“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.
— 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.
To listen to the latest Review show, where the lads pick apart Liverpool’s disappointing draw at Watford, SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player for just a fiver a month. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…