By Andrew Walsh
In recent years there’s been an explosion of interest in the tactical side of soccer.
The tactics of the world’s top managers are regularly broken down at a level rarely seen in generations past. Countless blogs have sprung up on the internet breaking down the formations and tactics for all of each week’s top games as well as the more obscure ones. And coaches of all levels are incorporating exciting new ideas and strategies into their game plans.
But in order to gain a deeper understanding of soccer tactics, it’s best to go beyond the blogs that can vary considerably in clarity and quality, and dig into some foundational texts on soccer tactics.
These are our picks for the best tactics books available right now, in no particular order, and no matter whether you read your books in print or electronically or call the game soccer or football.
Our List of the Best Soccer Tactics Books
With the Premier League high atop the popularity charts for professional soccer leagues both in the US and worldwide, this is a great book for understanding its tactical evolution. The game we watch today on NBCSN or Sky is practically unrecognizable from what you’d have seen around the league’s inception in 1992.
Cox’s well-researched and interesting book takes you from the days of “route one” football filled with long balls and big bruising forwards to the false nines, skillful defenders, and midfield wizards of today.
The book covers some of the business side of the game that fueled many of these changes, but for the most part focuses on the tactics. A great read for those who’ve marveled at some of the Premier League’s more exciting players over recent years and are interested in getting a better overall understanding of their contributions to one of the world’s greatest leagues.
Many would consider this list woefully incomplete without a mention of this voluminous tome. It’s considered by many to be the finest work on the subject of soccer tactics. Others, however, describe it as a dense slog bogged down by a dizzying amount of obscure coach and player references going back to the early decades of the 20th century.
I tend to think it’s somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, as there’s a great deal of useful history even if you might decide to skim through some parts. But in terms of understanding how we got to where we are today with soccer tactics, no other work even comes close.
You’ll travel back to the 1930s, jaunt through South America and Dutch Total Football in the 1970s, and eventually arrive at modern-day Barcelona and other current tactical leaders.
Jacob Daniel, a longstanding Director of Coaching for US Soccer, has laid out an excellent soccer resource covering tactical formations, attacking and defending principles, training exercises.
Some sections of the book are aimed primarily at coaches, but players and fans will still get a ton out of it as well due to the abundant diagrams, clear descriptions of tactical principles, and its overall comprehensive nature.
The book walks you through everything from the strengths and weaknesses of a 4-4-2 vs. a 4-3-3 to the principles of zonal and man-to-man marking, with helpful examples sprinkled in throughout.
We’ve already covered Cox’s book on the Premier League, and he’s also branched out for a wider-ranging tactics book covering the whole of Europe.
Think of this book as Inverting the Pyramid if it were focused just on the last 30 years in Europe. As such, it does not go into as much historical detail and to as many far-ranging footballing nations. But many fans will appreciate a focus on the events and players who they remember from their own lives, rather than earlier anecdotes that might seem like ancient history despite their value in shaping today’s tactics.
Zonal Marking the book grew out of Cox’s popular blog of the same name. If you’re looking for more writing from him, he no longer updates the blog but instead writes a regular tactical column for The Athletic (which does require a paid subscription).
This books presents a rather unique structure as the author is joined by 10 top coaches from Italy including such legends as Carlo Ancelotti, Arigo Sacchi, and Marcello Lippi. This gives you much more than one perspective on the tactical concepts discussed, but all still within the specific tradition of the Italian school of thought.
Most formations are covered but it’s far form a book for beginners; it assumes considerable tactical knowledge and some of the diagrams and concepts are rather complex. It also has some rather direct translation and perhaps less than comprehensive editing, but as long as you are looking for information on soccer tactics and not riveting English language prose, you will be fine.
Soccer journalist Grant Wahl has made a fantastic contribution to the genre with this work. It’s not a traditional tactics book from the perspective of a coach, but rather an intimate look at a select group of great players and coaches and how they approach the game.
The personal touches of the chapters–interviews combined with Wahl’s analysis–give this book a unique insight not often seen.
Wahl digs into their motivations, thought processes, and their actions on the field through the lens Players profiled include Christian Pulisic, Chicharito Hernandez, and Xavi Alonso. In addition to the players he also interviews Belgium coach Roberto Martínez and Borussia Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc.
I also recommend looking up Youtube videos of the closely-analyzed plays described in the text to better understand them.
This type of book by a former player or manager can be hit or miss: some spend most of their time gushing about their own accomplishments.
Here Gullit does share quite a bit of his personal history, but there’s a good deal of tactical rumination as well, and it’s valuable in the sense of being a personal account of strategy from a top professional player and later coach.
I found it to be much more useful than the others of the genre that I’ve read, at least.
We think these books are the best choices for understanding soccer strategy and tactics (and they also make great soccer gift ideas). Have you read any of them? If so, what did you think? Would you add any others to this list?