When we think of the beautiful game that is football, we tend to focus on the sport’s most glorious moments: the romantic victories, balletic individual skill and highlight reel goals. But to prevail in a game of football, there are thousands of mini-interactions that a team must win – many of which are subtle and not exactly attention-grabbing.
These are typically aligned with the defensive side of the game, ensuring that the amount of chances created by the opposition team – and the number of goals that they score – is kept to an absolute minimum. One of the details that a head coach must decide upon is how will they mark the opposition’s players, both in open play and from set pieces: will they opt for zonal or man-to-mark marking?
What Is Man-to-Man Marking in Football?
We’ll come on to zonal marking shortly, but for now we’ll look into one of the oldest forms of defensive structure in football: man-to-man marking. Putting aside the gender bias of the name, man-to-man marking is exactly as it sounds: an individual defender is given responsibility to stay close to the opposition player that they have been tasked to mark, preventing them from having any time or space in which to manoeuvre.
Generally, the man-to-man marking strategy requires a player to mark the individual that directly mirrors them on the pitch – for example, a centre back may man-mark the opposition’s striker, the right back will mark a left winger, a defensive midfielder will mark a rival playmaker and so on.
But occasionally, a player may be assigned a man-marking job that takes them away from their normal positioning. Head coaches around the world have long been left with the head-scratching decision of how to nullify the threat of Lionel Messi, with some opting for direct man-to-man marking of the Argentine and others looking to shut down the space he has on the pitch when he drifts inside from the right flank.
Then there is very specific man-marking jobs. During the 1996/97 season, Middlesbrough were powered by the performances of their mercurial midfield playmaker, Juninho. So, when they met Leicester City in the Coca-Cola Cup final, Foxes boss, Martin O’Neill, tasked his normal right back Pontus Kaamark with following the Brazilian all over the pitch. No matter where he went, the Swede was no more than a metre away – although that probably didn’t apply to any half-time toilet breaks.
The upshot is that Kaamark played the game of his life, Juninho was nullified and Leicester went on to lift the trophy. The likes of Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Neymar have all been man-marked over the years, with mixed results, and while the individual in question should take it as a compliment, being marked so closely by a player who has one job and one job only can make for a particularly difficult afternoon indeed.
What Are the Pros & Cons of Zonal Marking?
As you may have inferred from the name, zonal marking is effectively the direct opposite of man-to-man marking. Here, a player is given the task of commanding a particular area on the pitch; usually that tied to their position. It takes the emphasis away from individualism towards a more collective approach to defending: if each player defends their zone appropriately, it means that the team as a whole will be effective in nullifying the opposition threat.
Some head coaches don’t want to dominate all zones of the pitch, and instead look to maximise the efficiency of their defensive play in specific areas. For example, teams organised in a low block will allow the opposition’s defenders to have free rein with the ball – instead, they patrol the zones in their own half of the pitch. Elsewhere, some other managers don’t mind the opposition having the ball in wide areas – they believe in the ability of their defenders to combat crosses, so therefore they focus on the central zones of the pitch.
What Are the Disadvantages of Man-to-Man Marking?
The main advantage of zonal marking is linked to the worst drawback of man-to-man marking: if a defender has an off-day, the opposition player will have so much more freedom to harm the team. But in zonal marking, a bad day at the office for one player is only one link in the chain, with others able to make up for the shortcoming.
Sometimes, a defensive player can be wholly unsuited to marking their opposite number. A tricky winger will love running at a defender who lacks pace, composure and who dives into tackles, while physical strikers love nothing more than to bully a defender who lacks the height and strength to give as good as they get.
Another factor to consider is that a smart attacking player can still be effective even when being tightly man marked – in fact, they don’t even need to touch the ball to influence the game. For instance, a wide player that is being man-marked can drift inside, knowing that their marker will follow them. That can create huge pockets of space on the flank that their teammates can exploit.
There are plus-points to the man-marking system – you can stop the opposition’s best player from having too much of an influence on the game, for starters. But if the player that is doing the marking isn’t up to the job, the whole edifice can fall down like a house of cards.
Zonal Marking at Corners
Anyone that watched Match of the Day during the 2021/22 Premier League season was met with a regular sight: Brendan Rodgers scratching his head on the touchline after his Leicester City side had conceded another goal from a set piece. They shipped around a third of all their goals during the campaign from free kicks and corners – a bizarre stat that is linked directly to the failings of their zonal marking system.
Rodgers would post his players that were strongest in the air along the six-yard line, with others tasked with then man-marking a pinpointed opponent. The problem was that his man-markers were typically shorter in height and less of a physical presence, meaning that the zonal defenders – who would be stood still on the spot – would have to combat on-rushing attackers themselves.
Suddenly, Leicester’s collective approach was unpicked and so their individuals had to win their aerial battles alone – a failing that caused them to give up so many cheap goals. That’s not to say that zonal marking cannot work when defending set pieces – many successful clubs opt for this strategy. But like any marking system, zonal and man-to-man are both only as effective as the individual links in the chain.