Stubborn Benitez in the danger zone
Zonal marking would be a highly effective defensive system if zonal attacking suddenly becomes a new trendy fad, yet Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is unlikely to be the beneficiary of such good fortune.
As Benitez prepares to start his latest bid for Champions League glory with a home tie against Hungarian champions Debrecen at Anfield on Wednesday night, Liverpool fans would be forgiven for wondering whether the blemish that halted their European journey last season will return to haunt them once more.
Chelsea full-back Branislav Ivanovic has only scored two goals in his less-than-triumphant spell at Stamford Bridge following a £9 million move in 2007, yet both of those came as he uncorked a Liverpool defensive setup that many believe to be vulnerable due to the tactical shackles imposed by their Spanish coach.
The welcome return of Guus Hiddink to our living rooms as a thoughtful ESPN analyst last weekend reminded us of the night when he outsmarted Benitez in the guise of Chelsea boss during last season's Champions League quarter-finals.
Ivanovic may have emerged as the unlikely hero as he breached Liverpool's static back line to pave the way for Chelsea's triumph, yet it was Hiddink who exposed a failing that Benitez refuses to address. Two set-plays and two goals handed Chelsea a first leg lead that eventually carried them into the last four. As the Dutchman said at the time: "Liverpool has a zonal defence at corners and there is no marking. We had a big advantage there."
Many believed that alarming display at fortress Anfield could and should have been the night when Benitez went back to the drawing board and kicked his zonal defending habit, but this belligerent boss allowed his addiction to the policy to reach terminal levels a long time ago.
"The system has been very effective for us," insists the Spaniard, who always responds with frosty annoyance to questions about his zonal fixation. "If you look at the records, we don't concede more goals than other teams from set-plays. This is the right way for us to go and you see a lot of goals conceded with teams man-marking."
For those of you somewhat unsure of this zonal phenomenon - and a cheeky few may dare include Liverpool stars Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and his pals among that number - here comes a brief synopsis.
In essence, the traditional ploy when dealing with set-plays is for a team to man-mark their opponents, with the tallest defenders picking up the tallest attackers. Sounds simple enough, yet Benitez finds such a plan a little too predictable.
Instead, the Liverpool boss promotes an idea that sees his back line handed areas of the penalty box to patrol. Each set-play sees the Liverpool players move neatly into the position they have been instructed to marshal and any attacker who dares to infringe on their territory with hostile intent should be seen off.
Advocates of the zonal system argue it provides the ideal platform to break quickly once a corner or free-kick has been dealt with, yet the reality is Liverpool often look flustered dealing with set-plays against opposition of all classes. In the opinion of former Reds striker John Aldridge, whose passion for the club burns as brightly as ever nearly 20 years after he last pulled on his beloved red shirt, the zonal marking policy Benitez cherishes is flawed and he fears it is likely to come back to haunt Liverpool in this season's Champions League.
"Liverpool's European exit at the hands of Chelsea last season provided conclusive proof that the defensive system is unreliable against intelligent opponents and it will catch them out again," he wrote in his column for Ireland's Sunday World newspaper last weekend.
"Guus Hiddink clearly identified a weakness in the Liverpool back line at Anfield that night and once Chelsea scored three away goals, their passage to another European semi-final was all but assured.
"It is still an issue this season and I feel the defenders have lost a little bit of confidence. Liverpool are looking uncertain every time their opponent gets a corner or a free-kick around the box and it is a major worry as they start another Champions League campaign."
Even after watching his side scrambling to defend set-plays in their defeats against Tottenham and Aston Villa last month, while also struggling horribly against Bolton, Benitez remains unmoved as he offers a very different view from Aldridge.
"Every time we concede a couple of goals from set-plays, people say this is because of zonal marking, but I believe this is the best way to defend," he moans. "We work hard on it and the defenders understand what their job is.
"The truth is defenders make mistakes and this is why we have conceded some disappointing goals. We've also had some problems with injuries in defensive positions and this has affected us also this season. With everyone fit, I'm convinced our defence will be strong once again."
What does not seem in doubt is that there is a clear disadvantage for the defending team when they are faced with an opponent given a running start as he attacks the ball. Even if you are standing in the right zone, it is all but impossible to repel a determined runner who has all the momentum on his side.
It may not be a coincidence that Luiz Felipe's Scolari's move to transform Chelsea's defensive game plan from a man-to-man marking system to zonal proved to be his final act as Blues manager last season, with replacement Hiddink ripping up the formula and then benefiting from it as he undid Liverpool in that Champions League tie. Aldridge predicts more of the same this term.
"It wouldn't surprise me if Liverpool are bombarded with high balls in the Champions League because if the managers of Debrecen, Fiorentina and Lyon have been doing their homework, they will know they can get some joy there," says the former Tranmere boss as he considers the Reds' Group E obstacles.
"An average Bolton side showed how easy it was to undermine Liverpool in the Premier League a couple of weeks back by putting players in positions that make life difficult when you are marking zones and it remains a big concern for me.
"It may be getting to the stage where someone has to take responsibility on the pitch. The players will be reluctant to go against their manager's wishes, but someone like Jamie Carragher will be tempted to divert away from his zonal marking duties and pick up opponents who are dangerous in the air sooner rather than later. Once again, I fear zonal marking may prove to be Liverpool's toughest opponent this season."
Opinion is likely remain divided on a defensive strategy that few managers champion and one holds a little too close to his heart for his own good. As Benitez is not a man who changes his convictions for anyone, Liverpool's latest European adventure will hang on the zonal marking plan that cost them so dearly last time around.