Until a player is accomplished at man marking they will never be as effective as they need to be in a zonal defensive scheme.
Someone recently said to me that until a player is accomplished at man marking they will never be as effective as they need to be in a zonal defensive scheme. I’ve placed a lot of thought into that statement recently and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I believe he is right. I’ve found that this becomes extremely evident when a player gets backed up into the last 22 yards of the pitch.
So, this got me thinking; if that is true and zonal defending cannot be effective unless the individual players involved are adept at man-marking, then is there really a need for zonal defending? Is there a better way to defend? Is man-to-man marking the ideal way to defend?
In looking deeper into those questions, I found myself seeing the situation from several different angles. First, I took a step-back and looked at what exactly “zonal defending” is. I broke it down to its basic essence and then built it back up again looking for inconsistencies, weaknesses, strengths, etc…
Then I looked at teams that either use or have used some semblance of Zonal Defending, how they used it and whether or not they were effective with it and to what extent. I spent quite a bit of time studying national sides from past World Cups.
This month, Football Federations, as well as football fans, across the world are in an anxiety induced, excitement mode, as the qualification process for the 2014 Men’s World Cup in Brazil has begun. The qualification process all over the globe is to determine whether National Football Teams are worthy of being exposed to the honor of competing in the greatest sporting event in the world; the World Cup.
Since ancient times (well, maybe not that long ago), the World Cup has been used to define the best. Players and coaches have said of the World Cup, “everything except your best disappears in it” making it an efficient means of separating the dirt of the football world from the gold.
Historically, the gold has been won by teams whom are stout defensively. To remove the impurities of today’s culture of “score-score and score again,” the gold-wearing teams, coaches and players would be pedestaled by their defensive prowess, leaving “defending” as their purified gold. In some rare instances of the game, it could be argued that a team won by their offensive productivity, but those arguable results are very far and few between and the formerly common and accepted practice of “out-scoring the opposition in a defenseless, high-scoring shootout” was abandoned last century when the harmful effects of too much focus on offense and not enough focus on defense became evident.
The integrity of defending in the game of football is a rather simple concept and one that most understand: No team can effectively defend (regardless of how they are trying to do so) unless there is fast, hard and tight pressure on the ball (which requires every player to know how to defend 1v1). That initial fast, hard and tight ball-pressure is ultimately where defending begins and sometimes, unfortunately, where it ends.
What Exactly is Zonal Defending?
Let’s first take a look at Zonal Defending and at least get a handle on it before we go any further.
In Zonal Defending, the second and third defenders, as well as the midfielders are organized in two lines. These two lines are in the transverse direction of the field, thus organizing a defender line and a midfielder line. The midfielder line works as an "outer shield" protecting the defenders. The lines should be as straight as possible, although the first defender and in some cases the second defender may rush out of the line to pressure the opponent with the ball. A straight line of defenders may prevent spaces behind some of them due to the offside rule. Also, even in Zonal Defending, some opponents, for example those moving into dangerous space, may temporarily need to be marked.
The number of players in the defender and midfielder lines is dictated by which formation a team chooses to play. Some formations will use midfield anchors to stop attacks in between the two lines. Attackers usually also play a role in pressuring defenders. This pressure will limit defenders time to find good passing alternatives.
In Zonal Defending, each of the lines should be shifting sideways dependant on where the ball is. The third defenders (re: support) should be keeping a sensible distance between each other. The length of this distance between the third defenders all depends on how wide the opponent's attacking players have been distributed.
Now, regardless of the roles those individual members of the team play, as well as the ability of these individual players and how they function within a zone, the basic foundation of this game has always been and always will be based upon the premise of 1 vs.1. Even in zonal systems where the zone is functionally correct, there will still be demands for individual players to be forced to press and defend in isolated situations. These individual demands on players become especially important when their team is facing a faster and more technical and tactically savvy side which possesses the ability to move the ball quicker than the zone can be adjusted.
The more pressure the opposition applies, the more a team will find themselves pressed in deeper and deeper towards their own goal. In turn, the space available to both the team and individual players will also decrease. This decreasing of open and available space increases the individual players’ needs to be able to defend in tight, close-quarter 1v1 situations.
It is irrelevant as to what type of defensive scheme a team is playing; it is always the Individual Defending on the ball that allows any team to start the transition to defense. Never-the-less, when a team implements a Zonal Defending scheme, it becomes the team as a whole unit that shoulders the defensive responsibility. Excluding the individual pressure on the ball, the team as a unit being able to establish zonal areas of responsibility (specifically 45-60 yards out, depending on where they have decided to draw their restraining line), is what allows them to be organized enough to actually defend higher up the field.
Depth considerations: Standing Off
For Zonal Defending schemes to work, that distance I mentioned earlier between the defensive line and the midfield line should be kept as constant as possible at approximately a distance of 15-18 yards. However, there will be times when the defensive line will be forced to retract back and thus increase the distance between them and the midfield line, a tactic called “standing off.” One example of when defenders will be forced to stand off is when there is no pressure on the opponent whom has possession of the ball. As this distance increases, or the defensive line continues to stand off, the possibility of a through ball played into the newly opened space between the two lines becomes very likely. However, with quick, tight, fast and proper pressure on the ball, the distance may be decreased to below 15 yards. In addition, as opponents press forward and lock in tighter around the defensive penalty area, the defending team will be forced to compact their midfielders even closer to their defenders.
