Wilson he discusses back threes, the development of tactics and why English players just don't get it...
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In the first part of a two-part interview with Blizzard Editor Jonathan Wilson he discusses back threes, the development of tactics and why English players just don't get it...


Jonathan, firstly, thanks for talking to us.

No problems.

You wrote Inverting the Pyramid, an extensive history of football tactics, a few years ago – was there something you were particularly hoping to achieve with that book? And if so, to what extent would you say you have?

I really wasn’t if I’m being honest, I’d written Behind The Curtain and that had done pretty well, hadn’t done fantastically but done well enough that Orion, who were my publishers, wanted to do something else with us; my editor Ian Preece, he was very keen to work with me. So we were thrashing around ideas, and I’d just done an extended piece for FourFourTwo, which actually ran over two issues, so probably around 10,000 words or so, maybe 8,000, something around that region, and I suggested that maybe there was a bit more in the history of tactics. I was aware when writing that piece that maybe there were other things that I wanted to go into more detail, things where I felt I was just scratching the surface, and by chance Ian had just commissioned a book a few years earlier from a bloke called Peter Ball, don’t know if you remember him, probably way before your time, but he was a football writer on The Times, and he must have died around 2004 I guess, give or take a couple of years? He died while writing the book, so never got written, never got finished, so Ian was already sold on the idea of doing a tactical book. So basically I wanted to do it, he was quite keen on the idea, so we went from there. I guess looking back I’d always looked at football in a tactical way, without necessarily really thinking about that. I was a very, very bad player, but I played for my second and third teams at college. Third team was alright, I was kind of good enough to play third team football, second team I was basically a bloke who turned up who was quite fit. So I’d regularly take myself off playing with about twenty minutes/half an hour to go, because I knew I was better standing on the touchline, organising people than I was actually being on the pitch. So I guess, without really realising what I was doing, and that was back in the mid-nineties, I was applying tactical theory then. Then obviously the book did very well and I think it came at exactly the right time, I think there was a tactical wave coming. I think English football or British football sort of recognised that was an aspect of the game it had neglected, and I think there was an increasing amount of coverage of tactics, and my book caught the wave and benefitted from that.

In recent seasons zonal marking, after use by Rafa Benitez, has been criticised, and more recently the ‘false nine’ system has been as much as ridiculed by some. What would you say is the most common misconception surrounding tactics?

I guess there’s two; zonal marking you’re right, people just don’t have a clue what it is, people don’t know the differences between zonal marking at set pieces and zonal marking in open play. Next to nobody does anything other than zonal marking in open play now, and for the last 40 years, so this idea that zonal marking is a funny foreign idea and it confuses people is just nonsense. Zonal marking at set plays, when it goes wrong it’s very easily to highlight, but teams who man-mark also concede goals at corners and free kicks, and very rarely is that picked out in the same way. And again the idea that zonal marking is a strange foreign idea, Brian Clough used it; one of the great anti-intellectualists in English football used zonal marking at set plays. He wouldn’t have called it zonal marking but he just said to his players: “Basically, one on each post, scatter around the six-yard box, attack the ball if it comes near you,” and it’s that easy, that’s all zonal marking is. It’s a little bit more specific than that, but that’s what it is in essence. Rather than trying to pick up a player and possibly running into traffic, you take command of the area around you, that’s it theoretically. It is an easy thing to pick out, but it’s one of things were people only notice when it goes wrong. For instance, when Benitez left Liverpool, if you look at that season following, Reina got crowded an awful lot, the reason for that was because they stopped zonal marking at set pieces. One of the dangers of man marking at set pieces is you get bodies packed around your goalkeeper. Defenders follow the forward into that area, and the goalkeeper suddenly finds that rather than three or four men around him, seven or eight men around him. So I’m not saying man marking is better or worse than zonal marking, they’re both systems with their own merits, but people just have a thing against zonal marking.

