“WE need to scrap this zonal marking nonsense. We’ll never defend a corner while we’re marking zones instead of men.”
My uncles were out in force again after the Watford game, leading the “Zonal Marking is Nonsense” (ZMN) brigade around the streets, brandishing flaming torches and burning effigies of Jürgen Klopp, Rafael Benitez and any other foreign manager they could think of who doesn’t buy into the view of the ZMN group.
My favourite ZMN argument is that if you use man-to-man marking and concede a goal, at least you know who to blame when you get back in the dressing room (© Tim Sherwood). It’s great that, isn’t it?
First, it implies that sides that use man-to-man marking at set pieces are content after conceding a goal to walk into the dressing room, point their collective finger at whoever’s man headed the ball in between the white sticks and say “it was all your fault that, dickhead” before grabbing a slice of orange and a bottle of Lucozade. All sorted, we know whose fault it was so no need to discuss any further.
Second, it implies that elite-level footballers and coaches can’t identify which players didn’t do their jobs properly when they concede from a set piece having used zonal marking.
“Who was to blame for that, gaffer?”
“No idea lads, let’s just forget it and move on.”
The argument that I usually run that it’s irrelevant what system you use if the players don’t do their jobs properly generally doesn’t go down well with the ZMN lads and lasses. Once I’ve run that argument into a brick wall, I tend to offer as my next contribution to the debate the issue that arises when the other team just has more massive lads than you do, so by using man-to-man marking you’re effectively guaranteeing that sooner or later the opposition has a huge advantage over you (literally) and there’s nothing you can do about it.
That argument usually falls flat when you ask the ZMN members to explain what you should do when you get to the point at which you’ve run out of big lads to mark big lads, and are left with a sub six-foot player trying to man to man mark a 6ft 4in giant. They tend to brush past that kink in the ZMN argument as quickly as possible.
These days, if I find myself in the middle of a football conversation in which anyone is telling me that I’m 100 per cent wrong about something, I tend to just head metaphorically towards the nearest exit and leave the “debate” behind having made my key points and having stated politely that I disagree. I’ve learnt over the years that a head-to-head argument about anything like this is extremely unlikely to result in either side suddenly changing their mind and agreeing with a point which they vehemently disagreed with 20 minutes previously.
We can debate all we like, but the reality is that many successful sides have utilised zonal-marking systems, or hybrid systems like the one Liverpool currently uses, over the years to great effect, with each of their players understanding the system and operating it efficiently. Of course, no team ever completely prevents the opposition from scoring from set pieces, but it is remiss of anyone to suggest that an entire system simply does not work and should be scrapped.
Does that mean that zonal marking is the right system for the current Liverpool side and the current Liverpool players? No. But does it mean that it should be scrapped in favour of man-to-man marking? Again, no.
What always concerns me in these debates is how quickly something becomes absolute, without anyone referencing any facts to support the firm conclusion. I suppose it’s a reflection of western society at large these days; huge numbers of people holding absolute views about things of which they have very little knowledge.
For example, if you listen to Jamie Redknapp on Sky, you’d think that Liverpool is the worst team at defending set pieces in the entire league, but that simply isn’t true based on last season’s statistics.
The Reds conceded 12 Premier League goals from set pieces in 2016-17, the joint ninth highest in the division. That was the same number as Burnley and Everton, who I don’t recall anyone highlighting as having any particular weakness. In addition to that, when it comes to chances conceded from set pieces, Klopp’s calamitous defence was the fifth best in the Premier League, better than Manchester United.
Liverpool’s set piece problem was exposed against Watford.
Read 👉 https://t.co/QtQQbTgHJs pic.twitter.com/SNODxV5hoZ
— Sky Sports PL 👑 (@SkySportsPL) 12 August 2017
Are you surprised to read those statistics? I know I was, mainly because I’ve been caught up in the narrative that has now developed following Watford.
We discussed the way in which the defence is set up to defend corners during this week’s Review show on TAW Player, highlighting the gap between the players taking zonal positions on the edge of the six-yard box and those taking up man-to-man blocking roles in line with the penalty spot.
The problem as I could see it was that it was far too easy for Stefano Okaka to stand between those lines and have no one doing anything to deal with him. There were plenty of players in his general vicinity, but none who took responsibility for making sure that he didn’t have a free run and jump at Roberto Firmino’s zone.
