An interview with Jonathan Wilson

As a part of my work for Sabotage Times, I was able to interview Jonathan Wilson, one of my favourite football writers, and also author of books such as Inverting the Pyramid and Behind the Curtain. The interview was posted in two parts on Sabotage Times, and you can read parts 1 & 2 via the links provided. Here’s the full version though; enjoy. He’s an absolutely fascinating man, with a lot to say about a number of topics.

Jonathan, firstly, thanks for doing this interview. 

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, 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.

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. 

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. 

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 Hope, 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. 

Simply from following you on Twitter it’s easy to tell that you have a keen interest South American football. But with the juggernaut of the Champions League, do you think leagues outside of Europe will be able to hold onto their stars, or will they continue to be seen as feeder leagues and development grounds for European teams? 

What’s interesting at the moment is how much money there suddenly is in Brazilian football, there’s a lot of money in Middle Eastern football in certain teams and certain leagues, and also Chinese football, but I guess the problem with the Middle East and China is that they don’t have particularly big crowds, particularly strong traditions. There’s a sense of selling out when you go to the Middle East, when you go to China; with Asamoah Gyan going there in his mid-twenties it just seems like an awful waste of talent. At 35 it’s cashing out at the end of your career, getting some money to retire with, I don’t think anyone blames players for that.

But going there in your mid-twenties I think is just not testing yourself, you’re not going to get the best out of your abilities. So unless a Middle Eastern team can suddenly sign 11 players of Asamoah Gyan’s quality, and another two or three teams also do that so there’s suddenly competitiveness in the league, I think the money there’s almost irrelevant.

What’s interesting is Brazil, there is tradition, there are the huge crowds… at the moment it tends to be persuading Brazilians to come back; people like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Deco… even somebody Jadson, who’s had a perfectly good career at Shakhtar Donetsk, in previous years might have moved to a mid-ranked Italian club, mid-ranked Spanish club – he’s gone back to Sao Paolo. So that I think shows the growing strength of Brazilian football.

The fact that they’ve been able to take Seedorf, as Botafogo have, saying it’s worth spending two years there; maybe the pace won’t be quite like it is in Europe but the quality’s there. So I think that’s interesting, that Brazil suddenly has money, and I don’t think that will diminish in the immediate future; the Brazilian economy is very strong, Brazilian football is very strong. The fact that they’ve got such a big population means they can actually support a league where 6 or 7 teams are competitive, which hardly any other country in the world has, so that makes it more attractive to viewers.

Even the fact that ESPN have picked up the rights for the Brazilian league from Premier Sport, that shows that Brazilian football is starting to catch on. I think anybody watching Brazilian football can see it’s a very good technical standard, maybe the pace is a bit slower than here but that allows for a different type of game, it allows individual skills which in some ways makes it perhaps more watchable than European football.

If their rights start to go up then they’ll obviously get more money, they’ll be able to attract better players, keep hold of their young players for longer; the fact that Neymar and Ganso are both committed to staying at Santos until at least the World Cup, well my understanding is that Neymar has already signed a deal with Barcelona and he will move there after the World Cup, but the fact that they’ve been able to hold onto them until they’re 23/24, rather than losing them when they were 18/19, I think Brazilian football is up-and-coming.

Whether the Arab leagues, whether the Chinese leagues, can ever catch up I don’t know… they’re starting from a much lower base, but I think places like Argentina for instance, I think the economy of football there certainly is all over the place. Every club owes a massive amount of debt, the government’s pretty much nationalised football by buying back all the contracts, all the TV rights. So basically football in Argentina has been subsidised by the state, and even then they can’t hold onto players.

What that does mean is that the Argentinian league is very competitive, because you have what’s effectively a reverse draft, where rather than the worst team getting the pick of the best players, the best team immediately loses their best players, because whenever a club wins the league in Argentina, predators from Brazil or even Middle East, China, Europe, pick up their best players, and reduce their level, so everybody’s effectively on the same level. So that makes it very watchable in some ways, but the quality in Argentina is very low. So in answer to your question I think Brazil could become very competitive very quickly… everywhere else probably not.

Given your work on Eastern European football, how successful do you consider Ukraine and Poland’s co-hosting of the tournament? After the sensationalist build-up, did anything surprise you? 

It’s a difficult question to answer. I definitely wanted them to do well, I definitely wanted them to succeed; and in a certain way I guess they did. All the sensationalist build-up to do with hooliganism and racism; none of that came to pass. There was some isolated trouble at the Russia vs Poland game, which had very specific causes, and particularly bad luck that the game happened to be being played in Warsaw on Russian National Day.

So that was always a flash-point and it was unfortunate; I don’t think in any sense it over-shadowed the tournament, there were a couple of other instances but that’s true of any tournament…The impression that I got from most other journalists was that they had a pretty good time, they found people in Poland and Ukraine very welcoming, but there were severe logistical problems which I think undermined everything. Partly the distances involved, that if you have to travel six hours between each venue, as Platini said, you might as well have it in London and Paris and Amsterdam because it’s actually easier than getting from Warsaw to Gdansk.

I think it was a flawed tournament from the outset, there were problems basically caused by the lack of infrastructure; the stadiums were excellent, I don’t think anyone had any problems with them, they were all absolutely first-rate. But for instance in Donetsk there were pretty much 5 hotels, so that meant the hotels could just whack up the prices to ludicrous levels…

I’ll tell you a story of one journalist who on the morning of the semi-final had to check out of his hotel, didn’t have anywhere to stay that night, he went in reception and said: “I know how hotels work, you’re never 100% full, have you really got nothing?” They said: “Hang around a bit, we’ll see,” and every ten minutes he went up and asked: “Have you got anything?”; eventually after two hours they said “Yep, it’ll be £500,” he hands over the credit card, it’s all agreed… and he checks back into the room he’d just checked out of!

