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Zonal or Man 2 Man - A comparison...

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All images associated with this post can be found at the above link.

There have been one or two articles on this topic before and lots of queries and comments on the various forums. FM Fanboys's post is a brief summary and flags up the most important fact that I have seen as well during my games, there is no perfect strategy and defending is not 100% foolproof. The best you can do is try to stack the chips in your favour so that, over the season, you feel you have been in control more than the victim of some bizarre situations.

I had three main objectives when setting up this article;

Develop a better understanding of the zonal and man marking systems

Have a clear idea on what to look for in the game in terms of formation and set piece set up in order to find out what system the opposition is playing

Some ideas on how to combat the oppositions instructions and set up for my own advantage

I am currently managing Notts Forest so I will be using screenshots from that game.

What is Zonal/Man Marking?

I had heard of zonal marking lots of time - for me it was a bit like someone talking about an aspect of physics - I had heard of it, nodded my head in agreement, but didnt quite understand the ins and outs of it. I heard about it again when Benitez was slated for trying to use it with his Liverpool side. This article by Don Howe sets out the most common attack on zonal marking - players are not intelligent to cope with anything more complicated than having one man to mark at set pieces. The idea of having to mark space seems too abstract for English footballers. The thing that makes a complicated system even more complicated for football managers is that the pundits can not agree. This article mounts a strong defence in favour of zonal defence but I guarantee you will still, more than likely, be scratching your head at the end of it.

Zonal vs Man to Man (M2M)

The logic behind zonal marking is that statistical analyses of goals conceded pin point certain danger areas around the penalty area. The obvious counter to this is that if you plan to cover those danger areas then you can reduce the likelihood that the opposition will score.

One main difference between zonal and M2M is that a defender should not focus on the attacking player. This means that the tactic of attackers dragging defenders, (I meant not physically dragging but by movement away but we have all seen it anyway) away from danger areas or even moving them into collisions with other players should not happen. The flip side to this is that the defender needs to develop awareness of his "zone" of responsibility, stick to it and to attack the ball if it comes into their zone. Andy Gray states that he doesn't like zonal defence as defenders do not make a running jump to clear the ball. He is wrong on this. Zonal marking is not passive, doesn't wait for things to happen - the defender needs to ATTACK the ball if it comes into his zone and that normally means running to it and thumping it away.

This screenshot is from the first game my Forest team had against the reserves and it illustrates the zonal system at corners.

I took the pyramid overlay from Jones, R. 1999 Soocer Strategies -Defensive and Attacking Tactics: Reedswain pp46 and I was surprised that the set out of the players matched it entierely for the first three zones and less so for the middle two boxes. I looked at my 6/9/11 players and wondered why they seemed to be man marked. I thought they were the tallest players and that the AI had set opposition instructions for them but that wasn't the case. I don't know why the blue 7/4/5 seem to be a M2M arrangement in terms of set up - but the key thing to note is that when the corner took place the blue triumvirate did not follow their opposite players but covered their zone, (for the record, it was a rubbish corner and blue 6 cleared easily).

One key thing that often gets missed in set pieces is the importance of maintaining pressure and a numerical advantage over the opposition. Set pieces account for nearly 50-70% of goals in a game so when you get them you need to maintain the duration of that play. Ideally I would want red 8 to move forward to occupy the circle so if the ball is cleared he can keep up the pressure by crossing back in or a playing a through ball. As it happened, the ball did come out to that area and even though 8 had a free run in by the time he got they he was under pressure himself and he lost possesion.

This set up by the defending team is pretty consistent in the game so if you see this then you know they are playing zonal against you.

A M2M corner set up looks sufficiently different enough to this for you to be quite sure that it is M2M.

This time it is the first team defending the corner (I could only change the settings to M2M on my team). There are only 5 defending players in the 6yd box in this system compared to the 8 in zonal and there is a clearer link between the defenders and some attackers - the most obvious difference though is the lack of defenders across the 6yd box - so this should be the thing you are looking for in your opposition.


Defensively you need to check that the concentration of your defending players is high and that they are not fatigued - other than that the system should be fine. With 8 players in and around the box you have a good chance of being able to deal with most balls that come in. The only thing to look for is obvious cases of mis match between your players and the opposition then you might need to tweak your settings a bit.

The mis match I am talking about should be your prime target if you are attacking. I would strongly suggest that you watch the first couple of corners with default settings and note down which defender is in a particular position. Against Reading in a recent game I noted that the near post was being marked by their number 11 (McAnuff) and 10 (Hunt). Now Hunt is 5'10 with 14 for jumping and McAnuff is 5'11 but with only 8 for jumping and 5 for heading - so obviously I set my biggest, strongest, best jumper and header of the ball to attack McAnuff's post for the rest of the game. These sort of mini battles can help you gain the advantage and they honestly feel more satisfying than setting up a corner strategy "cheat".

Open Play

So what do they look like in open play? The two images below show the defensive line in both systems.