Regardless of the system, it just can’t be the case that the plan is to allow someone of his stature a free run at a corner, so something clearly went wrong somewhere.
That aside, I have always been baffled by the use of Firmino as the player in between Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip in the middle of the zonal line of players given his height disadvantage compared to, say, Emre Can, but on checking their relative statistics, Can is only 3cm taller than Firmino, so perhaps Klopp likes to have his centre forward in that position because he’s likely to be on the pitch more often than Can and/or that he thinks that the new number nine is simply better in the air than the centre midfielder.
As Lucas Leiva, Robbie Fowler and Luis Garcia have demonstrated in the past, being taller is not necessarily an indication that a player is better aerially than his shorter teammate.
On reviewing a few of the corners conceded against Hoffenheim, including three on the run in the second half, The Reds set up in exactly the same manner as they did against Watford, but everyone did their jobs properly and prevented any chances from being created or goals being scored. Arguably, the players positioned to block the lines in front of the zonal players on the edge of the six-yard box were more aggressive in protecting their teammates, but the basic setup was the same.
Ultimately though, you can have any system you want, but if any player doesn’t do their job properly, it puts the rest of the defence in serious trouble. For example, if the player stationed at the front post fluffs his lines when being the first to the ball, a la Gini Wijnaldum on Saturday, it makes it extremely difficult for those behind him to react quickly enough to rectify the error.
It’s been said that the front-post role is usually taken by Adam Lallana who, when you cast your mind back, you can probably recall heading clear a number of corners over the course of last season. Roles like that can be underestimated in football teams, and only noticed when the player is missing.
Based on the stats above, the biggest problem Liverpool seem to face as a team is that while conceding few chances from set pieces, they leak goals from a fairly high percentage of those chances with only Watford, Crystal Palace, Hull and Southampton faring worse than The Reds last season.
Aside from quickly brushing past the point that Virgil van Dijk played for that Southampton side (let’s hope that those goals were all conceded in his absence), it raises a far more complex problem than the one which the ZMN boys and girls would have you believe.
The team is fairly good at preventing chances from corners but pretty bad at stopping the chances that are created from turning into goals. Without further detailed analysis of every goal conceded from corners (which I’m sure Klopp’s team does but I’m not sure Redknapp is doing), it’s difficult to explain that conundrum away.
Is it that when the team does concede a chance it’s because it’s just switched off completely meaning that the chance created is a high-quality one right in front of goal (see Okaka’s goal on Saturday)? Or is it because the players are slow to react to second balls in the box after only part defending the first ball? (See Britos’s goal, albeit there’s a reasonable argument for the defence that he was offside and, therefore, they didn’t need to react.)
I think that either of those points could be factors, in addition to a general dip in aggression when defending some set pieces, which is difficult to rectify without changing personnel.
Whatever the nuances of what is going wrong, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not as simple as throwing out one system and replacing it with another. If concentration, reaction speed and/or aggression are the problems, I don’t see how man-to-man marking is the solution.
Just don’t tell the ZMN crew I said that.
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Phil Thompson wrote a piece in the Times today where he said we should bin off zonal marking and referenced the 2001 treble team for their strength in man marking. But if you have centre backs at full back (Carra and Babbel) and other good headers throughout the team, the likelihood is you’ll be good in either system. As Benitez proved with some of the same players – Gerrard, Carra and Hyypia. The argument is definitely more nuanced than some will admit.
This is so true. The problem is that the modern type of half-arsed punditry offered almost relentlessly from every quarter of the media, often by ex-players who aren’t necessarily at all tactically astute, is anything but nuanced. They choose a narrative (e.g. “Liverpool are terrible from set pieces because of zonal marking”), often one they didn’t think of themselves, and then just expound upon it for the allotted time.
Being of a certain age, I practiced both systems; but each system you had to adopt the same principles. In my humble opinion it’s basic footballing principles that are not being done, rather than the system adopted. Let’s start on our the attacking players; many a times you see LFC players just stop running as soon as an opposing defender passes the ball, then he moves for a return ball unhindered. In some cases he even proceeds up to our box until our half back (who by the way would already marking a forward in his zone), tries to challenge this threat 2 to 1. Whether its zonal or man to man, the defender’s run has to be cut off, so our defense is not overloaded. Midfield – how many times have we seen that when a ball is lost, outfield players do not get BEHIND the ball, TACKLING, and BACK TRACKING? Defense – When defending an attack, defenders should be POSITIONED between the attacker and our goal (not ala Moreno who positions himself next to the center halves, then rushes out on the left flank trying to contrast the winger who has all the time in the world to pick an attacker with a cross), providing a physical barrier. Our back four (and half backs) are at times not cutting out the attacker runs.
