Zonal marking, the concept of assigning each defender a specific area to defend rather than marking specific opponents, has been a staple in the tactical toolkit of top-level coaches for decades. It’s a system that requires precise coordination and communication among defenders, but when executed correctly, can be a thing of beauty, stifling even the most potent attacking units. In this article, we’ll dive deep into the intricacies of zonal marking, examining its fundamental principles and the key components that make it a successful strategy on the pitch.
What is a Zone?
Johan Cruyff once said “If I have to defend this whole garden, I’m the worst. If I have to defend this small area, I’m the best.” The football pitch can be divided into the wings, half space, centre and half space, and it is almost impossible to cover all four areas of the pitch. Therefore, we must choose what we want to control and how we expect to affect that control.
The problem of what is to be controlled in football can be classified into two: How can we control the space? How can we control the opponent? However, to control both the space and the opponent, we need to first be able to control ourselves; legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi gave us a template to control ourselves:
“Our players had four reference points: the ball, the space, the opponent and his own teammates. Every movement had to happen in relation to these reference points. Each player had to decide which of these reference points should determine his movements.”
This means that if one player moves to get the ball, another player must move to cover him or the passing lane, and another must adjust his position to cover the second. The process is repeated until the team shift’s across to the location of the ball to maintain the proper balance and structure of the defense. The movement must be coordinated and synchronized to prevent gaps from appearing in the defense.
A great example is Walid Regragui’s Morocco, utilising position-oriented zonal marking, Regragui gave space to the opposition on the wings but constructed layers of defensive blocks in defense and midfield; the goal being to keep the gaps and the space between the lines as small as possible. The aim was to allow the opponent to switch play to the wings from where they could go at the opponent.
The realm of football tactics, the use of cover shadow in zonal marking is a crucial aspect of a team’s defensive strategy. It involves assigning a defender to shadow or mark a specific opposing player in order to limit their impact on the game. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language philosophy can be used to explain the concept of cover shadow in zonal marking. According to Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word or concept is determined by its use in a specific language game.
In the language game of football, the term “cover shadow” has a specific meaning and purpose to control space, the opponent and even teammates within the context of zonal marking. To understand both the concept and context, picture the eclipse of the sun, where the moon comes between the sun and Earth, casting a shadow on earth and cutting off the light.
In the same vein, a player can set himself between two teammates of the opposing team such that he can prevent one teammate (the ball carrier) from reaching another (potential receiver) if the player utilises cover shadow to cut off passing lanes, the rest of the team should support him by cutting off the surrounding passing lanes and preventing the opposition from going through them.
Zones refer to the area around a player that allows him to reach the ball and opponent as quickly as possible. Starting position is crucial in the utilization of zones. The players should be positioned in a way that covers the most space and restricts the opponent’s options. The position of each player should also take into account their individual strengths, such as speed and agility. A player who is fast and agile can cover more ground and react quickly to threats, making them an asset in the defense.
Access to the ball and player is also important in zonal marking. The focus is on restricting the opponent’s options and limiting their access to the ball. This is achieved by positioning the players in a way that forces the opponent to play the ball into areas where the defense is strong. The defenders should also be aware of the opponent’s key players and position themselves in a way that limits their options and restricts their access to the ball.
The age of the player used in zonal marking can also be a factor. Younger players tend to be faster and more agile, making them ideal for covering large areas of the field. Older players, on the other hand, may have more experience and better decision-making skills, making them better suited for positions that require more tactical awareness.
The speed of the player is also an important factor in zonal marking. A player who is fast and agile can cover more ground and react quickly to threats, making them an asset in the defense. On the other hand, a player who is slow and lacks agility may struggle to cover their zone effectively.
Types of Zonal Marking
- Position-oriented zonal Marking
In position-oriented zonal marking, players base their positioning on their teammates’ positions. The team operates as a compact unit, with each player responsible for covering a specific position within the defensive structure. One of the key aspects of position-oriented zonal marking is pressing. This approach encourages the defenders to press the opponents, limiting their options and forcing them to make mistakes. The key to successful pressing is for the defenders to stay compact and organized, working together to close down the space and restrict the opponent’s access to the ball.
Another important aspect of position-oriented zonal marking is space. The focus is on controlling the space in front of the defense, making it difficult for the opponent to penetrate. The defenders are positioned in a way that limits the options for the opponent and forces them to play the ball into areas where the defense is strong. This creates a compact and organized defense, reducing the number of gaps and spaces for the opponent to exploit.
