Zonal or man-for-man? A case for the defence

As Liverpool's frailties at the back are exposed by Chelsea, Glenn Moore explains why their system can always be beaten
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The Independent Football

Once upon a time, there were four Liverpool defenders: Everybody, Somebody, Nobody and Anybody. Whenever Branislav Ivanovic needed to be marked Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.

Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. When Nobody did it, Everybody, and Pepe Reina, got angry because it was Everybody's job. Everybody thought that Somebody would do it, but nobody realised that Nobody would do it.

So consequently Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done in the first place. And then, from another corner, it all happened again.

That is one of the main problems with zonal marking. It relies upon collective responsibility. On Wednesday Liverpool's defence all relied upon someone else stopping Ivanovic, nobody did and now they are facing an exit from the Champions League.

Their zonal marking system has subsequently been blamed. Certainly, to concede two goals from unchallenged headers at this level is unforgivable. But was it the system at fault, or the players?

Most defences in England mark zonally in open play outside the goal area, and in combination with man-to-man in the box. The posts, and the front of the six-yard box, are marked zonally, attackers picked up man-to-man. Under Luiz Felipe Scolari, Chelsea marked zonally at set plays but since his departure have largely reverted to man-for-man, leaving Liverpool as the most high-profile exponents of set-play zonal marking.

Rafael Benitez brought this method in when he arrived at Anfield in 2004. It was not an immediate success. Of the first seven goals they conceded five were at set plays, three from direct headers. Gradually, however, through long hours of work on the training ground, the players adapted and Liverpool's defensive record has improved to the extent that no one remarked on their marking. Then Tim Cahill took advantage of their static defending to score for Everton in successive Mersey derbies in January. Now Ivanovic has followed suit and the inquest is on.

The loss of individual responsibility is only one problem with zonal marking. Defenders, as Martin Skrtel found, are literally vulnerable to attackers getting the jump on them. For the first goal, Skrtel jumped from a standing position but Ivanovic had a run-up. They can also get caught under the ball as Steven Gerrard was for the second goal. They can find themselves outnumbered in their zones. They can also be over-matched as taller opponents attack their area. That was a problem for Chelsea, who featured Ashley Cole, Joe Cole and Deco, under Scolari. It is less of an issue for Liverpool as Benitez has deliberately filled his team with six-footers. There is also a danger of unmarked opponents shooting from the edge of the box.

All of which begs the question, why mark zonally? Benitez replies that most teams mark man-for-man, yet they still concede goals at corners and free-kicks. A surfeit of such goals was the reason Scolari attempted to switch to zonal. With zonal marking every area is covered and players are not drawn out of position. With man-marking key players can be drawn away, enabling other opponents to attack smaller players at the back post.

The bottom line is that it comes down to the quality of the delivery, and the determination of the players in the box. On Wednesday, Ivanovic wanted to head the ball more than his Liverpool counterparts. If that was the case, man-for-man marking would not have stopped him either. Tactics only provide a framework – it is up to the players to execute them successfully.

Marks out of 10: What the experts say

"Zonal is a collective responsibility whereas man-for-man marking is based on personal responsibility." Howard Wilkinson

"Attacking players gain extra height and leverage with a free running jump." David Pleat

"When you are marking man-to-man you see a lot of goals conceded." Rafael Benitez

"Because of the movement of the opposition, you're going to have men that are unmarked." Alan Hansen

"There is no ideal system, the best is the one which is best for your players." Arsène Wenger

"Man-for-man takes away grey areas and players know their responsibilities." Alvin Martin

"A combination of zonal and man-for-man works best – we only conceded one goal from a corner in 71 internationals at Scotland." Craig Brown

"The responsibility is for the group. One man wrong and you are wrong." Luiz Felipe Scolari

"We have done it for five years and probably conceded less goals than most teams at set pieces." Pepe Reina