While agreeing that its not the adopted system which is at fault; it might as well be that we need certain players of higher quality and intelligence to make the right decisions at the right time.
All in all, it was a very nice read. Thank you.
The issue has nothing to do with tactics or strategy.
Watch every premier league game this weekend and I guarantee you that both sides will create attempts at goal from 2 set pieces. We did at Watford and hoffenheim and they did against us.
These chances might go in, over the bar or aimlessly wide, but they’ll be there regardless of the system.
So it starts to become a much more nuanced, specific issue as to why it leads to goals in our case. Is it mentality or education? I don’t know why…but system isn’t the issue. Nor, I think is the ability of the players.
But I have a feeling I know how this conversation is going to end up based on other article comments on here today…..
Hi KM I would wager it’s mentality and the lack to adapt to the attacking side over the period of the game.
You’re right that in a game crosses will come in from a dead ball situation or lapse in marking, fluke or brilliant pass, etc. and nothing or something will come off it. How the team adapts becomes a challenge.
Each team plays a certain way but I think zonal or man marking shouldn’t be set in stone on any given day if these are the only two ways to defend.
Add to this a vocal and physically strong leader needed to command the defense. The goalkeeper needs to adlib his share as well to combine a proper effort to defend and we might see some daylight and progress. Still the odd one can go in as you eluded but that’s difficult to always keep out.
So far we’ve seen our defense just go to pieces which is very tough on expecting the rest to do their job effectively. Anyways I’m just thinking out aloud here since you make good points.
the vocal keeper is misleading in zonal marking. It works man to man where he can see if someone isn’t picked up but zonal doesn’t work like that. Zonal is about each man being alive to the situation.
The Watford 1st goal – he could be vocal as fuck but it wouldn’t stop the runner finding the space and scoring from 5 yards.
Yes each man being alive, Migs included. By vocalist meant to say take charge. I think though Migs could’ve prevented the two set pieces but either he’s instructed to stay where he is as he is relying on his team mates in this zonal system or just isn’t the type of keeper who can see the danger and adapt quickly in these scenarios.
Most frustrating argument you can have with a lfc fan. Just the same answer based on no evidence – man marking is better. Even under Rafa when in the main we were boss at defending it was a stick to beat us with. Watford man marked Sat and we should have scored from at least 2 corners
Never been into this simplistic idea that changing the system will immediately eliminate defensive errors.
I think the issue is these lads expect to concede from set-pieces. Consequently, we expect them ro concede because we know they expect to. It’s a mentality issue as much as anything else. Klopp has referenced the mentality of the squad a few times, though not necessarily in relation to set pieces.
We’ve got to be more uncompromising in every aspect of defending. Gini has to treat that Holebas cross with contempt. Get it the fuck away from our box because it belongs near theirs. The point the article makes about Lallana is a good one and he is good to have back defending crosses. Let’s not forget these lads kept West Brom, who have never actually scored a goal from open play, completely quiet from set pieces on their own patch last season.
The reason I want van Dijk is because he’s an aggressive defender who can and does compete physically with strikers like Benteke, Lukaku, Llorente etc. He enjoys defending. I remember our game against them at St Mary’s. He threw Sturridge around the pitch like a rag doll.
The one negative thing I have always thought about zonal marking is that the opposition team basically has a free run anywhere in the box…no defender is tracking or making that run difficult. When you see man marking…the defenders are wrestling with the attackers in the box…surely it’s harder for an attacker to get to the ball if a defender is all over him, no?
Few teams play fully zonal. Including Liverpool. They have 3/4 big lads in zones and the other players picking up players to block their runs/grapple with them and just generally put them off. (Thats my understanding of it anyway). So in theory you get the best of both worlds. Unfortunately when it comes to liverpool there seems to be a lack of concentration, aggression and reaction – so what we get isn’t exactly a great advert for zonal marking!
