Stigma | Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic heads in against Liverpool, a club known for using zonal marking. Many pundits are suspicious of the system. (Image | Daily Mail)

Zonal marking is repeatedly lambasted by football pundits in the United Kingdom, However, as Simon Cox rightly argues, nobody ever blames man marking when a goal is conceded at a set piece.

Yet, if zonal marking was in place then the press would have a field day attributing blame to it – on the grounds that it is obviously a flimsy foreign tactic not suitable for our rugged style – as the sole reason for the concession of a goal.

Historically, we remain steadfast against any divergence from the standard tactic of the day and repeatedly showing ourselves (on the whole) as being somewhat tactically inept.

This is seemingly due to a mixture of bigotry, stubbornness and a more general culture of assuming that bullish determination and high tempo play as the key attributes for victory. I do not intend to suggest that zonal marking is wholly superior to man marking.

Indeed, both enjoy certain benefits and harbour shortcomings dependant on circumstances and opposition. However, I certainly wish to convince people to end the ridiculous insistence that zonal marking is ineffective in comparison to the hallowed system of man marking.

Man marking versus zonal marking: the big debate

One argument often trumpeted is that players prefer man marking because there is an obvious person to blame for the goal. Perhaps it is useful to know which player made the error, in order that he may be able to train and practice his marking in order to improve, but it does not make the system better simply because it carries with it the ability to apportion blame: the simple fact is that a goal was conceded.

Expert | Norwich City striker Grant Holt is a player notorious for being able to outmanoeuvre his marker at set pieces. (Image | Zimbio)

Anyone that has played football in England will almost certainly have been “coached” in man marking for set pieces, yet if there is a great delivery and the attacker makes a good run the defender will almost certainly be a step behind, naturally, reacting to the man he is marking.

Therefore, the advantage in man marking will lie with the attacker. I believe this is a flawed system and while it is generally overcome by simple (and unsportsmanlike) blocks and pulls, this is a tactic that is always evokes the danger of the referee giving a penalty (although this rarely occurs).

It appears that man marking leaves the attacker with the advantage, thus the key is to switch this advantage back to the defenders. This can be done with zonal marking.

The emphasis on zonal marking should be to attack the ball if it comes within your “zone”. By doing this you are not simply responding to the attacker. Rather you are taking the initiative so that as a defender, you are able to be one step ahead and clear the ball.

One of the issues with the perception of zonal marking is that teams in England rarely seem to really attack the ball as they should. However, the perception is that zonal marking leaves the attacker with the running jump meaning they will almost always come out on top – but that is easily rectified by the defenders simply attacking the ball.

If the defender stands near the back of their zone and runs forward to attack the ball then this problem ceases to exist. The issue appears to be with the application of zonal marking, rather than the concept itself.

A short history of zonal marking

What is bizarre about the antipathy towards zonal marking is that in open play, teams almost never employ a system of man marking. Instead, they all use a variant of Arrigo Sacchi’s highly successful integrated system of pressing. In essence, this is zonal marking with man marking deployed in individual zones.

Effective | Arrigo Saachi’s AC Milan side of the 1980s and early 1990s perfected the system of pressing. (Image | Bleacher Report)

Sacchi’s AC Milan sides of the late 1980s and early 90’s may have used it most effectively, but it remains commonplace today. Historically speaking, players man marked their opposing players according to shirt numbers because of an Football Association ruling in 1939 making numbers compulsory. The FA stipulated that the right back must wear number two, the left back three, the right half four and so on.

Therein lies the classic issue with the English approach to tactics. For this ruling assumed that teams all played the same formations, while in reality, Herbert Chapman’s title winning Huddersfield and Arsenal sides played with their centre half dropped back from midfield into defence a good 20 years earlier.

In fact, this ruling encouraged Doncaster Rovers manager, Peter Doherty, to occasionally swap player numbers and thus bewilder defences accustomed to defending against a specific number.

In open play, zonal marking was introduced by Zezé Moreira at Fluminense in the early 1950s as it allowed greater fluidity for his team. Indeed, when Arsenal toured Brazil in 1949, full back Laurie Scott spoke of a 5-1 victory over Fluminense, saying: “Suddenly, a bloke comes dashing through and he had a shot at goal and the ball went wide … and we started looking around to see
who we would get to blame for this. We could not find it. We found out it was their full back.”

This quote shows precisely the problem – that nobody was assigned to that player so he was ignored. Moreover, he clearly sees the Fluminense tactic as defensive ill-discipline, adding: “See, they didn’t care. I never went up there like that.” Man marking in open play remained for a fair while longer, but it came under increasing attack from keen tacticians.

Obviously, zonal marking does involve far more team understanding than a man marking system, but it also provides greater flexibility. This is an issue highlighted up by the comments of Laurie Scott.

The system in open play is not zonal marking in a pure sense: it requires both the tactical pressing and man marking elements developed by Viktor Maslov’s 1960s Dynamo Kiev side and imposed so perfectly by Sacchi’s AC Milan of the late 80s and early 1990s.

Stubbornness and pragmatism

If we are so willing to engage with zonal marking in open play, then why are people set against it at set pieces? It is bizarre, and perhaps it is a throwback to Laurie Scott’s wish to find somebody to blame. Maybe this mindset simply lingers in the British psyche due to laziness or inertia.

It strikes me that there is an element of this, as man marking set pieces is traditional and seems to have worked through history, so why change it? Indeed there is a logic to this, but I also feel there is a strong element of British bigotry and stubbornness.

Bigotry that British football (particularly English football) must always be at the forefront of football and thus has to be doing things correctly, and stubbornness to not adapt and learn that there may be a new and superior way of approaching a situation.

The domestic game has long had an inflated opinion of itself. Indeed there is a significant faction which believes that Alf Ramsey’s 1966 World Cup victory for England was the worst thing possible for English football, as it reimbursed an English idea that there is a right and best way to play football.

It should be obvious that there is not a universally “best” way to play football. Indeed, Alf Ramsey’s England was successful, but it was simply a tactic that most suited his selection of available players and the prevailing conditions, as shown by England’s far more possession based approach in the heat of Mexico in 1970.

Disciple | Football League veteran manager Aidy Boothroyd is a modern exponent of Charles Reep’s “long ball” style. (Image | The Guardian)

Worse than this is the statistical analysis of Charles Reep in the 1950s and 60s, who developed the argument that direct football was statistically more effective than “counter-productive possession play” with chains of shorter passes.

This was based on miscalculations and a rather unscientific pool of evidence. However, Reep’s analysis became the cornerstone of English football philosophy and coaching, and something the game struggles to rid itself of.

Jonathan Wilson said in his book, Inverting the Pyramid (for which I give many thanks for much of the information and quotes used in this article): “It is frankly horrifying that a philosophy founded on such a basic interpretation of figures could have been allowed to become a cornerstone of English coaching. Anti-intellectualism is one thing, but faith in wrong headed pseudo-intellectualism is far worse.”

English football seems to have developed (or perhaps has always had) a resistance to tactical innovation, and zonal marking appears to be yet another example of this. Although it is hardly a fresh development.

The culture of English football really must wake up to the world of tactics around it, and at least consider the merits of other approaches rather than mindlessly reject an unusual or “continental” approach such as it has constantly done with zonal marking.

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