Exploiting the uncertainties of marking – when it’s not man, zone or ball

Recent trends have sought to take advantage of uncertainties in marking as debate still persists on whether the best option is to mark men, zones or the ball.

The damage to Arsenal in their 3-1 defeat by United may have been done on the counter but Arsène Wenger feels it was their uncertainty in their marking that helped contribute to the situation. “We have to focus on delivering a completely different performance [against Chelsea on Sunday] because today we were never close in our marking and you do not win big games like that,” he said. “We gave them too much room everywhere and afterwards Rooney takes advantage of it. We conceded two goals which were ‘corner for us, goal for them’ – two goals, the second and third. I believe it was much more with our positioning and the intelligence of our positioning that we were wrong.”

The asymmetric 4-3-3 has been a huge success for the club this season but recently, teams have exploited the space afforded to them after bypassing the first line of pressure and the uncertainty it creates. Commit numbers forward (in conjunction with speed is a great weapon) and it causes havoc to not only the zonal-marking system, but to the lesser-used in mainland Europe (more prevalent in Eastern Europe however), the man-marking system. The idea in the defensive phase is to squeeze play, as Barcelona has so expertly displayed under Pep Guardiola, only conceding a miserly 10 goals this season so far and at a rate of 0.5 goals per game. Such a tactic may be anomaly in today’s game as teams usually look to drop back into a defensive block, most commonly a 9-1 split depending on the footballing culture. Nevertheless it’s a desire to be compact that both styles relate. “The trend,” says Gerard Houllier, “is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball.”

With teams defending more compact and the physical development of the game complicating matters, it means teams have had to find more effective ways of breaking down opponents. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”

The Inter Milan manager has also previously expressed his preference for “between the lines” players; those players that are unpredictable in their movement by getting into difficult to mark areas. Indeed, with the influence of playmakers proceeding to become limited due to the prevalence of players with destroying capabilities, between the line players are seen as key to unlocking opposition defences. Some playmakers have been ushered into stealth positions; Luca Modric and Robert Pires profiting from starting from wide areas while others like Deco reinventing themselves as interiors. Deco himself was marginalised to the point of periphery by Darren Flecther and Michael Carrick in 1-0 win over Manchester United earlier in the season and it was only when Anelka dropped deeper in to the hole to support him, did the playmaker get some joy. The caveat here being, that the best playmakers have survived in the hole by displaying effective movement and getting and providing support. Slaven Bilic best sums up the trend: “When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.”

In the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, the Argentina coach Carlos Bilardino switched from a 4-3-1-2 to the 3-5-2, playing Maradona, not as the playmaker even though he had performed there with much success in the previous rounds, nor as a traditional forward but as a second striker playing in between the lines. Disrupting the oppositions marking by operating in areas that were hard to pick up, the forward reveled, scoring two famous goals. Accordingly, it is from such precise moments that zonal-marking has usurped man-marking as a side’s overall form of marking. A central defender could have tracked Maradona for most of the game but that would also mean tracking him at times when the forward is without the ball. Zonal-marking means the defender can see both man and ball and while it is not a fool-proof method, it is a far more flexible and composed method, allowing the side to keep their structure and remain compact.

However, former Juventus defender and manager, Ciro Ferrara feels the strenuous approach of zonal-marking may cause confusion and invariably, problems. “I passed from just ‘stop your opponent reaching the goal’ mentality to ‘wait for your opponent, stop him, get the ball and pass it to start an attack,’” he said. “I didn’t just have to re-evaluate my position; I had to improve the fundamentals become more nimble, look up, gain a better picture of the whole pitch. It wasn’t easy.”

Thomas Vermaelen may fit the bill of such a defender who can more than handle Ferrara’s concerns but that wasn’t exactly the case when Park Ji-Sung ran forward to score the third for United. As far as Vermaelen was concerned, in the build up to the goal, Wayne Rooney was his man so he followed him out of his zone as the striker dropped short. But in doing so, Rooney had also entered Alex Song’s and Samir Nasri’s zone, so both men, in conjunction with Vermaelen proceeded to make the challenge on the man whom they all thought were theirs. That one move, took three defenders out and allowed United to pass the ball forward to Park who had run on unmarked. The key tactical success therefore in open play lies in disrupting the patterns of marking and taking advantage of the moments of uncertainty.

In the modern game the full-back is usually the only unmarked player on the pitch up to  a certain point and given they have space to make the runs, can cause great damage. This was expertly displayed by Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in 2009 when Maicon’s constant late surges created two goals in their 3-2 comeback against USA. And Sagna twice laid on Robin van Persie with crosses on the right hand side in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Tottenham.