If that money was even going back into the Ukrainian economy it wouldn’t be so bad. But that money was going straight into an American firm. And so you kinda think, “Who does that benefit? Who benefits from the tournament being in Donetsk?” It wasn’t the local people of Donetsk because they couldn’t even afford tickets. I guess local businesses had rising profits over the short-term but it would be very short-term… there was even one taxi driver, I said to him, “There’s a real culture of taxi drivers and hotels ripping people off, doesn’t that bother you? Don’t you see you’re harming repeat business?” He said: “There is no repeat business, nobody’s going to come back to Donetsk, it’s not somewhere you go for your holidays.”

And I guess he’s right, but that’s a shame – Donetsk is actually very nice; it’s an industrial city, it’s a working city… but there are plenty of nice churches; plenty of nice restaurants; plenty of nice parks… it’s not a bad city in any sense. But I guess a lot of people who went came back with a bad impression, purely because prices were so high and things were so difficult. And that’s why you saw so many empty seats.

So it worked in some ways, it didn’t work in others. I think these tournaments in big countries – it was true in South Africa, it’ll be true in Brazil, probably Russia as well – it just defeats the purpose of having the tournament in one country. It’s supposed to be this festival where fans and journalists and scouts come together to watch a lot of football, exchange ideas, exchange knowledge, everybody has a good time together, everybody learns together… if you’re then 6 hours apart it just doesn’t happen. 

Onto The Blizzard; have you found its pricing structure worthwhile so far? With pay-what-you-like options for digital and print issues, has it given you a clear idea of your readership? 

It definitely works, we made enough money to keep pretty much everybody happy in the first year, writers are paid a percentage of the profit. Nobody complained about the money they got, I think quite a few were pleasantly surprised by the amount of money that they got, so I think people have respected the pricing model. It was a gamble on all sides when we started, we said to writers: “You might get nothing, you might get a lot, we don’t know, but this is the plan, we’ll be open, we’ll be absolutely transparent,” and writers bought into that.

Then we said to readers: “This is the project, this is what we’re doing, you pretty much have to make it work by paying us realistically,” and that means paying in accordance with what they think it’s worth and what they can basically afford. We didn’t want to price out students; people on low incomes – we wanted to be as global as possible, so we didn’t want to price out people in countries with lower income. I think by and large people have respected that and have paid sensibly enough that at the moment everybody seems happy and at the moment everything continues to grow. Whether that’s the case in a year’s time, I’ll tell you that in a year’s time. Things are going pretty well thanks yeah.

I suppose the motivation is that you can write about exactly what you want as a writer, rather than being restricted by the mainstream media. 

Exactly yeah, and I think that probably means people are prepared to work for a little bit less. But actually the way we’ve been able to pay has been pretty competitive so far and hopefully will become even more competitive as we go forward. 

You’ve written books about specific clubs, countries, areas of the game and specific people. Has there been one subject you enjoyed writing about the most? 

I don’t know, different things give you different satisfactions. I think writing about tactics and finding a semi-coherent structure that fits everything together, I think there’s something quite exciting about that; condensing 140 years of football history into one narrative, and the structural challenge of doing that. I think it is relatively coherent, that was great, very interesting. Writing about Sunderland was great because it was something very dear to me, both in terms of the club and the city.

As for writing about the former Yugoslavia that’s a place I have a lot of affection for, I think the stories that come out of there are fantastic, and it fascinates me as a concept in that it held together for so long, despite such clear flaws; and then the way things cleared up remarkably quickly from the war. And I think looking back over history there’s sort of a recurring theme that there’s 50 years of peace then 2 years of war, and that fascinates me, that historical cycle. So they all have different things that make them interesting and make them intriguing. I’ve been very lucky that pretty much the last 10 years I haven’t had to write about anything that hasn’t interested me. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.

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About Sam Drew

17 year old student by day, football blogger by night

2 responses to “An interview with Jonathan Wilson”

  1. Chi says :

    Amazing interview. JW is the kind of guy who should be on the MOTD panel.

  2. Alex says :

    Great interview. I really enjoyed it! I have been meaning to read Inverting the Pyramid for about a year now but already have a lot to do with university and I’m already getting through a ton of books that I bought to read in spare time. It’s definitely on my list now after reading this interview.

    A few things really stuck with me from this interview. First was the concept of using a back three and how Wigan are the only PL side to use it. It makes me wonder why can’t utilize it, just as in the interview says it can be use against long ball teams. AFC could possily use a back 3 of Kos, Verm & Per (as the sweeper) vs teams like Stoke with wings back Sagna & Gibbs. I think it could be effective in not getting caught on the counter so much vs long ball teams as opposed to only have 2 CBs and getting caught on a 2v2 situtation in counters while everyone else is high up. A back thre would certainly allow flexibility. It would be interesting to see if Arsenal ever use it but also have to think will the players be able to adapt? Will it somehow affect the midfield? What about the defending on the wings?

    Also, the fact that England have 2500 qualified coaches as opposed to 25 000 in Spain is absolutely shocking and needs to be rectified soon, though it will take a while. England has a lot of catch up to play on the “intelectual” level but there are positive signs already at grassroots level with the FA having already voted to reduce pitch size for those under 12 and also different formats in 5v5, 7v7, 9v9 as they grow older. Hopefully in the coming years it will nuture technically better players. Now just to sort out the coaching situation…

    Sorry for my rambling. Great read once again!

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