Few people who criticise Zonal Marking actually understand what it means


By Bob Macdonald

I am  qualified Uefa grade ‘A’ coach, and have vast experience both coaching and managing at a fairly high level.

My observations are in fact no more than  that, and I would be the last person to suggest I know more than the next person.

However I am going to try and clarify something about zonal marking.

Zonal Marking usually takes place when defending set plays, although not often used for a centrally placed kick.

In Zonal Marking the coaching staff organise the STARTING POSITIONS of their defenders.  This varies due to research results of the opposition. The start position does not mean that the defender is restricted to that spot.

From this start position each defender has the responsibility to attack the ball mainly to the front or side, (he has to decide if he can get to the ball and react accordingly, it is immaterial if two defenders go for the same ball as the objective is to clear the danger and to necessarily set up a counter attack.

In this system the defender is ONLY focused on the ball, attacking players movements should have no influence on this focus.

Note that suggesting defenders do not move, and the attacker has a run on the ball is incorrect. TV pundits seem to understand the principal behind this system.  The defender MUST attack the ball.

In man to man marking the defender takes up a position between his attacker and the goal; he needs to be either level or slightly behind the attacker.

Once the ball is in play the players will normally make his move first (the defender’s job is to track the attacking player and try to be first to the ball).

If the attacker moves first, he should be first to the ball. The defender has two points of reference: to stay with his man and also win the ball.

Quite a difficult task.

At times teams deploy a partial man to man (while the remaining players are zonal), where the most threatening attackers are picked up.

Whichever system is used there are flaws………especially if a goal is

Certainly the Arsenal preference shows that the manager and his staff are trying to find a solution to a problem which the match stats have identified. All credit to this enlightened approach, even if you think it does not work.

A couple of linked thoughts when you are considering the values of
either/both systems.

1) If zonal marking is accepted as the best defensive system in free play (there is not a team in the world who uses a man to man system in free play), then why is it so wrong in set plays?

2)  In basketball, another invasion game, zonal defending is banned. This is because it was such an effective defensive strategy that it was reducing the number of scores thus making the game less attractive to spectators.

I leave it to you to make up your own mind on the most effective system, but at least consider the points made above.

After the fact it is far too easy to be critical.


13 Replies to “Few people who criticise Zonal Marking actually understand what it means”

  1. This is fascinating. Thanks Bob.

    I personally find man marking at a corner, amusing. When I played (badly and without skill, but pretty pacy), there only seemed to be man marking (MM).
    And it seems whichever scheme is employed, the ref will have trouble choosing which of the multiple fouls will earn a free kick or a penalty.

    Consider the fact that pisspoorpundits (PPP’s) slag off ZM -mainly when the team they don’t like have conceded a goal. If the team the PPP’s want to win concede a goal, they never talk about how that team’s ZM or MM did not work. PPP’s will just say that team were ‘poor’, if anything.

    If the attacking team station most of their players outside the 18 yard lines, and the defending team man marked… Surely there’d be no one in the box. Then what?

    My guess is that when defending a corner, teams need to somehow cover positions around the 6 yard box and beyond, in order to not leave simple spaces that could be attacked easily. Which system covers that?
    Probably a bit of both, as I think you’ve alluded, Bob.

    I’m not saying I’m correct. Merely, that the PPP’s are responsible for flagging ZM or MM as good or bad, according to their bias, and general lack of truth-telling – disguised as analysis.

  2. Yeah, I tend to believe that goals are conceded due to systems not being implemented properly rather than the differences between the systems themselves. If you switch off, let a man go or fail to attack the ball well enough in either system, you’re in a bit of trouble.

  3. Thanks for an informative article, we all benefit from being educated on the finer points of tactical approaches and systems. As an aside I have noticed an increasing number of teams not stationing defenders on the posts at corners, what is the tactical reasoning behind this trend?

  4. I’ve told this one before but it demonstrates your headline perfectly.

    There are a particularly obnoxious couple of AAA’s who sit behind me and clearly have so much more knowledge than not only AW but everyone in the world……you know the type. Having defended one corner quite poorly, the shout came from behind “Why does that c**t Wenger keep using zonal marking? He’s f’in useless.” etc etc.

