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.


United show the best form of attack is to counter

Manchester United’s game plan of containment, control and speed on the counter left Arsenal outgunned at the Emirates.

It was time again for Sir Alex Ferguson to get re-acquainted with the back of his hand. The wily Scotsman has enough big match experience – and success – against contemporary Arsenal to comfortably make it his chosen specialist subject on Mastermind as his side went about dismantling Arsenal’s title bid and reaffirming their’s. Manchester United met thrust with counter-thrust and vice versa but where much more ruthless from the latter.

There was little to separate the teams with half an hour on the clock as both teams found it troubling to break down each other’s defence from open play. United opting to play without Ryan Giggs missed a bit of invention in the final third and as a result Arsenal sucked up their attacks and looked to punish them on the break – Andrey Arshavin going closest with a drive wide of Edwin Van der Sar. But Arsenal have been slow starters this season, having scored only once before fifteen minutes in the league and once they started getting into their groove, Manchester United sensed their moment pounce. Luis Nani’s wonderful trick and run forced the ever-growing culpable Manuel Almunia to claw into his own net (although in fairness the cross looked to be headed for Park at the back post).

However, it was two devastating moments on the break that settled the tie. William Gallas was crowded out in the United box following a corner and as the ball fell to Wayne Rooney, the England striker, starting the counter-attack ended it with a finish of real conviction after running close to the full length of the pitch. Rooney then showed Arsenal the movement they tried to create with Arshavin as the false nine, as the forward took three defenders out by dropping short and the rest was rudimentary for Park.  There were only two options for Gael Clichy  – gamble and close down the attacker but risk the early pass or delay and hope the angle narrowed. As it turned out, Clichy left it two late for the latter and Park poked the ball past Almunia (could the ‘keeper have been more committed?). Counter-attacking is not merely a policy for Manchester United but a deadly and utterly ruthless weapon in their armoury. “Counterattacking has always been part of our game, particularly away from home, and we capitalised on those opportunities,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “Arsenal play a lot of good football and get to the edge of your box regularly, but if you can win the ball there and counterattack quickly you’ll have chances against them.”

“Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho, who always seeks to keep his side organised with five at the back in guard of such moments. “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.” That was the situation that was also posed to Arsenal; the Gunners’ expansive style meaning more resources are committed forward and therefore less organisation at the back. And those gaps are even bigger this season due to the play being stretched on account of the switch to 4-3-3 and cover for the full-backs minimal. Sir Alex would have targeted the right-hand before hand with or without Valencia and deployed a ‘defensive’ winger on the other side. The slight surprise was in deploying Carrick as the deep-lying playmaker as the manager decided to sacrifice a bit of energy for extra tactical nous lower down, while Scholes’ creativity was to be translated higher up the pitch.

Arsenal in contrast were unlikely to play any differently. Arsene Wenger went into the game wanting to control proceedings but found in front of him a sea of black shirts who were very committed in not opening the floodgates and letting Arsenal have the initiative. Dynamism on one hand has waned since their electric start to the season and the late flurry could not hide the defects. The best Wenger can hope his side can regroup and find that extra spark again.

So where next for Arsenal? Chelsea at Stamford Bridge…

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United: Almunia (og) 33, Rooney 37, Park 52, Vermaelen 80.

Arsenal: Almunia (5), Sagna (6) (Bendtner), Gallas (6), Vermaelen (6), Clichy (5), Fabregas (6), Song (7), Denilson (6) (Walcott) , Nasri (5), Arshavin (6), Rosicky (5) (Eboue).
Subs not used: Fabianski, Ramsey, Silvestre, Traore.

Man Utd: Van der Sar 6, Rafael Da Silva 6, Jonathan Evans 6, Brown 6, Evra 6, Scholes 6 (Giggs), Carrick 7, Fletcher 6, Nani (Berbatov) 8, Rooney 8, Park 6 (Valencia).
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Owen, Gibson, De Laet.

Referee: Chris Foy (Merseyside).

Arsenal Team Statistics Manchester United
1 Goals 3
0 1st Half Goals 2
3 Shots on Target 3
13 Shots off Target 6
4 Blocked Shots 3
8 Corners 5
9 Fouls 12
0 Offsides 0
1 Yellow Cards 0
0 Red Cards 0
80.8 Passing Success 75.2
18 Tackles 36
94.4 Tackles Success 77.8
53.1 Possession 46.9
50.6 Territorial Advantage 49.4

Why Arsène Wenger’s side will forever be in transition

Arsène Wenger’s big test will be to find the balance between the pass-and-move style of football and providing greater protection from the counter.

Two goals were scored away from home and four were conceded therefore it should be clear which end of the pitch the problems lie. However the analysis after the defeat to Manchester City was split close to 50-50 between the two disciplines.

