Two football books, both excellent holiday reads. First up was The Mixer by Michael Cox, a history of football trends and tactics in the Premier League era of English football (1992-2017). This period is covered in twenty-five chapters, mainly structured around the various champion teams, but also two very memorable nearly sides (Newcastle ’96 and Liverpool 2014) and some notable outliers (the Bolton and Stoke of Allardyce and Pulis are prominent among these).
The standard is set with a fine first chapter on the inaugural season, 1992-93; the introduction of the backpass rule (which increased the premium on fitness and ball playing defenders) and the impact of Eric Cantona are discussed. As we are taken forward to 2017, Cox’s narrative weaves together the events and personalities of the successful Premier League teams, with enjoyably snappy comments and observations.
The key theme is the success of the Premier League being (slowly and gradually) underpinned by the arrival of talent from overseas: players like Cantona, Bergkamp, Zola, Ronaldo and Silva and then managers such as Wenger, Benitez and Mourinho. These and many other figures revolutionize the English game through developments in tactics and training. The greatest figure of all, Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, is seen to absorb these changes, re-calibrating his side’s tactics, structure and play over the course of their thirteen championships victories.
Although its rampant commercialism is often a turn off for me (and I’ve never been a customer of Sky), the Premier League has been a deeply entertaining football product and The Mixer is a great celebration of this – sweet things such as the small facts like the one about Arsenal uniquely scoring in every game in the 2001/02 season or Didier Drogba’s patchy season-on-season stats but incredible record in big games. The best is perhaps the one about the chaotic (and deeply fortunate) nature of the four Champions League wins achieved in this time by Manchester United (twice), Liverpool and Chelsea.
I zipped speedily enough through the 450 pages of The Mixer over a week’s break in the Lake District, taking in two or three chapters each evening. After I’d moved onwards across the Irish sea to a further week in Donegal, I picked up Klopp: Bring the Noise by Raphael Honigstein, a biography of the current Liverpool FC manager.
Jurgen Klopp, as is apparent for all who know of him is, even by the standards of top level football coaches, a striking personality and a powerfully charismatic figure (a political career post-football is mooted more than once here). He has appealingly down-to-earth human qualities: humour and self-deprecation, empathy and open-heartedness. Although it is also made clear that on the flip side Klopp is fiercely direct and driven to win, frequently prone to simmering anger.
In short, Klopp is a man blessed with particularly outstanding people management skills. This is emphasised by the first-person evidence of the very large parade of his colleagues and personal associates assembled here by Honigstein from all corners of German football (players, fellow coaches, club functionaries, general managers and chairmen).
The biography is structured in quartets of chapters, the first on Klopp’s background (both family and his determined but undistinguished playing career), then individual chapters on his three management jobs at Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool; and then round again three times – making up sixteen chapters. The chapters often begin with a description/reminisce of a dramatic or key moment in Klopp’s life, upon which the surrounding or underlying events and the fascinating personal testimony of the other actors is laid deeply.
Honigstein has great facility with the English language (I was a big fan of his weekly Bundesliga columns in the Guardian) and his writing neatly and stylishly describes Klopp’s career, embellished with impersonal observations and comments (with wry touches of humour in places also). Adding this to his previous Das Reboot, as well as the wonderfully readable Tor! by Uli Hesse, there is a small but rich vein of English language football books by German authors.
Returning to the subject; whilst reading Bring the Noise the most interesting thing to me (aside from the matter of personality and magnetism) was Klopp’s strategy and results. Tactically adopting Wolfgang Frank’s novel variant of high intensity pressing with a 4-4-2, and then using it with a series of underdogs to try and gain an advantage over more prestigious and resourced opponents. Equally fascinating to me was that whilst this method improved performance enormously almost from the off, ultimate success (promotions and championships at Mainz and Dortmund) occurred after several disappointments and took a great deal of determination and perseverance. Similarly Klopp hasn’t won any trophies yet in his 2½ years at Liverpool, although a chance to rectify that is just around the corner, as Liverpool will play Real Madrid in the Champions League final later this month.
To wrap this review up, both of these books are excellent additions to the sports library: entertaining, fascinating reads on two (well, entertaining, fascinating) phenomena in modern sport.