Traditional strikers are disappearing and what we are seeing now is all-rounded forwards who, not only have the capabilities of scoring but also the means to bring others in to play. “We used to say the midfielders are the guys who bring the strikers alive but what is happening now is the strikers are the guys who can bring your midfielders alive,” said Wenger. “They come to score from deeper positions and you can really do that with one-man up front.” Teams have deployed ‘false nines’ to recreate the threat but they are not everlasting. Strikers need to be hybrids as displayed by the ineffectiveness of Andrey Arshavin in big matches as more competent defences are quick to compress the space to which it then becomes one-dimensional. Robin van Persie is a big miss in that regard as he could play both the role of creator and goalscorer giving Arsenal more unpredictability and variation. “Robin Van Persie, when he played we always scored three or four goals. He didn’t score too many [himself] but he made a lot. Not only with passing, but with movement and the quality of that movement. Strikers open walls for the deeper players. That is a big part in the modern game.”

But as tactically sophisticated as football can sometimes seem, it is stopping midfielders running from deep that has still yet to find a solution. Even zonal-marking has not been able to address the old age problem. The answer could lie in defenders developing marking in relation to the ball. But it’s difficult to see how Denilson may have benefited from such insight when chasing down Manchester United’s blistering counter attack for the second goal. All eyes were on the ball and his positioning was satisfactory – but he only needed one glance backwards to spot Rooney and potentially stop the back of the net rippling, rather than understanding his position in relation to the ball.

Maybe then, it’s down once again to Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering and somewhat over-zealous AC Milan side in 1989 and ’90 to indicate the way forward. “All of our players,” said Sacchi, “always had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his team-mates.” Defender Franco Baresi also adds: “With Sacchi, we focused on creating rather than breaking down, defending spaces rather than marking men. The secret? At all times you must know your position, where you are standing, and you must participate in the action – even if you are far from the ball.”

Marking then isn’t just a case of man, zone or ball. Because, it seems, everything in football is relative.

13 thoughts on “Exploiting the uncertainties of marking – when it’s not man, zone or ball

  1. But it’s difficult to see how Denilson may have benefited from such insight when chasing down Manchester United’s blistering counter attack for the second goal. All eyes were on the ball and his positioning was satisfactory – but he only needed one glance backwards to spot Rooney and potentially stop the back of the net rippling, rather than understanding his position in relation to the ball.

    That just shows that despite all the sophisticated tactical insights, some problems are best solved by common sense.

    1. Denilson & Clichy should both have noticed Nani pause, and look to locate Rooney. Clichy seeing Denilson covering him should have intensely closed down and forced Nani to cut inside into Denilson’s zone, allowing Clichy to recover and cover Denilson if he was then subsequently beaten by Nani.

    2. Nasri was probably even more to blame than Denilson. Denilson took off long before Rooney started his sprint, and whule he should have made the glance back, he at least was oblivious to Rooney’s presence. Nasri however saw Rooney sprint past him. He should have given a shout to Denilson or tracked Rooney himself.

    3. The last mistake was made by Vermaelen who didn’t throw himself into the block. Rooney has great technique, but if Vermaelen had thrown himself at the ball, it is extremely unlikely Rooney would have been on target.

    It was all basic defending that 6 of our players got wrong.

  2. I’m not one who goes too much into depth of zonal or man marking, what it ‘should’ come down to is the intelligence and awareness of the defending, of all players, something that looks lacking from this Arsenal side. To know what the opponent will do and pre-empt it and stop trouble, this is something we see very rarely from our side. I am old enough to have remembered the great Milan side of the 1990’s, and even though they were very zealous in attack and always looked for goals 74 goals in 1992, and one thing that was very apparent was the natural intelligence and awareness of the likes of Costacurta-Maldini-Baresi-Tassoti, all looked to attack, but always knew how to defend first.

    Even in midfield, the likes of Gullit would defend with intelligence. If the Arsenal players are not naturally aware of how to defend, then they should be drilled much better. Arsenal always look strong in terms of scoring goals, but to win a championship, you need few flaws, and Arsenal’s defending has been a serious flaw for nearly 5 years, and they never look to fix it.

    I don’t think it comes down to what style of defending Arsenal elect to use, be it zonal or marking, what is important is who takes responsibility to defend and if the players are aware of trouble. Some of the goals given away makes one think even the defenders partake in attacking drills in training as they let in many easy goals. If Clichy isn’t getting enough cover on the flank, then the whole defence must shift out to help, and Clichy shouldn’t attack so much, same applies to Sagna. There is no need for Gallas/Vermaelen to push forwards so much, the team has 5 attackers already, and we don’t use a 3 man defence to allow one of them to move forwards.

