In an epic year for the English Premier League, a look at its transformation
How did ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums’ become a globalised TV spectacle awash with obscene amounts of money? Read Michael Cox’s The MixerUpdated: Apr 20, 2019 16:27 IST
The English Premier League today sees its most absorbing title race since 2011-12 enter its final few weeks. On May 12, we shall have a winner. Manchester City is aiming to become the first team to defend the title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United did so in the 2008-09 season. Liverpool is refusing to give up or go away, its season ignited by the dream of a first top flight title since 1989-90. But if it cannot make it in the end, Liverpool will become the team to have finished second with more points than many champions in the Premier League era.
Elsewhere, another exciting race is afoot in the league: the sprint for the third and fourth places. Tottenham Hotspur, led by Mauricio Pochettino, the most feted manager to have never won a trophy, led this particular race for most of the season. But at the moment, all the bets are off. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, all with new managers, make up the rest of the field in this sprint to the finish. Come end of the season, two of those four teams will be denied a place in the top four, and, therefore, Champions League football. You could barely insert a cigarette paper between the sides in this contest. Not for years has this particular fight been so frenzied. So much can change in so little time.
Of the other big leagues in Europe, only the German league has some interest left in it although the inevitable — Bayern Munich winning — seems to be forthcoming. Juventus has sewn up the Italian league. For the eighth time in the past 11 seasons, Barcelona’s hold on the Spanish title is assured.
In comparison, the English Premier League remains a cauldron. Anything, really, is possible in the three weeks ahead.
Your ideal companion as you immerse yourself in the taut, enthralling final stretch of the campaign should be just as absorbing a book: Michael Cox’s The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines. I don’t know what the publishers were after with that subtitle. It is plain misleading. The Mixer does delve into tactics. But it is really the story of the Premier League, the fascinating tale of the transformation of the English top flight, of how it went from being, as the Sunday Times once put it, “a slum sport played in slum stadiums, increasingly watched by slum people” to what it is today: awash in obscene amounts of money, a cosmopolitan, globalised TV spectacle with a following across the world.
The book derives its title from the English predilection, in the pre-Premier League era, for defenders to “put it in the mixer”, that is, to hit long balls upfield targeted at a brawny striker hovering near the opposition’s penalty area (also known as Route One). How things have changed. Cox traces the change in tactics (both the how and the why of it), talks about various formations, the ball playing defender, the marauding full back, inverted wingers and false nines, but nowhere does he sound dry or pedantic.
This is because he sees all this through the prism of characters and personalities. The Mixer is particularly good when it deals with the men whose transformative influences made the Premier League what it is today. We read about the impact of managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho or Rafa Benitez. We learn about the imprint players such as Eric Cantona, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand or Denis Bergkamp left on the league. We revel in the monumental achievements of teams that defined and brought something unprecedented into the league such as Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003-04, Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998-99 or Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City, title winners in 2015-16, overcoming 1000-1 odds. The book most comes alive when dealing with these tropes, and in relating them to the overall expansion in allure of the Premier League.
The Mixer was first published in 2017 to mark the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the Premier League. Two years on, at the closing stages of one of the best and tightest seasons in the league’s history, it remains an entertaining, compelling read.