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Tactical theory: Zonal marking

What is zonal marking?

Zonal marking is a tactical term that depicts a defensive strategy in which the players cover a specific area of the pitch (or a zone) rather than focusing solely on a certain player. These tactics are essentially the opposite of another tactical term that’s used in a similar context –  man-marking. You can find the full analysis of man-marking on our website as well.

The basic principle behind zonal marking tactics is that every player is accountable for a certain zone and once a player enters his zone, he instantly becomes his marker. This means that players don’t have preassigned opponents to cover but rather swap targets according to the opposition’s movement. Once the said player leaves that zone, he becomes another player’s responsibility.

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

Examples of zonal marking in football

Even though most teams nowadays use a mixture between zonal marking and man-marking tactics, the former does seem to be a more widely spread defensive strategy. Zonal marking is often considered as the more advanced and at times more effective approach as it requires a higher understanding of the concepts of time and space. The very first zonal marking tactics were introduced as early as the Arrigo Sacchi days but were then perfected by modern coaches like José Mourinho and teams such as Atlético Madrid.

Two most prominent examples of zonal marking are position-oriented and man-oriented approaches. Both focus on covering zones rather than players but the former has the ball as the reference for their movement while the latter uses the opposition player on the ball to coordinate the movement of the whole block.

This is not to be confused with man-marking which is also man-oriented but with each player having his own reference in the form of a specific target player he’s supposed to cover. In zonal marking tactics, the whole team moves as a unit according to specific references.

Why use zonal marking?

Zonal marking is often used because of its flexibility and better control of space in certain zones. While man-marking can be heavily exploited by manipulation and positional rotations, zonal marking tactics ensure the players are always in the right position.

However, it is much difficult to execute and requires the players to understand the concepts perfectly to not enter their teammates’ zones or vacate their own when they’re not supposed to. It is also more difficult to apply zonal marking to set-pieces and high pressing for the same reason and that’s why many teams still opt for man-marking in those scenarios.