    1. The point you make about defenders taking part in attacking drills is very relevant here.

      We all know wenger’s philosophy and aspirations of playing ‘total football’. I have been lucky enough to watch Arsenal training sessions and believe me now that defensive drills are virtually non existent. It is all through plays with ball at feet. Games of 3 v 2, 4 v 3 etc. All designed for the attackers to play to their strengths. Yes they discuss defensive positions on set pieces but there are NO defensive drills like in the days of George Graham.

      I’m not advocating going back to the Graham days of iron defence and nicking a goal from somewhere. However it is obvious that alot of our players do not really understand their defensive duties.

      At the start of the season AW said we will defend from the front and that is what we saw. Bendtner, Arshavin, VP all closing down. However the last time I really remember this happening was Celtic away in the CL qualifier! They have all dropped off and allowed players to run 5 yards with the ball first.

      Our current crop still lack a striker. We all knew this the moment VP was ruled out for the season. Some say April, but come on there is no point bringing him back at all this season only to pivk up more niggles. Wenger has continued to champion names such as Walcott, Vela and Bendtner as the strikers who can replace the loss of VP. So far none of these have attained any sort of quality level for me. He had an opportunity to buy a striker and refused. He has a responsibility to answer some tough questions at the September AGM.



      1. I think if Wenger really wanted to, he could drill the team, we did in the the 2006 Champions League, very compact and tight, a good barrier in the 4-5-1. Why can’t we be solid again? It doesn’t take a lot of work.

        Again, the defending sucked, beaten by a counter attack, did they learn from last week or not, or from what Pienaar did?

        1. Excellent point re the CL run in 2006 and also using the likes of flamini as a full back and senderos played for long periods during this spell.

          At this point in time Martin Keown was doing his coaching badges under wenger and spent alot of time with the defence. Could well be a coincidence but it might be worth having a defensive minded coach who has played at the highest level to also have a look at the defensive side of our game.

  3. Hi, great thought provoking article. You could obviously see the negatives of zonal marking properly with the third goal. But the second goal could have played on the defenders’ mind. For the second goal, Rooney smashed it in as no one was trying to get in between him and the ball. So they did not want to make the same mistake again and tracked Rooney. But Vermaelen really shouldnt have followed Rooney.
    I think all this will lead to the emergence of the sweeper.
    Against United though, I thought Song should have man marked Rooney. Man Utd rely on him to create space with his intelligence and movement. So he had the biggest impact on their game. So I think that would be a good strategy.
    But man marking the false 9/hybrid striker may backfire if used against a rounded team not solely reliant on the forward. For example, if Van Persie is man marked, it gives more freedom for Cesc and Arshavin to dictate play. But Man Utd were playing a counter attacking game and Rooney was their fulcrum whose movement allowed space for others to run into. So eliminating him would have been effective. Even if Song(the CDM marking Rooney) is dragged out by Rooney, the CBs will still be there to provide cover.

  4. Great article, also excellent observations from Ole Gunner. Glad to see someone else focus on other players besides Denilson – he certainly deserves criticism but he wasn’t the only one at fault.

    “At all times you must know your position, where you are standing, and you must participate in the action – even if you are far from the ball.”

    And this requires an extraordinary level of concentration, awareness and discipline for an entire match, something I’m hoping these players are evolving toward. I just see them make the same mistakes over and over again, esp. against the top sides, and not learning from those errors.

    1. If you were lucky enough to see Milan they played like giants – in that they felt superior and their play and extraordinary mental capabilities matched that.

      1. True, Brain, but this team has been built to play in Europe – they can’t seem to do the same thing against England’s top 2 sides, at least not consistently.

        1. Trained to play a European way. To be fair to Wenger (in terms of tactics only at this point); the changes he has tried to implement recently for the league’s sake have been relatively large in recent years.
          Since 2005, it will be expected after a prolonged series of success you won’t deviate much and that should in his layout. 2007/08 the team were painfully close and made a couple of changes but imploded mentally (and through injuries). I think last year, he realised and accepted the team wasn’t good enough. There was however many changes he tried to make throughout the course of last season which inevitably led to this year’s 4-3-3.
          But yes I agree, the question of mentality is still the biggest weakness. If we keep the core of the side together then they will dominate.

  5. My view is fairly simple: Rather than worry about zone, man or ball, players should think about ‘danger’. There needs (a) general intelligence (b) game intelligence to do this.

    This means that what player is defending will change. It is fluid – sometimes that will mean focusing on the ball, sometimes on the man with the ball, sometimes a man not on the ball, sometimes an area.

    I’ll work it up into a theory sometime.



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