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.