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.
Having said that, it’s the set of players who win you the match, and whichever policy best suits the players should be considered the best bet by managers.
The major advantage of zonal defending is that it allows the team to be proactive, not allowing the opposition to settle, not getting outrun by the opposition and leaving too much time for recovery runs. For example, if one player fails to attack his zone, another player takes his place — meaning the players are not drawn out of position. This however, requires efficient training, the courage to take the criticism and willingness to succeed.
In the above image, you can see Liverpool using a successful mixed zonal marking system when dealing from the corner. With four defenders defending zonally (marked by Z) and three defenders man marking (marked by M). When either of these players wins the ball, the player (identified by ‘S’) is free to attack down the pitch, while the players marked M counter quickly thus changing from defense to attack in a matter of seconds.
Against set pieces, managers prefer to use a man marking system with three of the better defenders on the team marking the best headers of the opposing team. The defenders try to win the ball the first time and clear away the danger. When it comes to zonal marking in set pieces, there lies a perennial problem. If the ball is not won first time, the ball can drop into zones and players might get confused on their zones to attack and the attacking team can pounce on this opportunity.
If a team concedes a goal, pundits will often ask “Who was picking that man up?” The answer is often obvious. No one. However, zonal marking – if employed tactically — judiciously and sensibly garners rich dividends. Just ask Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard who is hailed as a tactical genius used zonal marking wisely in his tenure at Liverpool. Under his regime, Liverpool conceded the fewest goals at home, which is a testament to the success that zonal marking, if effectively deployed, can lead to. Benitez was always ready to listen to criticism and was ready to face the stick from pundits and experts. In his six years at Anfield, he proved everyone wrong. Still some people never learn.
Nowadays, most managers deploy a new method of marking, which is called the mixed zonal marking. Here the team defends the ball using zonal marking, while two or three of the best defenders take care of the most dangerous attackers of the attacking team.
Either system requires enormous coordination, good communication and high level of concentration throughout the game coupled with being proactive when dealing with the ball.
In the above screengrab, we see Manchester City with four defenders marketing zonally in the final third (marked by yellow circle). The other three defenders, who are better headers of the ball, man mark their respective players. If any of these three defenders who are man marking fail to win the ball in the first attempt, the defenders who are marking zonally will get rid of the ball thus protecting their goal.
Let’s look at a different scenario in the screengrab below.
The corner comes from the right top corner of the screengrab. If Abou Diaby or Per Mertesacker (marked by red circles) fail to head the ball first time, it’s curtains for City as Yaya Toure or Joleon Lescott will pounce on the loose ball to slot it home.
So whatever the system is, defenders need to be on their toes and ready to clear the ball away. Whether it’s zonal marking, man marking or mixed zonal marking, it’s down to the set of defenders to make sure their system works.