Friday, April 24, 2009


In the Zone, Part 1

It's been a while since I've had a general rant about football tactics in these pages, so herewith a lengthy and mildly topical ramble.

Brian Glanville, that dean of British football writing, recently commented at length on the pros and cons of zonal marking/defending. It's a topic worth considering, especially given that the zonal v. man-to-man argument seems to have gone overwhelmingly in favour of the former strategy, if the vast majority of professional teams are anything to go by.

It's even becoming redundant to talk of "sweeper defences", since a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 system invariably seems to feature three zonal defenders at the back these days, rather than two man-markers and a genuine sweeper. And in any case, a four-in-line defence is becoming more the norm than ever before: as recently as 2002, the two teams that contested the World Cup final played with three defenders and wing-backs. The odds of the same occurring in 2010 would be long indeed.

So when did the verdict go against man-to-man marking? Probably, initially at least, with the great Milan sides of the late eighties, who represented a break from the Italian catenaccio tradition to some extent. But the ubiquitous well-drilled zonal defences of today were still a long way off, and in fact Argentina (for one) adopted a revised man-markers-and-sweeper system at both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups...mindful, probably, of their success with a similar setup in 1986 (which, in truth, had much more to do with the individual genius of Diego Maradona than their shambolic defence at that event).

Of course, zonal marking has its benefits, and they are considerable. Defenders are less likely to wear themselves out chasing their man around all parts of the pitch (and are therefore less vulnerable to a pacy substitute, for one thing), it is easier to adjust when a first defender has been beaten, and the offside trap - a virtual impossibility with markers and a sweeper - can be a useful defensive weapon.

Yet there are disadvantages to zonal marking. The most obvious one is that a quick positional switch on the part of the attackers can be hard to adjust to quickly; a friend of mine who once had the chance to watch a top Serie A side in training mentioned that the strikers went to great trouble to practice exactly this strategy...and to get the "critical moment" right.

A less obvious one, but one which I think has its effect on the teams of today, is that there seems to be less room for individual enterprise for defenders (even fullbacks) when a team has the ball. Defenders seem loath to break out of the rigidity of a zonal four, even when it would be beneficial (and not especially risky) for them to join in an attack purposefully.

Prior to the Argentinians of 1986, another man-marking side won the World Cup - Italy in 1982. And below, a few observations on their tactics in the final, against West Germany.

The Germans, who also employed a sweeper, incidentally, fielded one genuine striker (Klaus Fischer), a withdrawn striker (Karl-Heinz Rummenigge), and a single winger (Pierre Littbarski), who occasionally switched flanks. All three were man-marked: the stopper Fulvio Collovati took care of Fischer, the teenage Giuseppe Bergomi dealt coolly with Rummenigge, and Claudio Gentile - the most aggressive of the Italian defenders - was shrewdly assigned to the tricky Littbarski.

Although the first half of the game was poor from an entertainment perspective, the Italian defensive shield worked superbly well. And despite all the catenaccio stereotypes, it was not solely negative in intent. The sweeper, Gaetano Scirea, was genuinely libero, moving upfield often, as was the nominal left-back, Antonio Cabrini.

In fact, I would argue that the defenders played more of an attacking role than modern defenders would, especially after Italy scored their opening goal. When the Italians are in possession, even the man-markers are happy to join in appropriately. In the lead-up to the second goal, Marco Tardelli's memorable lunging strike, Cabrini, Bergomi and Scirea are all in the German third. At the same time!

But just before that comes a moment which I think exemplifies some of the virtues of the man-marking system. Off goes the struggling midfielder Wolfgang Dremmler, as the Germans reinforce their attack with the imposing Horst Hrubesch. Immediately, there is a neat switch: Collovati, the tallest of the defenders and the best in the air, moves on to Hrubesch (whose main weapon is his headers). Cabrini, meanwhile, now has a job to do: he begins to look after Fischer.

It is quick, seamless and effective, and a good advertisement for the relative simplicity of the man-marking system. I suspect that a zonal defence would find such an attacking move from the opposition comparatively more difficult to deal with (especially in such a tense game).

If Paolo Rossi was the Italian hero of the tournament, the hero of the final was most definitely Collovati. His marking of both Fischer and Hrubesch was magnificent, but perhaps partly because his role was absolutely clear. Significantly, when the Germans finally score their meaningless goal, Collovati is down injured after a collision with Hrubesch.

Next: a look at the most recent side to have achieved an international triumph (and a startling one at that) with a man-marking system: Greece 2004. Stay tuned.

I think Glanville answers the question in his piece Mikey. Ivanovic shold have been picked up as the set piece should have switched LFC from zone to man. It's us on the sidelines yell at our teams to 'Man up' or 'Pick up a man' during defensive set pieces.

Like the classic arguments over formation defensive structure shouldn't be about rigidity. There should be flexibility within a teams defensive frame work to allow the employment of various defensive schema throughout a game.

Just this weekend I stopped the oppos best playerr making inroads on us by switching a defender onto him fulltime. When the threat was nullified we reverted to a complete zonal system.

Think Newie v Sydney and Eagleton v Yorke a few years ago.
...Like the classic arguments over formation defensive structure shouldn't be about rigidity. There should be flexibility within a teams defensive frame work to allow the employment of various defensive schema throughout a game....

Yup, agreed. But strict zonal is the default setting for just about every team these days - that was more or less the point of my piece. T'weren't always so.

...Think Newie v Sydney and Eagleton v Yorke a few years ago....

Yup, remember it well. But there was still a line of four behind Eagleton wonder Newie barely got a shot on goal that night.
Mike, Glanville's article refers to Liverpools famed zonal marking system at corners. It is very much a rarity in the interantional game, but works really well in my opinion, expect on that Ivanovic night.

I watch just about every one of Lpool's games, and, in the main, we defend very well at corners.

Everyone is responsible for a certain part of the 18 yard box and when the ball hits that space Lpool attack it. Of course, it fellto bits on that night.

In relation to your piece, the main argument against man marking systems in general play these days is that a clever attacker can really pull a defence out of shape with his/her clever movement, and managers are generally loathe to to allow their organisation/shape to be so pulled apart.

I do remember the days of the twin man markers and a libero/sweeper fondly, and played in many such a system myself. Oh for the days when the libero would bring the ball out of defence regularly, it's the subject of a piece I've had in the pipe-line for a while...
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