    Amusingly, I had read an article on my way to the game in which Szczesny had stated how intense defensive training had been over the previous six weeks since they had STOPPED using zonal marking.” It’s therefore bloody certain that those in Row 15 don’t understand IT…….but having said that, they do have the ability to blame AW for the weather, the number of potholes in the road where they live and the crap Christmas presents they gave to each other (I doubt they are married!).

    Great article btw

  5. As someone who hasn’t kicked a ball in over 60 years, I certainly do not understand zonal marking if the basic principle is that defenders attack the ball. Surely the “zone” then becomes irrelevant to the position of the ball?
    On the subject of man marking, my mind goes back to the 1980 FA Cup Final against West Ham, when at one stage, David O’Leary was said to have screamed at the bench that he “had no-one to mark”.
    Those nasty Hammers were clearly not playing the game!

  6. the distinction should be that you put yourself in between the attacker and the ball so that you can attack the ball to win the ball and clear the danger. It is about positioning whether zonal marking, man marking, or combining the two systems.

    In other words, you are right in principle, but as a coach, it grinds me to see you say “In this system the defender is ONLY focused on the ball, attacking players movements should have no influence on this focus.” UEFA A license or not, that is shotty advice. If set pieces and crossing situations in open play are all about timing, which they are, a “job and a half” knowing where both the ball and the man are is necessary. I teach my players to “chip” the run so the timing is off. You chip the run or block the run off by putting yourself between the defender and the ball and then you are in the right position to win the ball and clear the danger since all that is left is judging the flight path of the ball correctly. Both attacking and defending players have a right to that space so it is about who gets to the space the ball is attacking first.

    Nice article and true on most every point, but to say that there is no focus on the players movement is just not true. The ball doesn’t score goals, players do…as the old saying goes. I would rather say Players play the ball to score goals because that is completely true and that is the point, to have your eye on both to get your body to both.

    I for one favor zonal marking with man marking the 2-3 major threats depending on what kind of counter pattern I want to run.

  7. Without doing the research, I would suggest that Arsenal defend corners better using zonal marking. On the other hand, one issue with zonal marking is the 2nd ball. As none of the opposition players are being specifically marked it would be pot luck where the ball drops. Although I can’t think of too many examples where this has cost us?

  8. An excellent article that I will no doubt read again. Thank you.

    @Pete: One example that quickly jumps to mind where the system has cost us is Martin Skrtel’s goal against us at Anfield deep into injury time. Chambers was slow to attack the ball in the air. Mind you though, this could just be because he was super tired at the end of the game.

    In the end its about players being intelligent enough IMO, whatever system you play.

  9. Even though I am not a tactical genius, I feel Zonal is the best to defend setplays.

    The biggest complaint I’ve heard against this system is that you dont know which player is responsible when the goal is conceded. Well, If we look carefully, players are given zones to defend. So you do know who to blame. That reason cant hold up.

    PPPs (courtesy: Rantetta) think M-M marking is the best. They see defenders manhandling attackers in the box, which has to be a penalty, and praise them for not losing the man!!!….Thats the only justification they have.

    I think if referees do their job properly, then all teams will start defending zones for setplays. The question remains, do they have balls big enough to give penalties against the likes of Skirtel, Cahil, Shawcross etc ….

  10. Thanks for your well explained post.

    I am not in agreement with ‘1) If zonal marking is accepted as the best defensive system in free play (there is not a team in the world who uses a man to man system in free play), then why is it so wrong in set plays?’.

    Many teams will use man to man on key players in free play. It reduces the match to 10v10 without the key player & his marker.

    I think variations on zonal systems are most effective provided the official is focused on fouls to keepers & blocks on defenders.

  11. @Menace

    M to M marking at set plays as such is a strict system, in free play it is used to nullify a perceived threat.

    Not used often in the modern game as the threat is nearly always from more than one player and thus too easy for the attacking team to move defenders around and exploit the space created.

  12. And thereby hangs the tale , There is is little point on using a system that relies on a third party to do their job. In this case your reliance is on a refereeing group that we all know will not. For a start something that one referee will penalise another will let go , unless you want the protection of a fall back of complaining about them , you have to set up to do the job yourself. It is imperative that the defender protects his zone and attacks the ball and then should it go away from his area he must not relax because a knock down or deflection is quite likely to bring it back again. Whichever system you use a hybrid of the two is probably the best , but concentration is the key , you can’t afford to switch off and let players run past and get the jump on you .

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