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Tactical theory: Man-marking

What is man-marking?

Man-marking is a tactical term that’s used to describe a defensive strategy in which defenders are assigned certain players to mark tightly. These tactics are essentially the opposite of another tactical term that’s used in a similar context – zonal marking. You can find the full analysis of zonal marking on our website as well.

The term man-marking and the tactics behind it represent a very basic form of defending but even with that being said, it comes with its own benefits and advantages. We can also refer to it as man-orientation because the target a defender is marking is the primary reference point for his movement. In other words, the man (or the player) is affecting the defender’s positioning as opposed to other reference points such as the ball, teammates or space/ zones.

Similarly to zonal marking, some other tactical terms that are closely connected to man-marking are the defensive phase of play, compactness, shape, structure, philosophy and orientation.

Examples of man-marking in football

Man-marking tactics were mostly used in earlier stages of professional football and even though they have lingered to modern-day sports, it does feel like more and more teams are abandoning it for zonal marking. However, coaches like Marcelo Bielsa and the older versions of teams in Serie A are considered as the most prominent users of this structure.

In a man-marking scheme, the defenders will each be assigned a certain player from the opposition squad, shadowing his every move and repositioning themselves in order to always stay tight to their target. Even though this does ensure that every player is accounted for in all phases of play, it does make the defending team susceptible to manipulation.

Smart and well-drilled squads will take advantage of it and move the defensive line to their liking, opening different channels and/or creating space in other areas of the pitch. Man-marking can therefore be a double-edged sword as a good positional rotation can wreak chaos within the defensive structure.

Why use man-marking?

Even though there are certainly ways to exploit a highly man-marking oriented team, these tactics do come with some benefits as well. Firstly, they are easy to coach and implement, not requiring as much work as a zonal defence would, for example. Similarly, against teams that may not possess enough technical or tactical prowess, it could still prove highly effective.

A tight and compact man-marking structure can be extremely frustrating to face, especially if you don’t have the mechanics to outplay and manipulate them. Still, teams nowadays have learned to use the defenders’ man-marking against them and that’s why these tactics are sometimes frowned upon and coaches opt against them.