My last book was ‘The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines’ by Michael Cox.
The book is about the evolution of English football from a lowly sport to one that is remarkably unrecognizable from its humble start. The book covers 25 years of the intriguing spectacle people around the world witnessed.
This book is entertaining! Full of eye-opening detailed analysis into matches and behind-the-scenes which fans are not often privy to.
Right now, the Premier League has become the most entertaining league in the world and this is often taken for granted, yet it’s important to know that when England decided to rebrand the league into what it is today, managers like Alex Ferguson scoffed at the idea ridiculing the concept as a ‘piece of nonsense’ that would ‘sell supporters down the river’.
But without the rebranding, the tremendous achievement of the league would have been impossible. For instance, consider what has made the league what it is today: the influx of foreign players and managers. It’s notable that in 1992, just 11 foreign players started for the 22 clubs combined, and there were no foreign managers, largely due to the quota system. By its 25th season, the majority of Premier League players and managers were foreign — and almost every major footballing nation on earth was represented. Of the top 25 countries in the FIFA rankings, only Mexico and Costa Rica didn’t have a Premier League representative in 2016/17.
The progress of football has occasionally been comical. Before the banning of the back-pass law — the law prohibiting goalkeepers from handling the ball if intentionally played to them by their players — teams leading in games would waste regular time doing with these passes. There was a match where Graeme Souness shot the ball to his goalkeeper deep into the opponent’s half to preserve a lead. It was such a radical change, outraging goalkeepers. Alan Hodgkinson, England shotstopper at the time, said, “I can’t see the value of setting up goalkeepers so they look foolish.” In fact, the inability of Liverpool to win a Premier League title, having dominated the 1970s and 1980s, to the introduction of the back-pass law.
And some players were just so important to their teams. Players like Henry, Bergkamp, Zola, Ronaldo were unbelievable. Eric Cantona is an iconic example. As soon as he started playing for the club, Manchester United started winning trophies. Cantona was at United for five years. United won the league four times, only failure during this period, finishing second in 1994/95, came when the fantastic French forward was suspended for half the campaign.
Other players finding themselves in lowly clubs made marks on the league that will never be forgotten. A prime example is Stoke City’s Rory Delap, a player not known for what he can do with the ball on his legs. In Delap, the Premier League was shown someone they have never seen before. His throw-ins were extraordinary. Teams playing against Stoke preferred to have corner kicks than throw-ins. He could launch the ball up to 40 meters with a speed of 60km/h (width of standard football field can be as low as 45m). Stoke based their entire game around his throws. He recorded several assists and second assists with this unique football ability. Delap even managed to throw the ball (against Wigan) with such force that it sailed straight into the top corner — the goal, of course, didn’t stand.
Coaches and their influence on the Premier League is largely what the book is about. From Guardiola influencing the League many years before he stepped foot at Man City with Tiki-Taka to Wenger’s revolutionary approach to diet at Arsenal (he was angry his players on national assignment reveal the culinary secrets to their English teammates), to Kloop extraordinary Gegenpressing, to Conte’s popularizing the 3–4–3 formation, to Mourinho high-influential “packing the bus” approach. The list is inexhaustible.
My brother, who uncharacteristically finished the book before me, remarked that Cox was skewed towards Man Utd. Yet I don’t see it. Manchester United had dominated the league, winning 4 times in the first 5 years alone; 8 in the first 11 years; again, dominating between 2007 and 2012–5 times out of 7. The praise for these achievements goes to the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. A man always willing to learn from other cultures and improve his teams. At a time when Premier League teams were also-rans in Europe, he bucked the trend and brought the Champions League to Old Trafford. It’s difficult to quantify the influence of Ferguson on English football. He would try any tactics which would make him win. He would send great players away — like he did to Nistelrooy & Beckham — if they hamper his formation. He would buy many stars for one position — like he did to the front 4 in 1999 — if that’s what it takes to win
The book is a page-turner because of its unexpected tantalizing tales. The innovative Sam Allardyce. The celebrated but inconsistent Didier Drogba. The inspiring Makelele. I enjoyed the story about Bale and his jinx. The resurgence of Paul Scholes. Rodgers admiration of the Spanish Model. Andres Villas Boas and his naivety. Too many. Many times I found myself opening YouTube to watch the matches I was reading about. Surreal to see they panned out exactly as described.
The outstretched arms of the Premier League to foreign influences has led to huge financial breakthrough. The Premier League received £51m per season in broadcasting rights between 1992 and 1997, then considered a staggering amount. This sum increased exponentially over the next two decades, reaching £2.75bn per season by 2016, 50 times more than in 1992. Sky were effectively paying over £11m to screen each live match, a staggering figure when you consider rights to the entire final old First Division season cost less than £15m.
Britain has created a truly remarkable product. People around the world love the Premier League. A 2015 Populus poll of citizens from countries around the world revealed that the Premier League was Britain’s most popular ‘brand’, ahead of such things as the BBC, British universities, the monarchy and British music. And it’s robbed off on the perception of Britain. In fact, 84% of those polled say that the Premier League makes them feel more positive towards the UK. The power of the English Premier League!
Michael Cox has produced a brilliant and compelling book. I have learnt more about football in 2 weeks of reading the book than I have in over 20 years I have spent loving football.