Picture this scenario (disclaimer: not a fictional account of events – stolen from a particular match in 2005):
You’re less than 180 seconds away from taking the cup final to penalties. It’s the game that nobody gave you and your disciples a hope in hell, even your players thought so – with their rational mindset anyway. But this is now, the 117th minute; 117 minutes of twists and turns. At half time you were 3-0 down, down and out. But now, you’re within touching distance of a penalty shoot out and taking home the cup you’d dreamt of winning.
The opposition are in possession of the ball and a dangerous cross comes in from from the left wing and the cross is perfect, it couldn’t be better, it meets the head of the most clinical striker they have and your heart is in your mouth as the keeper makes the initial save, only for the follow up to appear to be filmed right in front of your eyes at 10,000 frames per second as the striker meets the ball three yards out from goal with your keeper scrambling to get back to his feet. There isn’t a sound and everybody is frozen in this motionless moment, only for the striker’s shot to go straight into the unprepared finger tips of your goalkeeper and go over the cross bar!
For a moment you can’t quite believe what you’ve just seen and then as that moment fades, you catch your breath and remember the rules of the game again: it’s a corner, in the dying moments of the game, you can’t lose now, not after everything you’ve been through. “Get organised!” your keeper shouts. The stakes are high, emotions are everywhere and nobody has overcome the shock of those seconds just before, it seemed like it flashed by now. You’ve been given a life line to defend this corner…
WOULD YOU TRUST A ZONAL MARKING SYSTEM?
Rafa Benitez’s regime at Liverpool was one of many highlights, not least the Champions League win against AC Milan (2005). When posed with the question of how to defend corners, Benitez is a man with a fixed belief: zonal marking. Always zonal marking.
Zonal marking has always appeared a strange foreign idea to the British and during the 350 games that “Rafa” took charge of Liverpool for, the English media would jump on this ‘wrong and foreign’ method of defending corners as “too vulnerable”, “unworkable” and a method that “has no place in English football”. We all forget however, that the great Brian Clough used zonal marking, only he wouldn’t call it zonal marking, he’d refer to it as the scattering of his players around the six-yard box where they should attack the ball if it comes near them.
Zonal marking and the attached ‘criticism’ is however, one of those things that only gets highlighted when it goes wrong and therefore gives the perception that it is indeed an unworkable and vulnerable tactic that isn’t to be trusted or relied upon, whether it be the first minute or the 117th minute of the Champions League final. However, as Rafa Benitez rightly points out on his own website (rafabenitez.com), Liverpool were twice best at preventing goals from set pieces in the Premier League during his time and they were consistently inside the top four teams at defending set pieces, with the exception of just one season.
This article aims to detail why and how you would employ zonal marking when defending corners and gives examples of zonal and mixed methods being used by Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea during their debut season in the Premier League, Barcelona under Martino, Barcelona under Guardiola, Athletico Bilbao and a few other methods conducive to turning a defensive situation into an attacking opportunity.
SOME OF THE REASONS WHY WOULD YOU EMPLOY A ZONAL MARKING SYSTEM WHEN DEFENDING CORNERS?
[ul class=”list list-tick_green”] [li]Your team are inferior to the opposition in terms of height and attributes that make up those involved with being good in the air[/li]
[li] If your goalkeeper is particularly comfortable at receiving the ball during crossing situations within his own 6-yard box.[/li]
[li]To enable a positive overload on the counter-attack (and therefore, a situation where the opposition has more bodies that you do inside the 18-yard box). [/li]
[li]If your players are particularly good at anticipating and judging their ability to attack the ball in the air [/li][/ul]
COMPONENTS OF A ZONAL MARKING SYSTEM WHEN DEFENDING CORNERS?
[note – Analysis style must be credited to @LouisLancs – who has completed some wonderful analysis of Real Madrid vs. Barcelona corners – available on his twitter timeline]
1. It’s almost unthinkable in Britain to not have any men on the posts (although we’ve seen variations of this being achieved in recent weeks) – a method that has the benefit of making the goal smaller for the opposition. However, by taking the man off of the post and taking up the position a few yards away from the post, you reduce the opportunity for the opposition to stand on your goalkeeper – the simple premise is that this player would then be off-side given that he is now interfering with play should the ball come to him as a second ball.
2. No player is to backtrack to attack the ball (start deep) – every player has been given the responsibility of defending particular zones inside the box and every player understands that they should be forward thinking and moving to attack the ball. Reducing the opportunity for the opposition to “get a run on you” and rise above you to attack the ball. This method takes great reaction times from your players and this can only be improved through practising this scenario over and over – through the creation of habit to set patterns.
3. The idea of zonal marking means that you only need so many players to defend the set zones and therefore you have the ability to use the remaining players to increase your ability to counter-attack. One key message for the defending team is to understand in which direction is most desirable when clearing the ball. The trio of counter-attacking players should work on set patterns to beat the 2/3 defending players left back by the opposition.
4. A common set up is to have those players who are better in the air nearer the goal and more dangerous areas inside the box and those shorter players are to be used as ‘blockers’ further away from goal tracking the run of the opponents.
IN A MIXED SYSTEM: Top image was proposed as a defensive corner set up for a British club because the goalkeeper and players felt ‘men on the posts’ was essential. The compromise was that men would be zonal ‘near the posts’ and the counter attack set up could remain.
1. All relevant points in the ‘Zonal Marking’ commentary still applies
2. Any unmarked players should be left if they are furthest away from goal or weakest in the air.
3. Mixed has been arranged to try and allow for the counter attack 3v3 or 3v2 options, while at the same time going man-to-man in key areas.
How you decide to set up for corners should not be treated individually from your overall playing philosophy. For counter-attacking teams, it would seem invaluable to set up from corners in a way that creates an immediate attacking overload against the opponent’s defence (those players they leave back on the half way line).
You should not, however, look to imitate any of these methods in this article without consideration of your player profiles and the number of hours you have to practice the system of marking.
With just over 30% of all goals across all professional leagues in England being scored from set plays, it shouldn’t be a part of the game that you leave unconsidered or unorganised (left to the players) and it should be clear now that organisation for set plays should be considered, well-designed and adapted to meet the profiles of your own players and how the opposition attacks the corner.
Trust, daring and insight… all three components make up your tactical approach to defending corners. There are ways of turning a corner into an opportunity to counter attack, but this is only possible with a zonal marking system in place.
Photograph taken inside Swansea FC’s changing room post Swansea vs. Liverpool FC MAY 2012
Note: Blockers, Zonal and one man-mark.