Breakdown: Zonal v man-marking in the A-league

A perennial debate in football is about marking at set-pieces. There’s the zonal camp, where players are designated to an area and marshal that space, or man-marking, where each individual is assigned to an opponent, and primarily responsible for sticking tight to that player.

Melbourne City’s opener on Friday night (the third goal Adelaide have conceded from a set piece this season) was primarily the fault of man marking, as Osama Malik simply lost Patrick Kisnorbo when the City centre-back made a purposeful run to the front post to meet Damien Duff’s superb delivery.

A common feature of modern punditry is for commentators to bemoan zonal marking, with the argument often being that it doesn’t allow players to be proactive enough when opponents move into their zone. This is true, but it seems rather obvious that there are flaws to man-marking too – lose your man, as Malik found out, can prove costly.

Rather ironically, the goal demonstrated that there are faults in both systems. If you watch the replay carefully you see Jonatan Germano, who theoretically should be dealt with by Bruce Djite marking zonally at the corner, make a charging run into the middle completely unmarked. Had Kisnorbo not met the header, the Argentine would have had a simple tap-in in front of goal.

While the debate about the appropriate marking system at set pieces continues, however, one area of the pitch where the argument seems to be settled is in outfield. Man marking has more or less died away at the top level, with defensive structures in football now predominantly about structure and shape. Long gone are the days where players would basically play tag across the full width of the pitch. Instead, defending is about occupying space zonally, with the movement of the defensive block dictated by movement of the ball, not the players.

We’ll almost likely never see a return to the all-out man-marking systems, but there is increasingly a rising trend of sides marking tight in midfield. We’ve seen it in two Adelaide United games this season, with both Melbourne sides man-marking in midfield, while Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory have taken similar approaches.

Why the sudden revival? The most logical explanation seems to be that, like many things in football, if a team finds success with it, you copy it. The global nature of the World Cup, with the exposure the tournament receives, further encourages this copy-cat nature, and it seems likely that A-League coaches have observed Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands side, and identified their man-marking in midfield as crucial to their surprise run to a third placed finish.

Van Gaal, in fact, was very reactive throughout the tournament, often changing formation and the format of his midfield triangle according to the opposition. In the first group game, for example, Wesley Sneijder played as a #10 to press against Marcelo Diaz, Chile’s holding midfielder, with Jonathon de Guzman and Nigel de Jong sitting as a duo behind him.

Then, against Australia, he flipped the triangle - so Wesley Sneijder moved slightly left, with De Guzman alongside him on the right, so they could press up against Mile Jedinak and Mark Milligan respectively, while De Jong occupied Mark Bresciano, the Socceroos #10.

Where the man-marking failed was when an opposition player moved into a zone beyond the reach of his man-marker. Javier Mascherano was the best example of this, when in the semi-final between Argentina and the Dutch he dropped very deep between his centre-backs, avoiding the pressure and finding space to dictate the tempo, finishing as the game’s highest passer.

Still, the Netherlands’ run deep into the tournament must have been encouragement enough, for we’re now seeing it become more prevalent in the A-League especially, as mentioned, against Adelaide United. On Friday night, John Van’t Schip instructed his trio of Erik Paartalu, Aaron Mooy and Massimo Murdocca to stick tight to Marcelo Carrusca, James Jeggo and Isaias respectively.

However, as Adelaide execute a number of player rotations when in possession, the determination of the City midfielders to man-mark meant they were often dragged into an odd, lopsided shape - especially Murdocca, who was theoretically left of centre in midfield but ended up in something of a #10 position defensively, trying to track Isaias into deep positions. Paartalu, too, was shifted out of position when Carrusca drifted wide.

Through these rotations, Adelaide established their usual dominance of possession, with the midfield trio doing a good job of working the ball forward quickly before their man-markers were able to win the ball. Importantly, too, Adelaide focused their attacking down the flanks, meaning they often circumvented the tight midfield zone altogether. This, too, was a key feature of their match against the Victory, as well as the Melbourne Derby, where both Van’t Schip and Kevin Muscat’s sides man-marked in midfield.

So, is man-marking in midfield successful? In a way – the fact the games featuring this tactic have been all about attacking down the flanks suggests the teams are able to nullify that midfield zone. Conversely, though, when a player varies his position, he can find space and time away from his marker to be decisive – it might only be on a few occasions, but it can still be crucial. Gui Finkler, for example, escaped Paartalu by drifting into little pockets of space to the right - not significantly impacting the game as a result, but doing so enough to make the man-marking less effective.

Doesn’t zonal marking, too, encounter the same problem? A holding midfielder can do a fine job throughout a game holding his position in front of the back four, but be slightly advanced at the wrong moment, leaving an opposition playmaker free at the worst possible moment.

The conclusion then, perhaps, is the same as that set-piece debate – there are strengths and weaknesses to zonal and man-marking.

The problem doesn’t lie in the system itself, but in the execution.

Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com