Football: Me and my Italian shadow

Simon O'Hagan discusses the fine arts of man-marking as perfected at Wembley
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The Independent Online
In Fashion, they say, everything comes round eventually, and the same seems to be true of football tactics. The roots of Italy's defeat of England in their World Cup qualifying match at Wembley on Wednesday were many and varied, but none was stronger or went deeper than a defensive ploy that came straight of the era of La Dolce Vita and, for some people at any rate, conveyed a similar cultural charge.

Man-to-man marking has never gone away, of course. It's just that zonal defending has in recent years become the preferred method of protecting the goal, both here and on the Continent, after man-to-man became associated with a dull inflexibility and a time when the mood of the game generally was meaner and uglier. The reputation Italian football used to have for producing goalless draws of a particularly sterile kind was in part based on the fact that forwards spent the 90 minutes with defenders treading on their toes.

After the way the new Italy manager Cesare Maldini had his team performing, though, it would be quite wrong to suggest that man-to-man was incompatible with football that was both imaginative and appealing. There was obviously far more to Italy than a stifling defence. But their success in reducing Alan Shearer's effectiveness to negligible amounts was almost entirely due to the leech-like qualities of the two men who took it in turns to mark him - the young and inexperienced Fabio Cannavarro, and the more rugged Ciro Ferrara.

The fact that two men were involved in the operation was the variation on the man-to-man theme that particularly impressed that doyen of coaches and professor of Italian football, Don Howe. "It was flexible man-marking," he said. "Cannavarro rarely pulled away from the left, and Ferrara rarely from the right, but they were intelligent enough to let each other pick up Shearer as and when. Or one take Shearer and the other take Le Tissier without it mattering which defender it was. But as the ball arrived, one of them arrived too, and if they could get in front they got in front. I would have liked to see Shearer rotate with Le Tissier a bit more. That might have made it a bit more difficult for Italy."

Howe thinks man-to-man may be on the way back in. He sees too many zonal defences in English football, be they four-man or five-man, standing off and giving forwards space, and a consequence has been the proliferation of long-range goals scored this season. Three-man defences with two wing- backs may have provided a better springboard for attack, but it has left gaps which clever angled running can exploit.

Certainly Premiership managers seem to be re-evaluating man-to-man marking, none more so than David Pleat of Sheffield Wednesday, whose espousal of it has resulted in a couple of notable recent coups. Against Liverpool, he had Peter Atherton man-mark Steve McManaman out of a game that Wednesday won 1-0, and against Chelsea, having gone 2-0 down, he got Atherton to do a similar job on Gianfranco Zola, and Wednesday escaped with a 2-2 draw.

"I got pleasure out of that one," Pleat said. "We'd underestimated Zola. But he was playing so elusively we had to do something. We decided to drop Atherton on to Zola and play regimented. But what you've got to remember is that you have to have the players to do it. No system will disguise a lack of ability. Atherton is an outstanding man-to-man marker. You need someone who's disciplined, got a steady mentality, doesn't want to do anything flash with the ball. And he's very fit." We can expect to see him man-marking Chris Waddle in Wednesday's FA Cup tie at Bradford City today.

Whatever the approach, there are going to be advantages and disadvantages. Man-to-man takes a defender out of the game. Any less than perfectly timed tackle nowadays brings with it the risk of a yellow card. The marker can contribute very little while he's tracking his opponent across every blade of grass, and when one thinks of the way Kevin Keegan famously gave Berti Vogts the run-around in the 1977 European Cup final it is easy to see how man-to-man became discredited.

Howe saw a more recent example when Wimbledon were held to a 1-1 draw by Middlesbrough last month in which Kenny Cunningham attempted to man- mark Juninho. "He stuck to his task well," Howe said. "But Juninho's a very fit lad. He ran Cunningham into the ground. He was pulling him deep, letting the ball by-pass him up to a front player and then spinning off." Howe still prefers zonal marking. But, like any orthodoxy, it's there to be challenged, and the questions are beginning to mount.

Qualifying Group Two

P W D L F A Pts

England 4 3 0 1 7 2 9

Italy 3 3 0 0 5 1 9

Poland 2 1 0 1 3 3 3

Georgia 2 0 0 2 0 3 0

Moldova 3 0 0 3 2 8 0

Remaining fixtures: 29 March: Italy v Moldova; 2 April: Poland v Italy; 30 April: England v Georgia, Italy v Poland; 31 May: Poland v England; 7 June: Georgia v Moldova; 14 June Poland v Georgia; 10 Sept: England v Moldova, Georgia v Italy; 24 Sept: Moldova v Georgia; 7 Oct: Moldova v Poland; 11 Oct: Italy v England, Georgia v Poland