Michael Bailey: The joys of zonal marking and making sense from the illogical

Norwich City's zonal defending is set to come under scrutiny during a busy September. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Norwich City's zonal defending is set to come under scrutiny during a busy September. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

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It wasn’t the best example of the beautiful game on Tuesday night – but it will take more than that for football to shed its hard-earned monicker.

For me the national sport is what it is, primarily because of how simple it is.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a whole industry out there making football look as complicated as possible – but generally speaking, there are few things that happen in the game that seem to defy solid thinking or logic. The rest is all heightened emotions and opinion.

Which is why, for the life of me, I could not get my head around zonal marking – especially in defending corners. And by the time Newcastle captain Jamaal Lescelles opened his mouth following their win at Swansea on Sunday, there was no room left on my head to scratch.

“I said it before the game: they mark zonally and ideally I prefer to go against that,” he said.

Daniel Farke gives instructions to Grant Hanley ahead of his late debut cameo against Birmingham. He could be in line for much more action over the coming weeks. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Daniel Farke gives instructions to Grant Hanley ahead of his late debut cameo against Birmingham. He could be in line for much more action over the coming weeks. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Lescelles’ winning goal came from Matt Richie’s corner, headed home after a simple run into the six-yard box and out-jumping his nearest defender, who was stuck on the spot.

If it sounds familiar City fans, that’s because it is. Millwall’s fourth goal at The Den was a corner hit deep to the far post over a zonally positioned City defence, where Shaun Hutchinson’s free run saw him forcefully encroach into Ivo Pinto’s little area and power his own header home.

Just to clarify, if a side doesn’t man-mark all their opponents individually in the penalty area for a corner, they are zonal marking – where the defenders instead take up a formation such as the five or six on a dice, in front of their own goal.

Those defenders are tasked with protecting their own little area – be it from the ball or any runners. And that was my big issue: why defend zonally, when there is such an obviously flaw to the system – someone getting a running jump over their static defender?

Traditionally, English football has snarled at zonal marking. Why do that when you can keep it simple? After all, that’s what man-marking is: simple. You each pick a person and if that person scores, it’s your fault.

In truth, it’s actually too simple. Attacking sides block runs, bunch and hide their moves. Ultimately the more chaos there is in the box, the more likely they are to score. It’s simple defending, and it can be simply beaten.

Zonal marking is effectively designed to remove the attacking side’s influence and instead, allow the defenders to concentrate on clearing their lines and protecting the goal. The problem is, that sometimes means they all become a little passive and fixated on the ball, and then the problems start.

Zonal is very much a team effort in protecting your box. So when it goes wrong, it often looks like the team – and of course, therefore the zonal marking system itself – is the reason. And that was how I always saw it as well.

However having read a little deeper it’s become clear that despite appearances, zonal marking’s flaws are similar to those with man-marking: they come down to the individuals.

In both Lascelles’ and Hutchinson’s goals, the issue wasn’t that zonal marking meant the attackers were always going to get a running jump and head home, against a defender stuck with a standing jump a few yards from goal. Instead, both defences should have been aware of what runs were coming and engaged those runners far sooner.

Even holding them up could have made the difference, rather than waiting for them to arrive and dealing with it all far too late.

Like a few things Daniel Farke is trying to introduce at Norwich City, zonal marking is complicated and takes time to fully implement, to the point where players are doing the positional stuff subconsciously and then keeping their concentration reserved for what’s going on around them.

The statistics say fewer goals are now conceded against zonal marking compared to its favoured English equivalent.

At least now I feel like I know why, and I hope this helps you too.

I found myself saying that despite a decent reaction at home to Birmingham, City’s real test would come at a Sheffield United side who look entirely capable of running all over Norwich at Bramall Lane.

And actually, despite the hideous frustration at City’s ineffectiveness and Farke’s minimal changes on Tuesday night at home to Burton, arguably little has changed.

Two clean sheets in two home games was a welcome arrival following eight concessions in two away games – but 10 minutes of Saturday’s game will challenge City far more than anything Burton managed in midweek.

The weekend will add the real context to where the Canaries’ latest home games leave them.

For the latest Norwich City news and opinion follow Michael Bailey on Twitter @michaeljbailey, Facebook @mbjourno and Instagram @mrmichaeljbailey

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