Tactical Theory: Analysis on marking systems
With the constant evolvement of football tactics and with the defensive systems becoming more and more structured and organised, any football fan needs to understand the basics of defending in football.
Defending is applying pressure, both as a player and as a whole team, on the opponent to prevent him from progressing forward to your own goal. A team can mark and press every player, but then there will be no room for error because when the marker gets passed, the team is immediately outnumbered. Then you can defend zonally, but you can’t let the opposition have all the time they want on the ball too. So there are a lot of defensive strategies applied by any team and for any particular match, according to the current circumstances.
Football teams in the modern era defend as a unit, and every player is getting a particular defensive task in every game. It is the coach’s job to get his message to the players about how to defend as a whole and as a player alone.
Generally speaking, there are two types of marking opposition players in football: man-marking and zonal marking.
In this tactical analysis, I will analyse them with some most known variations used by teams in the past and modern football. Moreover, I will look into some mixed systems that can use both man- and zonal-marking when defending.
Strict man-marking is the most basic way of defending when every player gets his marker and is tasked to control and track his movements during the game. This way of defending was wildly popular since the beginning of association football up until the second half of the twentieth century. It still can be applied on corners and generally on set-pieces, plus in certain situations when a player or a group of player are man-marking the opposition, not a team.
Defending by strictly man-marking every player has its advantages. For example, it is very easy for a coach to get this idea across to his players, and it is a simple task to execute for players in comparison to the other defensive systems where you have to control a handful of other variables.
However, this system shows its flaws when the opposing team tries to take advantage of it by simple positional rotations. It creates havoc in the whole defensive system because the player whose marker left the position faces the dilemma of whether or not to follow his marker. If he does, then he will leave a gap in the defensive line in which he is playing. If he doesn’t, the opposition team gets one free man to pass to and then attack.
The basic examples are the number 9 dropping into the midfield and wingers cutting inside to drag the opposition full-backs with them, thus allowing their full-backs to exploit the space.
To stop the opposition from taking advantage of this rigid structure, flexible man-marking can be used.
The point is that when the opposition player tries to get into the new zone, the player tracking him doesn’t follow him at all times. When the opponent leaves the zone of that player, he is handed over to the defender whose zone he has entered in.
You can see that in the example above where blue #5 was following the red winger #11 and thus leaving the space for #4 to run into. With flexible man-marking, blue #5 will follow his marker only until the certain point, and then the blue centre-back #2 will step in and mark #11. This prevents the opposition from taking advantage of players leaving their positions. This is a more complex system in comparison to strict man-marking, and there you can see the first notable signs of cooperation between the players.
Another good example is the role of a libero, or the so-called “free man”. The player with this role usually was playing as a defender (like Beckenbauer in the 1960s and 1970s for Bayern Munich), who is positioned behind the rest of the defenders to be the last guard on the way to their own goal. Once a player with the ball was leaving the zone of the other defender and entering his zone, the libero would man-mark that player and track him down. You can see one example in the image below with the red libero #2 being behind other defenders and coming into play only when the opponent enters his zone, previously getting away from other defenders.
Despite the fact that the aforementioned systems are easy to understand and to execute, they are not used in modern football in their pure form. They were playable and mostly used in the last century, especially flexible man-marking in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. That is no longer the case because of the increased awareness of the attackers, advanced tactical concepts, and a better understanding of space in football in general.
The more advanced version of flexible man-marking is space-oriented man-marking, where a team moves as a unit, controlling the space and the distance from each other, both horizontally and vertically (initially they are positioned according to position-oriented zonal marking, which I will cover in the next section of this analysis). However, when a certain player enters the specific zone of the pitch, he gets man-marked in that zone.
In the image below you can see an example of space-oriented man-marking. Two blue defensive midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation hold their position and control the space. When the red #10 with the ball enters their zone, one of the midfielders (depending on the situation) marks him and tracks him. If the red #10 leaves the zone without the ball, then both blue midfielders #6 and #10 get back to their initial positions.
If the red #10 does not enter the zone and, for example, just plays a pass to the flanks, then the blue midfielders hold their position.
When one of the players leaves their respective zone, the rest of the defensive line should suffocate the space left by that player to not leave any open gaps between the lines. For example, if one of the centre-backs steps out of the line to mark the forward who drops deep, the rest of the defenders should close down the gap.
The last variant of man-marking that can be used is man-marking certain players. This is quite common for any team to try and prevent the other team’s most creative player/players from having too much time on the ball. For example, it is very common to mark the opposition attacking midfielder with their own midfielder, while other players can be defending differently.