Formations are neutral; it’s how you apply them that gives them positive or negative qualities. If you play 4-6-0, your ‘6’ could be extremely attacking, or you could play 4-6-0 like Scotland did against the Czech Republic and be extremely defensive

The other misconception is that playing with more strikers makes you more attacking. Formations are neutral; it’s how you apply them that gives them positive or negative qualities. If you play 4-6-0, your ‘6’ could be extremely attacking, or you could play 4-6-0 like Scotland did against the Czech Republic and be extremely defensive, it depends what players you put in those positions. So this idea that “Oh I’d like to see two up front, because that’s more attacking than one up front”, well it depends who your midfield four is. If you played 4-4-2 with lots of very hard working, non-technical midfielders, that 4-4-2 can be very defensive. If you play 4-2-3-1 where your ‘3’ are really skilful players, who are comfortable on the ball, and one of your ‘2’ maybe can pass it over long distances, that’s way more attacking than the 4-4-2 with the quite defensive ‘4’. So the idea that you can tell whether a team’s more attacking or defensive looking at the formation and the formation alone is nonsense.

Do you agree the re-popularisation of a sweeper/libero role could be an effective tactic against a false 9?

Yeah I think it is, absolutely, it seems to me to make sense. Before the United – Barça final, which... was that last year? Yeah, 2011. I wrote a piece saying to deal with Messi you’ve got to put a midfielder on him, and let the midfielder follow him, and lie deep in the midfield, it’s very difficult to do in a one-off game, and I’m not particularly surprised that United didn’t do that, but what was interesting was that Alex Ferguson admitted afterwards: “In an ideal world we’d have had a midfielder tracking him but we couldn’t do that, there simply wasn’t enough time to adapt our way of playing to accommodate that,” so I think generally we’re seeing a move back towards a libero. I think the way that people like Mascherano or Busquets play, as a defender stepping out into midfield, so that one of your defenders becomes the fulcrum of play to start attacks, I think that’s becoming more and more accepted; more and more common. You see at the minute with people like Pirlo, or Xabi Alonso as the creative fulcrums of their teams, playing deep in midfield, and at times we see them stepping so far back they almost become a third centre back, particularly at Barca. If you look at the last Clasico, last November/December time at the Bernabeu, when Real Madrid went ahead, in the first minute, the way Barca got back into the game, the way they turned the momentum of the game, was Busquets stopped marking Mesut Ozil, dropped into the back four to make it a back three; Dani Alves pushed up, and Busquets, suddenly, was able to start controlling the game again, by stepping back, getting away from opposing players, and having time on the ball. So I don’t think it’s going to happen in the middle of the Premier League, it’s certainly not going to happen with the majority of Premier League teams, but at the very highest level, I think defenders comfortable on the ball will increasingly become the player who initiates attacks, in the way Beckenbauer was for West Germany in the seventies, or the way that Brandenburg was for Ajax in the seventies.

I think a player whose position that’s interesting at the minute is the winger, we’ve gone through a phase of inverted wingers, and now we seem to have gone back to traditional wingers

How do you see tactics developing in the future? Will certain roles & positions fade away and others come back?

Yeah, that’s the way of things, some of these things are cyclical, some things disappear and come back in different forms, other things just disappear. The fact that centre forwards are to an extent being refined out of existence, with Fabregas playing there, with Messi playing there, that’s an option of how to play; I think there’s equally a role for the target man. I think a player whose position that’s interesting at the minute is the winger, we’ve gone through a phase of inverted wingers, and now we seem to have gone back to traditional wingers, I think they can both co-exist. But I guess if you play a false nine you have to have inverted wingers; it makes no sense to play traditional wingers with nobody in the box to hit. So it’s becoming harder and harder to see how tactics will go, because I think there’s much more a mix, there’s much more a melange of tactical approaches. You don’t have a Spanish approach, an English approach, an Italian approach, as you had twenty or thirty years ago, where you could see the general ethos and see where things were going. Now these paths cross all over the place as coaches move, as ideas move, and people see things in other leagues and other tournaments. All those strands have become mixed together, which I think will increasingly see some interesting results, as different cultures clash and produce something new. But there’s always been this process of: you have an idea; it works; somebody comes up with a way of stopping that idea; and then you have to change that idea. So I think that will go on. I just think it’ll go on in a much more refined way, in much finer threads, than in the past.

