After many years of referees threatening to clamp down on excessive grappling from set-pieces, this season has seen a number of penalties been awarded for holding and shirt-pulling more than ever.
We have since seen an increase in the number of set-piece goals (0.65 per game) which has led to marking from corners coming under scrutiny. It has also brought zonal marking into the British game.
For every goal scored against a team marking zonally, the system, rather than any mistake from an individual, is blamed.
Instead of blaming poor communication, a failure from players to adapt to the situation or a player not attacking the ball, the whole system is questioned.
However, when a goal is conceded from a man-marking system, individuals are pointed out.
Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses and there is always individual errors that occur.
When executed poorly, the biggest criticism of a zonal system is that it can allow attackers to get a running jump on defenders.
In order to perform the system well a greater amount of work in training is needed. Players need to be spaced correctly and they need to adapt to different situations. With this system, you also have to be reliant on players who are determined to clear the ball and head it away.
Sometimes you see players who aren’t prepared to attack the ball from corners and it results in a chance or even a goal for the opposing team.
However, when zonal is performed correctly it limits the effect of the running jump by using a row of players to block attackers clear runs, and is less open to costly individual errors than man-marking.
This doesn’t mean players have to be stood still, ideally they should adjust their positions and anticipate where the ball is going to land.
One of the teams that have conceded the most goals from corners in the first half of the season in the Premier League are Leicester City.
Their man-marking strategy has been exposed many times. One such example was in their 4-1 defeat to Manchester United, they conceded 3 goals from corners.
The first goal, was a free header from Chris Smalling from just 6 yards out. This in particular showed some of the weak points of man-marking.
Simple, unselfish runs from attacking players can manipulate the defensive set-up and create space for other players to attack the ball.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic moved past the back post and near to the edge of the box, with no intention of attacking the first ball. As Wes Morgan was marking Ibrahimovic, he followed him into a position where he couldn’t impact play. By the time Morgan left Ibrahimovic, he was too far away to clear the ball and one of Leicester’s best headers was out of the game.
This was intelligent play from Ibrahimovic and this example shows the downside to man-marking.
If Leicester had been marking zonally, Morgan wouldn’t have been dragged out of position and would have had an opportunity of clearing the ball.
Secondly, poor man-marking often leads to a very good chances. Robert Huth lost United’s Chris Smalling as Huth was caught up in a melee of players which created a near free header for Smalling from 6 yards out.
As a man-marker, your job is to keep focus on both your marker (Smalling) and the ball. The man-marking system leaves a big responsibility on each player to win their individual battle, it leaves very little room for error.
Leicester had the height and power to deal with United’s threat with defenders Huth, Morgan, Slimani and Fuchs are all over 6ft tall.
I think a zonal system would leave these players with less responsibility to worry about their markers and just a responsibility to clear the ball when it enters the box. A second line of players would have been used to make it hard for Smalling and other United players to get a clear run on the ball.
Leicester again left Diego Costa with half of the box to himself in their 3-0 loss to Chelsea. Once again, large dangerous spaces were left open and one player failing to do their job allowed Costa a free shot at goal.
Leicester may been unlucky to have been punished so regularly this season, and this is not to say that zonal marking would have changed their luck.
It just goes to show that in professional sport you can not legislate for players who fail to do their job properly.
Leicester’s poor record from corners has to be blamed on individuals not doing their jobs.
Each system has its strengths and weaknesses, and neither system is the answer on how to defend set-pieces.
Man-marking assumes that if every man can win their individual battle, the team won’t concede.
West Brom, who normally set up with 4 central defenders are happy to man-mark as they have players who are likely to win their individual battles because they have players who are prepared to head to ball and mark attackers properly.
A common praise of man-marking is that it is easy to see where the goal came from. Whilst it is easier to analyse, it doesn’t help the defending team to prevent the goal, and we often see the same mistakes repeated every week, even at the highest level. A player might know which attacker he is marking, but this can’t guarantee he will beat him to the ball. It is very difficult for markers, as you have to concentrate on the ball and your man.
Before the grappling rule was introduced this season, defenders would just grab their markers and not let them move so they couldn’t get a free jump on the ball. This season, if you do that you run the risk of giving away a penalty.
Crystal Palace use a man marking system which they have conceded 6 league goals already this season.
Against Manchester City their strategy was manipulated to give Yaya Toure a tap in. In the case of Palace the player who scored was found in free space which could’ve been dealt with using a different system.
On the whole, there is no right or wrong answer to defending set pieces.
Manchester City, Arsenal (both zonal) and Bournemouth (man-marking) are yet to concede a goal from a corner in the Premier League (as of when this blog was written). It is becoming more common for teams to use aspects of each system, and its success depends as much on the execution as the method used.
I can see why people see zonal marking is the much safer option of the two.
It reduces the risk of individual mistakes leading to chances, it prevents wide gaps appearing in areas of the box and is more likely to give the defending team a numerical advantage. Whilst it requires more training to get right, in the long run it provides a more stable method of defending set-pieces as everyone is clued in to their jobs.
However in my personal opinion, I think it all depends on the players you have at your disposal. I have never defended with zonal marking but I can see the benefits it has.
Everyone has their own designated zone and their job is to attack the ball when it arrives into their allocated zone. However, with man-marking you have more of a chance of stopping runs at source and if anyone’s marker scores you can shift the blame onto them.