What it is and how Everton are currently executing Marco Silva's favoured defensive system badly
This article is in response to our present crisis and constant discussion of our set-piece woes. It’s not a problem new to Silva and this is a very interesting article written by a Watford fan in November 2017. (Note, this guy is hoping to be a set-piece coach and he prefers zonal marking. He explains it far better than I so read him, and forget about me.)
Darren Hinds did a piece on this and there followed an interesting discussion. Still, the problems continue. I will declare from the outset that my preference, as a player, is man-to-man. And yes, I would have a man on the post, as I myself always took the left post as left-back.
First thing to make clear is that we are discussing zonal marking relating to set pieces only. All teams in the Premier League and the major European Leagues, and indeed the Champions League, play zonal marking (in open play).
What is zonal marking? Zonal marking is best understood by watching any team defend. We all know 4-4-2 best so imagine a team defending as 4-4-2. We can all picture the two banks of four. Let’s keep it simple and have the opponent as 4-5-1. 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 confuses matters because it looks like man-to-man when it’s not. Imagine the 4-5-1 is an Allardyce side and the striker is a very isolated lone target man. He decides to go and stand on little Leighton Baines for the long hoof up the pitch. If it was a man-to-man defence, then a big centre-back would come across and challenge him for the ball. Instead, because it is zonal, Baines will take up the challenge.
Now zonal marking in open play is fluid. Baines doesn’t just stand in a box from the touchline to the edge of the penalty area to the halfway line and say this is my zone and this is all I’m defending. No, as the ball goes down the left the defence shuffles to the left and the right-back can be stood on the centre spot of the pitch, with the two centre-halves right over towards the left-back. The left centre-half could even come across and support Baines by actually making the jump for the ball. If the striker was smaller, and Baines was bigger, then rest assured the left-back would take on the striker’s challenge.
I hope you follow that and understand that in open play it is all zonal marking. Every side does it. They have done for decades now. Those zones are fluid and not fixed. Your teammates come into your zone and help you.
As I said before, 4-4-2 v 4-4-2 confuses things as the teams mesh nicely so the left winger takes on the right-back, and so on. It looks like man-to-man at times. But it’s not, and it has not been for a while. Watch a lone striker run across the backline and watch a backline simply “pass the man on”. This is zonal marking. Cantona exploited zonal marking in the 1990s. He would simply stand between the two lines of 4 and ask who is going to challenge him. If it was man-to-man marking, then the centre-half would simply pick him up and there’d be no questions. It was zonal marking, the centre-backs stayed in their position, the midfield stayed in their position, and Cantona ran riot because of the rigidity of the British zonal marking system.
So, we had a problem with zones in open play. We changed the formation and invented a defensive midfielder to take this zone and alleviate the problem Cantona and others caused. Since then, others have found spaces and in the zonal coverage and exploited them and again formations have changed to adapt to provide better zonal coverage.
No-one was screaming in the 1990s, "let’s play man-to-man marking". No, zonal marking is far better in open play, and the system needed tweaking. It was, and if Cantona played now, in his prime of course, against a 90s side versed in modern tactics, he would be far less effective. Don’t get me wrong though: Cantona was an excellent player. However, it is worth noting that French journalists and pundits laughed at us, they thought Cantona was overrated and the fact that he could run riot in English football by standing between the two banks of four was a major figure of amusement for them and only highlighted how poor the English game was. This was a very slow player who had flopped in France, was a figure of derision following his disgrace in France. The adaption to tactics that combatted this coincided with our return to European football as the ban was lifted and by playing sides who utilised formations other than 4-4-2.
Now you understand we do play zonal marking in open play, and that it is king, we can turn to the issue in hand, zonal marking at set pieces. Whilst teams have all played zonal marking in open play, they have retained man-to-man marking at set pieces. We all know why. We all played football at some point and so we all know the strengths of man-to-marking. It is easy to understand, it is easy to know what your role is, and what others' roles are. It can be extremely effective. Go to man-to-man on a little side like Man City, using your two big men on their two big centre-halves, keep another big man spare to double up on their most dangerous player, and then the rest can easily be dealt with as the defence always has a couple of men up, unless you’re a really attacking side against another really attacking side.