Access to the ball is another key aspect of position-oriented zonal marking. The focus is on preventing the opponent from playing the ball into the feet of their key players. The defenders are positioned in a way that restricts the opponent’s options and limits their access to the ball. This makes it more difficult for the opponent to play their way through the defense and creates opportunities for the defending team to win the ball back.
Let’s use Atletico Madrid as an example. Atletico’s position-oriented zonal marking system is characterized by its well-organized and compact defense. The team defends in a 4-4-2 formation, with their two central midfielders responsible for defending the central zone, while the full-backs defend the wide areas. The two center-backs are responsible for the central area in front of the goal, and for marking any opposition players who attempt to penetrate the defense.
On occasions that Atletico Madrid faced a team that liked to play through the wings, relying on crosses and aerial deliveries into the box. To counteract this threat, Atletico Madrid adjusted their position-oriented zonal marking system, with their full-backs playing a higher and wider position to prevent the opposition from delivering crosses into the box.
Additionally, the two center-backs marked the opposition’s central attackers, while the central midfielders dropped deeper to protect the central zone in front of the goal. This tactical adjustment effectively neutralized the opposition’s threat.
- Option-oriented zonal marking
Here, the focus is on the ball and how to prevent the opposing team from exploiting it to cause harm. The team adjusts its position based on the location of the ball and the opportunities available to the opposition; the players adjust their positions and movement based on the location of the ball and the opportunities available to the opposing team.
For example, in La Liga, teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid have utilized this approach in their matches. If the opposing team is launching an attack down the right flank, the right-back and center-back might shift to the right to counteract the threat, while the left-back and central midfielders maintain their positions to provide cover.
If the ball is then passed to the left wing, the right-back and center-back may drop back into their positions while the left-back and central midfielders step forward to pressure the opposition. This approach requires a high level of coordination and situational awareness from the players, but can be highly effective in disrupting the opposition’s attacking play
3. Space-Oriented Zonal Marking
Space-oriented zonal marking is a defensive approach where the focus is on occupying specific areas on the field, rather than marking specific players. In space-oriented zonal marking, each defender is responsible for covering a specific zone on the field, allowing them to effectively limit the opponent’s attacking options in that area.
One of the strengths of space-oriented zonal marking is that it can create a compact and organized defense, making it difficult for the opponent to penetrate. This approach also provides good access to the ball, as the defenders can quickly converge on the opponent when they have possession.
However, it can also be vulnerable to quick, precise attacking movements that can exploit the spaces between the defenders. It is important for the defenders to communicate and coordinate their movements to prevent the opponent from exploiting these spaces.
An example of space-oriented zonal marking can be seen in the 2020 UEFA Champions League quarter-final match between RB Leipzig and Atletico Madrid. Leipzig employed a possession-based system that relied on space-oriented zonal marking to limit Atletico’s attacking options and control the game.
4. Man-Oriented Zonal Marking
This is a defensive strategy where each player is assigned to mark a specific opponent within their zone. Unlike traditional man-marking, where a player sticks tightly to one opponent, man-oriented zonal marking requires players to be flexible and adjust their position in relation to the closest opponent in their zone.
This approach can be considered a compromise between position-oriented zonal marking and man-marking. It offers the advantage of fewer open spaces, compared to man-marking, while still allowing for increased access to the opponent due to the closer proximity.
One of the strengths of man-oriented zonal marking is that it can effectively limit the opponent’s key players and disrupt their attacking play. This approach also provides a high level of pressing and access to the ball, as the defenders can apply pressure to the marked player when they have possession. However, this approach can also leave spaces open for the opponent’s other attackers to exploit.
It is important for the defenders to communicate and coordinate their movements to avoid leaving gaps in the defense. An example of man-oriented zonal marking can be seen in the 2019 UEFA Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. Tottenham employed this approach, assigning specific defenders to mark Liverpool’s key attackers, including Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, which limited their impact on the game.
Zonal marking is a crucial aspect of modern football and a concept that everyone should understand. It is important to note that a coach’s beliefs and football philosophy should shape their choice of marking system.
As a coach, it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each zonal marking approach and to tailor the strategy to the players available and the opponent faced. The right zonal marking approach can give your team the edge they need to win important matches, but it’s equally important to have the right players who can execute the strategy effectively.
In the end, it’s not just about the marking system, but how well the players understand it, the coordination of movements, communication and the ability to adapt to different situations. As a coach, it’s important to create a clear system that is easy for the players to understand and execute. A well-executed zonal marking strategy can be the difference between winning and losing.
By: Tobi Peter / @keepIT_tactical
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA / Getty Images