Why the hate for zonal marking?

Posted by Michael Cox

GettyImages / Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesJoleon Lescott's goal versus Arsenal on Sunday proved the tipping point in a major debate on set-piece defending.

As readily as night follows day, Arsenal's concession of Joleon Lescott's goal on Sunday prompted the standard criticisms of the zonal marking system.

A zone never scores a goal. A running jump beats a standing jump. No one takes responsibility.

Cross them off your checklist then screw up the checklist into a ball and throw it at the television in frustration. Britain's distrust of zonal marking is a bizarre feature of the national footballing identity and the last bastion of British boneheadedness in a country that is finally seeing the benefit of deep-lying passers and embracing formations other than 4-4-2.

Like any strategy in football, whatever suits the players at the coach's disposal is always the best bet. There’s no "better" strategy, and the major benefit of a zonal system is that it is proactive; it covers space evenly across the danger zone, meaning players don't get dragged out of position or blocked off by opponents.

"Who was picking him up?" a pundit will scream when a side concedes a goal while defending zonally. Well, no one. That's entirely the point. The valid question would be the admittedly less punchy "Whose zone was he in?" This is the most frustrating thing: the insistence of rubbishing zonal defending from a man-for-man mindset. In fact, the entire term "zonal marking" is evidence of this -- it's certainly "zonal," but is it "marking?" Marking -- even if not prefixed by "man" -- usually means tracking an opponent. It is zonal defending as opposed to zonal marking.

Zonal defending's most famous advocate is Rafael Benitez. The former Liverpool coach isn't the only coach who favours it -- he's not even the most celebrated. Pep Guardiola built the greatest football side of the modern era at Barcelona, a team that successfully defended zonally at set pieces -- but Guardiola wasn't coaching in England so the topic wasn't such an issue.

Benitez remains a firm defender of the system to the extent that he has published figures on his personal website outlining Liverpool's defensive record at set pieces during his tenure -- plus an unfavourable comparison with his successors. These statistics show that in two separate seasons, Liverpool conceded the fewest goals from corners in the Premier League.

Of course, these figures are inconclusive. They don't necessarily demonstrate that Liverpool was more successful at the process of defending corners -- we need to see how many corners each side conceded in order to gauge how effective they were. Liverpool was bound to be at the top of those tables for a simple reason: Rafa's Reds were a good side that held the ball for long periods and therefore rarely had to defend corners. Still, those figures suggest it wasn't a huge problem -- certainly not in comparison with the amount of negative media coverage it attracted.

GettyImages / Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesRafa Benitez is a major proponent of zonal defending from set pieces, and his Liverpool teams conceded few goals as a result. Yet there's more to their success than Rafa's plan.


The chief criticism of defending zonally is that no one takes responsibility, an argument that misses the point entirely. Ex-coaches who persist with this line of debate are actually adopting quite a cowardly approach -- "No one takes responsibility" is a synonym for "There's no player I can blame." Ironically, it also demonstrates that they're unwilling to take responsibility themselves.

There have been studies suggesting zonal defending is more effective than man-for-man defending, but these findings must be treated with caution; ultimately, the success of both systems depends on the qualities of the players involved. However, there is a significant school of thought among top-level coaches that zonal is the way to go; if they're correct, it's remarkable that other managers are happy to compromise their sides' chances of success for the sake of their own reputation.

Think about it: If a side defends 100 corners and concedes eight goals by man-marking, then defends 100 more corners conceding five goals through zonal defending, which is the better system? The latter, obviously. Nevertheless, for the eight goals, an individual will be blamed. For the five goals, the system will be blamed.

Why? It is a built-in feature of the man-marking system that players are responsible for their own individual contests, given that they can obviously lose. You cannot blame a player, rub your hands and move on. You're still conceding a goal and your system has still been unsuccessful. A coach might feel better being able to shout at one player, but this doesn't help the side concede fewer goals.

That's why Benitez demonstrated great bravery by persevering with the system despite constant media criticism. Was it the right approach? We don’t know, but he was prepared to receive the flak and take responsibility. A lesser coach would have switched to man-marking, content to blame it on, say, Djimi Traore.

It's a similar situation when it comes to putting men next to posts at corners -- it looks ridiculous when a goal is conceded. Why was there no one there? But no one mentions, of course, that if you don’t have two men on posts, the players don't vanish from the penalty box – they help defend the ball with their teammates and ensure there's less chance of the ball reaching the goal in the first place.

Yet such scenarios are less noticeable. You never hear a pundit say, "Well, they cleared that corner effectively -- that’s why you don’t put men on posts!" Neither, when a goal is conceded with two men on the posts, are we told, "Well, if they didn't have men on posts, they might have stopped the header coming in!" But both are legitimate points, and over time, the statistics might indicate that putting no one on posts is beneficial.

Oddly, zonal defending's chief critics generally insist upon putting men on posts, blissfully unaware that this, in itself, is a form of zonal defending. The two arguments have the same root: the availability heuristic, whereby people base a judgment on the ease with which they can bring something to mind. It's more obvious and more striking when zonal marking goes wrong, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily less effective.

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