Man-to-man marking is all about individual responsibility. It is the strength of the system. That’s my man, I will stop him; if I don’t, blame me. The problem with the system is individual responsibility, the strength of the system. How so? Let’s imagine Duncan Ferguson is attacking last season’s Everton defence, we saw how they defended under Allardyce so it’s easy to understand. Sure, we all know who Duncan Ferguson is, but just in case we have a 16-year-old who didn’t start school until after Duncan retired, let me remind you of the Big Yin. He was 6’-4” and whilst wiry, he was extremely strong. Despite being tall, he actually leaped for the ball, as opposed to Peter Crouch. This meant he was unstoppable at corners. If he made the right run at the right ball, then it was a goal and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Mike Gaynes gave a very good analysis of how he as a defender would defend against someone like Duncan in the excellent Twilight Zone thread by Darren Hinds:
“a good man-marker essentially does both [be reactive and proactive]. You don't watch the man. You feel him. That's the point of the initial contact. I use my forearms a lot so as not to be called for holding or pushing. If my positioning is proper, I can tell my man's every movement, jar him off balance and never lose sight of the ball.
“Watch Jags. He's a master at it. That's why he consistently wins headers against bigger strikers.”
A good defender on man-to-man marking will be touch-tight to a defender. But, despite what Mike says, you are reacting to the defender. It is called man-to-man for a reason: you have to beat your man to the ball, or stop him getting to the ball. A good attacker will use penalty area congestion to his advantage, if I ran between two players, in a tight space, pushing my way through, then my marker is going to be blocked or lose me. If the attacker loses his marker, then man-to-man has failed.
It is so easy for this to happen. Watch a corner, any corner, with man-to-man. You’ll see about 6-8 duels. Does every defender keep their man? I would say you will see plenty of examples of man-to-man failing, only the free man does not make it to the ball for whatever reason. When this happens, no one blames the system.
You need to understand that you can’t take your eyes off your man for a second, and it’s impossible to watch both the man and the ball. I will make it clear again, that if I was Silva I would play man-to-man marking on corners. But we have to realise there is a fundamental failing with man-to-man marking that if your defender loses his man, then the system has failed. Sure, individual responsibility, blame the player. It’s the system’s failing as well.
John Pierce on the same thread makes an excellent point about VAR. We are soon to enter the Post VAR world in the Premier League. So, a lot of the “dark arts” could lead to penalties. Even if Gaynes is the right side of the rules, if he’s close to the line, then he’s running the risk of giving away penalties with a harsh ref or one who misinterprets what he sees (yes even on VAR). And let’s be real, the percentage of goals from corners is said to be somewhere in the region of 3% of all corners taken, so it’s not worth the risk of a penalty.
So hopefully, you can understand the problem with man-to-man marking at corners, and as good as Gaynes says he is, I don’t see a peak Jagielka stopping a peak Duncan Ferguson. It requires assistance which is where you get into the world of hybrid tactics.
So pure zonal marking. The theory is that you defend space – not the man. There is a fallacy to dispel immediately, you do not stand flat-footed, gawping at the ball and watch a man in your zone smash the ball into your net. I went into detail before about fluidity of zonal marking in open play. This is because the same theory applies. The zones are fluid. You move, and you move your zone, and your mate next to you moves with you and his zone moves and so on. Everton, as pointed out on Match of the Day, have been undone by the near post corner. The opponent gets a flick on and someone unmarked buries it. This is not a failing of zonal marking – it is a failing of the execution of it. With zonal marking you need to understand overloads. Overload is a simple term meaning that you get more men into the zone than the defender, so he cannot cope.
