In England, it’s not uncommon to hear the saying that “Zonal marking is not defending.” But, what the fact that these pundits often ignore is that goals are scored even when defenders are man marking. It’s not that man marking is the be all and end all of defending. It’s the system that leaks goals.
So what exactly is the difference between these two types of marking?
In this type of defending (see image below), each player is given an area or zone to mark relative to their team mates. It is advised by the manager or the coach that whenever the ball enters their zone, you attack it and try to win the ball. Zonal defending doesn’t require fast players or great stamina like man-to-man defenses do, and it’s usually employed by top flight managers where they ask the midfielders and attackers to defend when the opposing team counters and tries to break them down. With zonal marking, whenever the team defends from set pieces, the six yard box will be divided into two or three zones for players to attack. If one player sees the ball entering this zone, he gets rid of it.
In this type of marking, each player is assigned an opponent to mark for the whole of the ninety minutes. Whether it’s defending from set pieces or open play, the defenders chase down the opposing players they are marking, not allowing them even an inch of space. This requires great stamina, high match fitness and picking your man to mark right from the very start of the game.
We as soccer fans clench our fists and go into a frenzy whenever our beloved team hits the back of the opposition’s net. We appreciate silky touches, dazzling footwork, nimble nutmegs and glittering dribbles. However there is a lot more to the game than just scoring. Great managers and coaches have always stressed the importance of fixing defensive problems if the team is to win the title and/or a knockout tournament. We have often seen the team with perhaps the best defensive record go on to win the title at the expense of a team that might have a better goal scoring record but an inferior defensive discipline.
Zonal defending is more practical and efficient than strict man-to-man marking, although individual marking assignments often complement zonal organizations. A zonal defense can be implemented with any attacking formation. However tactics change according to in-game situations like defending set pieces, taking the risk when the team is in a knockout match or has fewer players on the field due to a red card. Man marking might be a boon to grind our results, but against teams that use a rotation policy to keep the team fresh, deploying zonal marking would be the better option since it’s easier to slot players in and out of this system.