There are a number of reasons for this but each will inevitably reach close to the same conclusions, namely along the lines of organisation, discipline and balance.

Arsène Wenger’s post match analysis usually plays down the performance of the opposition after a win and that was the case once again against the Eastland club. “There was more in the game for us than what we got” was Wenger’s staunch analysis (although he did criticise his defence), referring to the amount of possession and territorial advantage his side had, not to mention the chances. But in today’s game, it is a perfectly viable tactic to have less of the ball and look to counter-punch the opponent when possession changes hand. And City did that, ruthlessly exposing Arsenal on the break as Wenger’s side looked to press on for victory. 1-1 was quickly 2-1, 3-1 and then 4-1 all in a blink of an eye.

In his book ‘Teambuiding: The Road to Success’, Rinus Michels states the best teams play a brand of football which is all about dominating possession and having all players capable of creating chances, knowing when to release the ball. (It should also be noted, the best teams can alter the style of play to a counter attack style and switch back seamlessly). That’s stage three of a club’s development cycle, a phase in which Arsenal are said to be in.

In contrast a club in stage two, which Manchester City are in (e.g. having a stable youth infrastructure, stadium etc. but yet without the trophies) in their quest for domination, are typically all about compactness, organisation, and counter-attacking football. They were perfectly happy to give the initiative to Arsenal, defending deep and once the opportunity arose, looked to break with speed. It will be interesting to see as City develop as a club, should they look to become more possession orientated. But why should they?

As mentioned already, counter-attacking is a viable modern tactic while on the other hand the margins for a possession side are thin; one will always be better than the other which inevitably will turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust. The hallmarks of English domination in the Champions League against ball tapping opposition has been their ability to attack from all angles and adapt to a change tempo, dynamism, speed and of course supreme organisation. Judging by City’s signings so far, Mark Hughes side won’t be any different.

How the once masters of the counter-attack have become out-counter-attacked was one fans reaction after watching the late flurry of goals at Arsenal’s end. He was obviously referring to Wenger’s Invincibles side who were not only quick as a bullet from the break but were very confident in possession, strong, ruthless in front of goal, experts at controlling zones and possibly also, fantastic at making up superlatives.

Their unbeaten championship win perhaps fittingly also came at the dawn of a new era in the Premier League. Liverpool under Gèrrard Houllier (when attention was not focused on whether he had signed the next Zidane) had signaled their arrival as a force once again while money, and lots of it in the form of Roman Abramovich and soon with the hiring of Jose Mourinho had changed the outlook of the league. The Special One’s 4-3-3 which doubled up as a 4-5-1 became in vogue and soon ‘smaller’ clubs gave up all ambition against the bigger sides, defending deep and in two organised bands.I recently took a quick flick at ESPN’s Premiership classics programme where they were showing a game during Wenger’s Invincible period and it was particularly surprising just how high up the pitch the opposition defended at Highbury.

It would do the other league bosses injustice to attribute the change of thinking to the already inflated ego of Jose Mourinho but he had brought about more awareness. In an interview he gave with UEFA he mentioned just how key transitions had become in turning games, also stating that he always kept five back in order to safeguard his side from such moments. “Transitions have become crucial,” he says. “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.”

Because Arsenal is so elaborate it may mean they require more resources when getting forward which in turn is likely to leave gaps at the back. The trade off for this is effectiveness and with Arsenal’s goalscoring start to the season, it seemed Wenger had found the right balance. His side where pressing high, tirelessly tracked back and provided able support to the lone forward. There was the steel to go with the flashy football.

That probably still is the case as we haven’t seen enough of the real Arsenal because of the personal they are missing. The injury to Fabregas was a big blow at United which would have made the big difference. Walcott’s speed gives a new dimension on the right while Rosicky and Nasri’s ingenuity are key to the side’s style. However such a team as the one put out against Manchester City would have had to make sure they were watertight in defence because of the lack of creativity, movement and cutting edge. With two non-wide men playing in wide forward roles (Diaby and Bendtner) it meant the Gunners lacked dynamism forcing the full backs to push forward to make up for the ineffectiveness, leaving space at the back to exploit.

It’s going to be up to Arsène Wenger to prove his side have that balance in the long run because while there is always going to beauty when he’s in charge, there will also be transitions. And with that being the case, clubs will always know that they have a sniff of a chance of beating Arsenal.

* NB: There is already some confusion and a bit of finger pointing. The title is only a play on words on the word transition as it has a number of meanings. The one I’m referring to is the process of change in football from defence to attack and such a process will always stay in the game. I’m in no way implying Arsenal will be stuck in a rut forever.

There is unlikely to be match analysis following the Standard Liege game unfortunately (I will try and fit an article in) but normal service should resume for the game against Wigan.