The M2M coverage on the left hand side is stretched out as Gunter is tracking his man down the right wing - I don't like the defensive line being stretched like this - there is no real danger if the number 7 wants to go down to the byline - I have enough players back to cope and anyway, sending players down the line can be a good tactic if their crossing is not great - balls through the defence into the box are a lot more dangerous. The M2M strategy is pulling my back line apart and creating openings for blue 8 to get behind my CD's and work a pass from inside the penalty box - definitely something to be avoided.

The zonal set up on the right seems a lot more balanced. Sure I am not covering the flanks as well but the ball is in the middle so why post FB's on the flanks - if the ball is moved over there then the whole line of four will move over and that will bring the LB (if the ball is moved over to the right) into the middle of the park covering the CD position. This is much tighter and better positioned to deal with the opposition.

Individual Instructions

Whilst I was watching the rest of the game pan out I noticed something bizarre and worrying.

I was still operating a zonal system at this point and couldn't believe I was watching Morgan (4) charging up the pitch to challenge Williams (blue 9). With the zonal system I would have expected Cohen (red 9) to press Williams - I really did not want to see Morgan do that. If he missed the ball then I would have had a two v three at the back with Tyson (quite quick) bearing down on goal.

I looked at Morgan's role and saw he was set to Stopper - I changed him back down to cover and saw his tactic sliders become more defensive. Just as a means of checking that this I changed Wilson (red 5) to be the stopper instead and watched to see what happened. If it was the role to blame then Wilson would do something silly eventually. I didn't need to wait that long.

This time, in pretty much the same situation, Wilson is so determined to get the ball that he moves ahead of the whole of the midfield to get it. At least here I still had the numerical advantage with three v one at the back but I wouldn't want this against a good quality opposition so the Stopper role has been turned off!

What was good enough for me was obviously good enough for the AI. I saw this situation some time into the game.

McGoldrick had been tormenting the opposition and I was delighted to see that his dropping off had drawn the blue 5 out of position. Earnshaw (red 16) was open and quick but annoyingly Anderson was out of position. He needed to be 5yrds or so further forward to take advantage of the FB being well out of position. If he had been in the circle then we would have had a real advantage with three v two at the back.

I went and changed Anderson to an Inside Forward and pushed him up into an AMR position - I then crossed my fingers and hoped for a similar position.

It wasn't too long later that moving Anderson did bring its rewards - but not quite as I had intentioned.

As had happened before the blue 5 had dropped with McGoldrick. This time McGoldrick didn't get the ball and instead it went through to Anderson who was much further forward this time - blue 5 carried on pressing towards Anderson which makes sense but it left McGoldrick with even more space and he had no problem in feeding the ball into Earnshaw who slotted it away.

Man to Man Marking

So how does M2M marking compare with zonal - It would seem that zonal still has its issues, particularly with offensive player roles, so is zonal the lesser evil of the two compared to M2m? I wanted to see what issues came up with an M2M strategy.

I changed my team to M2M and for extra effect I set my two CD to man mark their counter parts on the opposition. It was not long before I saw a major flaw and one of the strongest arguments against the M2M system. Funnily enough it was that man Morgan again at the heart of it.

Both of these images show Morgan tracking Tyson. One of the main arguments against M2M is that defenders will stick so tightly to their assigned player that the only thing the attacker can do is to move around the pitch to create space for his teammates. It leaves the Neanderthal defender, (I was an AMC/F in my Sunday league team so don't have much love for CD's) faced with a decision - does he stay or does he go with his man.

In this image Tyson has moved right over to the left wing - instead of Gunter (red 2) picking him up Morgan moves OUTSIDE the full back to track Tyson. Leaving the blue 8 with a nice through ball for blue 10 to smash into the stands....thankfully.

In the second image Morgan has again moved into midfield to track Tyson in advance of Cohen (red 8). I still had a numerical advantage so I was not to bothered but I really don't want CD's that far forward - especially when they have 12 for pace and 11 for decisions.

From an attacking point of view it is great when you see defenders moving all over the place. You should focus on moving the marked player around the general location he would normally be, (don't put him at RB as I don't think even Morgan would follow him up there) and see what space you can create for your other players.

In Summary

You will have to make up your own minds as to the system you want to play and how it fits with your players. Zonal definitely gives better coverage, providing your player roles do not undermine this, but you need to watch for overloading of zones as an attacking strategy - you might need to employ a bit of both after all.

Keep an eye, and ear, out for zonal discussion in the media over the forthcoming season. Perhaps our, (English players) inability to use the system points to other inadequacies in our game and might explain poor performances for the National team. It bothers me that "expert commentators" peddle garbage (and get paid for it) which only serves to show they don't like zonal as they don't understand it.

Buy a good tactics book, (not 442 from you know who) and look at the philosophies of the great coaches and consider their point of view. I know one thing for certain - when I coach my youngsters in September - I know which system I will be using.

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