Yeah…but, I just don’t see that happening at corners right now. I see opposition players just hanging around in the box and planning their runs…and then making them when the ball comes in! To me, it looks way too easy for the attacker to get into the ‘danger zone’ and get to the ball.
Following up on your point on Firmino v Can. Despite his physique, I have thought for a while that Can is actually not very good in the air. He doesn’t seem to judge the ball or time his jumps very well.
Captain Hendo is IMO the worst player in the air on the team.. Its painful to watch
It’s not the system it’s the mentality and the fact that no-one is attacking the ball. Watch the Watford gamne again and you’ll see the defence just sits back on their heels while the Watford players are charging in attacking the ball.
~Maybe the answer is take a step back so that the defence can also attack the ball. For 100k+ a week you’d expect the defence to really attack the ball. The faults with Klopp and the whole team of players for not just wanting it enough.
Another alternative is playing 3 CB’s so you have more big lads at the back to put their heads in.
IN open play this can also give the WB’s more freedom to fly forward so TAA/Clyne and Moreno/Robertson/Flanno can stop pretending to be defenders-first and push forward…just a thought . :-)
One weakness with zonal marking systems is that you can overwhelm the defence in a zone just by putting more (or bigger) strikers in there. Three forwards could pile in onto Lovren’s patch, for example and he’s second favourite. Or, one big geezer can target the smallest defender and beat him every time (see “Carroll vs Cline” @ 2-0 respectively, 2015/16).
A completely man-to-man marking system would mean each defender is tracking “their” striker, so that what was the “zone” is not just being defended by a single defender any more. Similarly, in M2M you would get your big geezer to always track their big geezer, regardless… Any physical advantage of the attacker is reduced/removed altogether.
On the other hand, Watford didn’t overwhelm the LFC zones with numbers.. (although it looks like they had worked out that Firmino is a relative short-arse). Most often they just arrived at the ball more decisively and with more aggression.
The issue for me is that any high ball in the six yard box must be the goalkeeper’s ball first and foremost. If he can’t get there because there are too many players around or if it’s played away from him, then your (zonal) defenders must ruffle their designer haircuts and head it away. Outside the six-yard box and it’s your man-to-man markers who have to get to it first.
The problem I saw (and I don’t like to bash the goalie) is that Mignolet does not dominate the six-yard box as he ought. He was stood on the goal-line for the two Watford set-piece goals and LFC seem to be happy to allow the ball to touch the ground in the goal area/6 yard box. It never should (but then I learnt my defending in Milan, so what do I know? :D )
Mignolet may just be doing what Klopp is telling him to do… but if there’s a change to make, I would have him attack everything aerial in the goal area. If he comes out, then the furthest zonal full-back has to drop onto the exposed post, since the goalie will either catch the ball, clear it… or he won’t… so the pesky big attacker in the vacated zone won’t be a direct threat for a while at least.
Also, if the goalie always comes for anything aerial, that is remotely near the goal area, it becomes a no-brainer who has to do what and you won’t have the ball crossing the face of the goal, “loose” and at head height (where any chances are easier to convert, as the article identifies). The defenders would also be freed up from “ball” duty, to concentrate on their zone or man respectively.. and there’s no confusion whose ball, man or zone it ever is, since the responsibility is the goalkeeper’s, if it’s in the goal area.
The main thing is that the ball has to be attacked though. LFC look a little bit hesitant and confused at the moment.. and I doubt it’s just the system or the players; One just isn’t working with the other. A more aggressive goalie would encourage a more aggressive system.. and one that is easier to understand and operate. It has to be better.
disagree – by the time the first Watford corner had cleared the lads at the front post – how on earth does mignolet react in time? The GK has to rely on the lads set up to defend the corner. You’ll see similar corners all over the weekend and with similarly packed areas the keeper wont come for any of them – not at that height and pace. If its floated in, then that’s a different situation. This bollocks that keepers all come for these types of set pieces is pretty much that.
It isn’t just a matter of EITHER zonal OR man to man, it’s gotta be suitable to the team we’re up against and the players we have on the pitch.
For example, we play Palace this weekend. No doubt they will be sending crosses, corners, and free kicks into the box looking for him and expose our weaknesses.
Should he be man marked particularly at corners? Of course he should.
But that doesn’t mean we should only employ man to man marking v Palace.
Players with physicality and an ability to read the game would be nice. Add a bit of defensive cohesion and aggression, and who knows, we might defend better.