Sometimes teams are forced to resort to man-marking when the coach thinks this is the best way for his team to perform against the opponent. For example, in the game between Manchester United and Liverpool back in October, Solskjær’s side used a mirror 5-3-2 formation against Liverpool’s attacking 2-3-5 structure. However, because of frequent rotations and changes of roles in modern football the rigid man-marking structure can’t be used. So, for instance, when one of Liverpool’s midfielders was dropping into the defensive line, one of the United midfielders applied pressing only in certain moments (heavy touch, no open passing lanes, etc.). It was an effective way of playing against Klopp’s side, which resulted in a draw for the Red Devils.
As football and tactical theory continued to evolve and players started to understand football more and more in terms of positioning themselves according to the space around them and the positioning of other players, the zonal marking gradually replaced man-marking in open play. It started to happen in the 1950s and was revolutionised by Arrigo Sacchi and his four principles of defensive positioning. He stated that for a defender to determine his position, he needs to look at four reference points, which consist of his teammates, the position of the ball, the open space, and the positioning of the opposing players.
The first option of zonal marking is position-oriented zonal marking, where the team is moving as a unit depending on the position of the ball. In my opinion, the best example of this system is Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, whose 4-4-2 low/medium block is one of the best defensive systems in world football.
The concept lies in the correct distances between the players. The compactness is the key component of this system, closing down space in the centre and intentionally leaving the space on the flanks. I will analyse this concept with the example of the Atletico with their famous flank traps.
When the ball gets to the opposition player on the flank, the opportunity occurs to shut down all the possible passing options. Both forwards (red #11 and #9) shift towards the player with the ball, creating superiority with numbers. Together with the midfielder (red #6) and two flanking players (red #7 and #5), they try to close every possible passing option for the blue #3 who is on the ball. Due to the movement of red players, all the promising passing lanes (for blue players #4, #6, and #11) are shut down with numbers. Thus, when the blue #3 decides to pass it to one of those players, it won’t be an issue for one of the red players to tackle or intercept the ball.
With the right execution and chemistry between the players, such a system becomes very hard to break down (the first leg between Atletico and Liverpool in the Champions League can be used as an example).
The next variant of zonal marking is man-oriented zonal marking. It is very similar to the previous concept of position-oriented zonal marking. However, in this concept, the certain opposition player (often the player with the ball or the most creative player) becomes the reference point for the whole team, and it adjusts the position accordingly to the movements of that particular player.
With this system, a defender is marking his zone and his main objective is to keep a certain distance to the player he marks (the reference point). The distance between the marker and the player tracking him should allow the defender to apply pressure when the opponent enters the zone, while also not breaking his defensive line. The reference point can be a player closest to the zone or the most creative player of the opposite team.
Mixed systems of marking
In modern football, rarely do teams use strictly one way of marking the opposition team. There are lots of variables to take into account: the class of the opposition, the class of certain players, the formation, the current state of injuries and players available, and so on. Coaches can often be very flexible when it comes to choosing how to mark before every game and during the game too.
For example, Liverpool often deployed the same system when getting or having the lead in the closing stages of games. They would line up in 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 formation (plus some other variations) and defend zonally while the only striker (often Salah) would be applying space-oriented man-marking.
You can see this in the image below, with Liverpool using a 4-5-1 formation with Divock Origi up top. While the rest of the team defends as a block, Origi applies pressure on the defensive line only if they push up with the ball. In other cases, he just moves accordingly to the position of the ball. It is very similar to situational pressing, and Origi’s defensive role is minimised so that the Reds have an option for occasional counter-attacks.
There are lots of examples where different forms of man-marking and zonal marking are applied to the whole team and certain players. In the 4-3-3 formation, the deepest lying midfielder can be position-oriented and not mark any specific players, while other two central midfielders are defending zonally or are man-marking their opponents. The attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 when defending can drop back and cut passing lanes, defending his zone and playing space-oriented zonal marking and so on.
Both types of marking players all have reasons for their application, in set-pieces and open play. In the section above I mentioned that there are a lot of different variations of man- and zonal-marking and they can all be applied in football for different reasons and in different circumstances.
The art of defending and marking players has evolved through history and drastically changed, especially in the last 25-30 years. However, I believe that the systems of marking players will evolve and change even more as players get more physically fit, tactically-drilled and more and more players understand the concept of defending space. With a great versatility of coaches and a plentiful of tactical ideas and different solutions to different arising problems, we might see another revolution in this field similar to Sacchi’s already in this decade.