In the very first international in 1872, England played Scotland, Scotland started passing the ball, and England were totally dumb-founded by that.

Do you expect the back 3 to become even more widespread over the coming seasons?

Possibly. I think it’s interesting seeing Wigan doing it, but they’re the only English team who do it. I don’t think it suits an English mentality or English style of play. I can see why it’s popular in Italy, it’s a way of getting width high up the pitch, with wing backs rather than full backs, without sacrificing men in the middle. And Italians are obsessed by getting men in the middle and closing the game down, which is why the Italian game is much more based on tactics and strategy than our game. I think in Spain where ball possession is such a key... I think Bielsa has shown that the back three is a logical way to play, if your way of defending is by effectively not to lose the ball, rather than win the ball back, I think that makes sense. You’ve got the Spanish way of holding the ball, and the Italian way of getting bodies in the middle – they’re two impetuses to go to a back three, but I’m not sure that impetus really exists in England. Wigan have done it successfully, I guess they are a possession-based team, in the last couple of seasons we’ve seen certainly Liverpool under Dalglish and Sunderland at various points use a back three, particularly against long ball teams as a way of getting men around the target man, so you’ve got more men around to pick up the knock-downs. Whether that’d ever become more widespread or whether they’re specific tactics for those games, I doubt. So I think possibly in Spain, Italy’s already well down the road of going to a back three, and I think 17 of the 20 sides in Serie A last season tried it at some point; I think in England, probably not. Germany I guess is an interesting case because it sort of combines the English and Italian mentalities, speaking very crudely, and I guess it could start becoming more effective in the Champions League, and maybe other teams at a high level will start to copy it. But at the moment the only team that plays a back three in the Champions League, at any great level, is Barcelona. I guess Juve will do that next season, we’ll see how that works. Barcelona is just a freakish side, their way of playing is so different to how everybody else plays, I don’t think anybody looks at them in a tactical essence, I think you just look at them in awe; I don’t think we see anything that we could apply to our own players, most of the time you’d just say our players don’t play like that.

English players have recently come under criticism for their general lack of tactical awareness. Where do you think that stems from?

It’s everything in the game, it’s not just recently, it’s a hundred-year-old problem – well more than that; the very first international in 1872, England played Scotland, Scotland started passing the ball, and England were totally dumb-founded by that. So right from the start England’s been a very backwards nation tactically, I think we’ve always been distrustful of theory. There’s a basic distrust in England of intellectualism, so I think we distrust learning, we distrust diagrams, so the basis of our coaching is still just out on the pitch; it’s still kind of your Sergeant-Major type screaming in the face of players. Looking at the one truly great work in English tactics, which is Allen Wade’s coaching course from 1967, which is where Roy Hodgson, Don Howe, Bobby Houghton, Dave Sexton, people that, where they learned the game. And even now, magnificent document that it is, it’s all based on teaching the game through game situations. It’s a brilliant book, in that it takes theory and it breaks it down into a series of exercises that you can play, so that players, in theory, learn by repetition, by playing on the pitch, not by looking at a blackboard, thinking about it. That’s fine up to a point, but I think you need players to make decisions for themselves; I think that’s where Dutch football has always been very, very strong. So I guess most of the flaws in English football come down to a lack of coaching, and hopefully that’s something that St George’s Park in Burton will start to address. England has somewhere around 2,500 qualified coaches; in Spain it’s somewhere around 25,000. So while we have a lot of very well-intentioned school teachers, parents, who coach football up to a point in England, it’s great that they put the time in and it’s great that they have the enthusiasm, but they’re not actually trained to do it, to a high level, and I think that’s where the big shortfall is, technically and tactically in English football players aren’t coached well enough at an early age, and there aren’t enough coaches.

Jonathan can be found on Twitter here, and the football magazine which he founded and edits, The Blizzard, can be found on Twitter here.

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