Danny Higginbotham analysis: Zonal marking offers Arsenal chance to make excuses

TALKING TACTICS: The former Manchester United, Southampton and Stoke defender looks ahead to this weekend's crucial Premier League fixture

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It's Manchester City v Arsenal on Sunday – the Etihad fixture that delivered nine goals last season and which raises issues about defending and calls into question the zonal marking principles Arsenal are sticking to.

I’m just not a believer in the system because it gives players excuses in a way that man-to-man marking does not.

My most vivid memory of man-to-man holding you to account was a game I played for Gordon Strachan’s Southampton at Birmingham.

Strachan used to have a board in the dressing room that listed who was picking up who from corners. When we conceded just before half time he demanded to know who was supposed to be picking him [the scorer] up. (There’s something about conceding from corners that managers seem particularly to hate.)

I was a bit green back then  and I didn’t realise it was a rhetorical question. “That’ll be on the board,” I said.  Strachan threw a cup of coffee at me, missed me and hit our goalkeeping coach!


My point is that man-to-man gives you no excuses. You go into a match thinking: “He’s the man I’m picking up and if he scores it’s my fault”, whereas zonal marking does allow excuses.

Take Arsenal’s match against Stoke last week. When a corner came out to Glenn Whelan, nobody was picking him up and he had a clear shot which, to Arsenal’s good  fortune, he put over the bar.

If you’re marking a zone, you just allow a player attacking a corner to get a run on you. It doesn’t matter if you’re an inch or so taller, he will still get above you.

My preference is for man-to-man, with a bit of zonal mixed in. One of the areas where you can be zonal is the near-post space, which Alan Shearer defended unbelievably well for years and where you’ll now see Manchester United’s Robin van Persie.

If the ball goes over Van Persie’s head from the corner, he becomes the near-post man. I would also have a man doing a zonal job in the middle of the area – on the six-yard line – to pick up a man who may have lost his marker.

The zonal men are also needed to deal with decoy players, who are also a part of setpiece battles. At Stoke, we used decoys all the time. There’d be, perhaps, Robert Huth or James Beattie, standing in the area when a corner came in.

I would run towards one of them, brushing his shoulder as I passed on the outside of his, but causing my marker – who was following me – to run straight into him. I would then be free on the other side of them to receive the corner and get a header in.

Gordon Strachan threw a cup of coffee at me – but he missed

The problem teams have is the lack of on-field leaders, such as Jamie Carragher or John Terry, who can do the game management, decide on the hoof when to change the man-to-man plan.

Arsenal ought to be able to look to Per Mertesacker, with his World Cup pedigree, but he’s going through a difficult run of form and when that happens you tend to concentrate solely on yourself.

City are hardly invincible defensively either, so Sunday's game certainly promises goals. Man-for-man marking creates a security at the back that both these sides have lacked at times.