So, the attackers flood the near post to win the flick-on. What should we do? Well the zones are fluid and should move to intercept the ball. The man nearest should not be worrying about zones, he should realise that the corner is dropping short and adapt to run and head it away. The man nearest him should be making a run to support in case the ball goes over his head, and the rest of the defenders should be shuffling across, like a good defence in open play.
The idea with zonal is that you are in position to head the ball away. You can’t be “lost” in the way you can be lost in man-to-man. If the opponent runs 10 men near post, then all our defenders need to also flood that zone, there’s no point maintaining a good coverage of what is empty space. We need to adapt to meet the situation. Therefore, a good zonal marking defence adapts and lines up like man-to-man as the ball arrives in position. The defender has seen the ball coming into his zone, he can see an attacker coming towards hi,m and he can position himself so he gets that ball; he has a headstart on the attacker and so should not be losing out.
The attackers all start from outside the box, so they can make their runs and get a good leap, and confuse defenders with darting runs. Imagine I set my zonal defence up as a 4-4-2: 4 across the 6-yard box, 4 two steps ahead, and two protecting the short ball into the penalty area. Duncan Ferguson needs to run past 8 defenders to get his head on the normal ball into the 6-yard box. That’s no easy feat. 8 good defenders will be able to stop him every time. He cannot just push them out the way, that’s a foul. Zonal marking executed well means a team that cannot beat Duncan Ferguson on man-to-man can stop him. The collective trumps the individual.
The other “flaw” of zonal marking is the flat-footed defence. This is wrong. Again, this is a flaw of the execution. A zonal marking defence is not meant to be static and stood there scratching its arse and watching the ball. They are mobile, they are moving, they take a running jump. You can tell on a corner when contact is about to be made by the taker with the ball and you have sufficient time at this point to start your motion and jump, a running jump. If you have to position yourself inside the goal or off the pitch to get sufficient run up or motion to be jumping, then do it.
The problems with both systems are that they are system and rely on everyone doing their jobs. If someone fails, then the system can fail. Only we know who to blame with man to man so he is named and shamed on MotD, whereas with zonal marking it is less clear so it is the system that is blamed.
The big weakness in zonal marking is the execution. Everton are executing it very badly. Silva needs to up his game here. If he wants to persist with this system, then he needs to make it work — and fast. I’m a bit kinder than on MotD in that I won’t blame him for players missing their spot and not executing properly. It’s an individual mistake, it happens, I accept it. Where I am not forgiving and I lay the blame at Silva is that too often the opponent, see Danny Ings, has a free header on goal because we have flooded a zone and left spaces for the opposition. This is the direct opposite of what zonal marking is supposed to achieve. All areas are supposed to be covered and then we move an adapt to the opposition flooding zones.
Marco Silva has always played zonal marking. He’s never had a problem before England. He didn’t have a problem at Hull despite the stats on the goals conceded. A quick look at the Hull backline who were all 6’-4" and 6’-5” monsters like Harry Maguire and Andrea Ranocchia gives you some hope. Michael Keane is 6’-3”, Kurt Zouma is 6’-3” and Yerry Mina is 6’-5”. These monsters on zonal marking duties should help, especially the latter who is well versed in zonal marking. Things should improve. Silva is a pragmatist, he regularly changes tactics and is not set in his ways on formations or styles. However, I do not believe this applies to zonal marking, and we will see the stubborn side of Silva there.
Is the answer a Spurs approach? For those who have not seen it, Spurs operate a hybrid. Pochettino couldn’t get zonal marking to work at Spurs. So, he plays both. He puts a line of three men on the 6-yard box, there’s a couple with the keeper inside the box, and then the others are out on man-to-man duties. Those three men help double up on the danger men and can cover the “man lost”. This is perhaps the best of both worlds.
Zonal marking is not better than man-to-man marking. It simply has different strengths and weaknesses. The main weakness being the execution and complexity of the system. Done properly and it can be more effective than man-to-man marking, giving you the opportunity to collectively defend against unstoppable players — like Duncan Ferguson.