Despite the strong start to the 2013/14 season, Liverpool’s performances in the current campaign are still far from perfect. There’s of course plenty of joy: the SAS partnership are destroying every Premier League defence that stands in their way, the back three are doing their jobs well and Simon Mignolet seems to be a great answer to the Reds’ problems with the goalkeeper position. Nevertheless, improvement still needs to be made with the performance of Brendan Rodgers' team.
One of Liverpool’s biggest problems is undoubtedly the number of goals they are conceding from set pieces. The issue isn’t really anything new, as the Reds conceded quite a few goals from corners and free kicks last term as Bass Tuned To Red pointed out in March.
You can’t say Rodgers didn’t do anything to solve this problem, though, as Liverpool switched from zonal marking, the system they used last season, to man marking. Unfortunately, looking at some of the goals Liverpool conceded so far, it’s hard not to wonder if that decision was right.
The Reds are not the only ‘top 4 contenders’ who changed their tactics for defending set pieces. After his appointment at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini got rid of Mancini’s zonal marking and introduced man marking instead. The results of that switch of tactics are mixed, with Pablo Zabaleta admitting after the Cardiff defeat that the two goals conceded by his side from set pieces were, to some extent, caused by the new system.
The debate over which way is better to defend set pieces is nothing new to Liverpool supporters. During Rafael Benitez’s era the Reds used zonal marking, which led to huge criticism from the media whenever the Spaniard’s team conceded a goal from a free kick or corner.
What British journalists didn’t seem to notice, though, was the fact that Rafa’s system worked really well, with Liverpool giving away the least goals from set pieces in two consecutive seasons, and being one of the meanest set-piece defensive teams in the league in every other campaign, except the 2007-08 one. Here's how Rafa's zonal marking system worked:
Another thing that zonal marking’s critics didn’t seem to notice was the fact that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team was defending set pieces zonally. Have you ever wondered why Barca’s rivals didn’t exploit Catalan’s obvious lack of height? Zonal marking is pretty much an answer to that question.
Guardiola used to make his best headers of the ball (like Pique) defend the danger areas – near post and the zone around the penalty spot when trying to stop a corner. It left the opposition with two possible options – trying to win the fight on the near post, which was extremely hard, or play the ball to the far post where Valdes could come out and easily get it, as you can see on the picture below. Notice that Barcelona left 3 players higher up the pitch, ready to counter. It also forced Real to leave 4 defenders behind.
‘It doesn’t matter, Guardiola’s Barcelona didn’t have to face the strong physical sides of Premier League’, some may say. It’s true, but there are physical teams in La Liga, too, and Barca did well defending against them. And so did Benitez’s Liverpool and Mancini’s City, with the latter winning the league while zonal marking during set pieces.
Let’s stop talking about the past and focus on present, though. What is Brendan Rodgers’ opinion on how defending set pieces should look? Well, the Northern Irishman himself provided an answer to that question; here’s what he said to the journalists at the end of September:
‘I felt coming in last year that we conceded some goals man-to-man so we went to zonal defending. But I prefer giving players responsibility so that everyone knows who they mark. Now it’s purely man to man.’
To be honest I’m a big Rodgers fan and I’ve been fully supportive of him from his very first day at the club, however, I don’t feel like that man marking during set pieces is a good idea. On the images below you can see how we defended our corners last season (the upper image) compared to how are we doing it now (lower image).
As you can easily see when comparing those two images, man marking requires most of your defenders to move backwards in order to get the ball. It makes it harder to clear the cross away and, most of all, set up an offside trap after the first ball is cut out. Also, in order to stop the opposite team from scoring, every single one of the man-markers needs to attack the ball, because if they don't, then the man they are marking will gladly take advantage.
It's exactly opposite with zonal marking, where there is no backward movement - if the ball is not going into your zone, you don't have to chase it as one of your teammates already covers the space where it will fall. It's much easier to make an offside trap, too, even with one man covering your far post, as all of your defenders are moving away from the goal, rather than towards it.
The other advantage of using a zonal marking is the fact that you can build up a quick, dangerous counters much easier. Compare our man marking image to our last season's zonal marking one. We've got one man left around the middle of the pitch on both, but the zonal marking system allows us to build a 3-4 man counter very quickly, while man marking gives us a possible 2-man counter attack. It's the same with all the other systems I've included in this article (possible 4-man counter for Barcelona and 2-5 man counter for Benitez's Liverpool, even though every single player on the pitch is defending).
Of course, Rodgers is right about man marking, in that it makes players responsible for the man they mark (although it sounds a little bit like the Liverpool manager trying to make it easier on himself). I mean, if you lose a goal after man marking, there’s always some individual who lost his man, therefore there is someone to take the blame. Conceding when marking zones usually means there’s no one to blame, it’s just the system that failed. And the manager is the one who has chosen the system.
The biggest problem is, though, it’s much easier to drag defenders out of their positions or simply block them with your off the ball movements when they are man-marking. Zonal marking means the space is covered evenly and it’s simply harder to make defenders confused with your movement.
One of the main arguments against zonal marking is the ‘running jump is always stronger than the standing jump’ thing. That’s of course true, but does defending zonally mean your defenders are standing perfectly still and simply waiting for the ball to hit them? No, they are making their moves too and those moves are enough to get an impact needed to win a header.
Of course, neither zonal nor man marking is perfect. Regardless of tactics, you will concede some goals. It’s just a question of how many goals it will be.
Only time can show if man marking during set pieces will work for Brendan Rodgers’ team. If there is something that concerns me as a Liverpool supporter, though, it’s definitely our man marking tactics. Hopefully, the Reds will prove me wrong and our set piece defending will improve and become another important factor contributing to a strong Premier League finish this season.