Residual Defending (Quicksilver)
In most cases, defenders and midfielders within a Zonal Defending system push themselves forward at every opportunity to generate a counter-attack. This is done as an attempt to outnumber or otherwise overtake the opposition by quick and intelligent movement, as well as well-paced, lengthy passes. Speed is an extremely important factor for this type of style to work. Speed both on offense and defense, as the probability of scoring via counter-attack decreases sharply when the opponent has managed to organize defensively. This style of play, while it has many faults – especially if taught incorrectly, was displayed almost to perfection by the quick, counter-attacking play of Germany in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and was also heavily utilized by Jose Mourinho during his record breaking run with AC Milanduring the 2011-12 La Liga campaign.
Teams who like to draw a restraining line where they choose to pick-up marks or lock-down zones, as well as begin to apply the proper pressure on the ball are playing with a defensive mindset that I call “Residual Defending.” There are some teams who take this defensive mindset a step further and use it as part of their total mindset. They will retract back into their zones and then wait to spring a counter-attack. These types of Residual Defending teams are teams that I like to call “quicksilver” and these types of teams can still be found in almost any league, regardless of whether it is the best system for that particular team or even whether or not it is effective. The problem with Residual Defending, as well asQuicksilver, is that the zonal defending remains liquid as long as the opposition doesn’t possess various traits to disrupt it. Many coaches consider this Quicksilver style as simply pulling back and waiting for counter opportunities, but in reality that is not the way it should be played. Anytime a team sits back and waits for something they will get beaten. Defending isNOT stopping the opposition, but rather taking away what the opposition wants to do and forcing them into a mistake that will concede the ball.
The aim of Quicksilver football is to catch the opponent on the "break". When the opponent concedes possession while either building-up in the midfield or attacking the backs, members of the opposition will tend to be further up the field than usual and may not be able to recover quickly enough or transition to a defensive mindset in an efficient span of time.Quicksilver football may involve leaving one or two strikers high up the pitch, near the mid-stripe, in the HOPE that a through ball or even a ball over the top can be played in and alsoHOPING to catch the opponent off guard. This parallels any and all long, through ball tactics that have been used, are currently being used or will be used.
Defending in this way is very dangerous. When a team plays zonally, the individual zonal responsibilities can be absorbed within the opponents attack and made obsolete, thus exposing the team defensively. When properly organized, a team who is defending zonally will offer little or no resistance until the attacking team has advanced to a certain height on the pitch. This point is called the Pressure Height and is the depth on the field where the midfielders should start applying proper pressure on the ball and acting as first and second defenders. This point is dependent upon a Christmas List length of factors. For example, higher pressure is more tiring and thus demands players with good match-fitness. The higher up the field a team decides to draw their restraining line, the higher the level of base fitness will be needed. In general, a defensive-minded team will tend to stay lower, thus diminishing defensive risks as opponents are given less space to attack. Unfortunately, this also gives the defensive team a longer stretch of space to attack forward towards the goal in the event they are able to break out and counter-attack. This is what makes the long, direct, through ball an easy and typical alternative.
Chronically exposing your team to this type of defensive structure will eventually cause dysfunction of the team dynamics needed to make zonal defending work. Teams who play zonally may develop a wide range of problems including being broken down by quick combination play, being broken down by a player on the dribble, balls played diagonally, and losing shape quickly and communication problems. Just like the “mad hatter” from Alice in Wonderland, zonal defending drives coaches “mad,” yet they don’t even know it and keep playing zonally the same way over and over again. Similar problems in the attack are also seen in teams whom are trying to develop their own defensive identity.
Defending the Zone
The biggest argument I get when I begin to sway these types of conversations towards the questions of the need for and the effectiveness of zonal defending is the following: Most coaches completely agree that the deeper a team gets pressed back the more they need to transition to a man-to-man functionality, especially when they are 22-25 yards down.
However, most of these coaches will be quick to point out that 25 yards and out, man-to-man marking leaves extremely too much room for error. They will argue that a cornucopia of different opportunities for a single inch or a single split-second to be gone is tremendous and as we all know can be the difference in winning or losing.
They will continue to argue the merits of Zonal Defending by breaking out the weaknesses of man-to-man marking. A coach whom I was on staff with at the same club was so ‘fixated’ on his zonal scheme that he would argue that man-to-man marking too high up the field turns a single battle (initial, individual pressure on the ball) which will also have cover and balance to protect it, as you’d find in zonal defending, into 10 different single battles; each without any cover or balance as protection. He would also argue that man marking also turns the functionality of the game into more of an athletic (i.e., who's faster and stronger than who) event and eliminates a lot of the soccer aspects.
Regardless of how I counter argue and even sometimes purposely play the “Devil’s Advocate” (sometimes just to get a rise out of someoneJ), there is one question that is always posed: “How little space is too little when marking?” They’re talking about if a defender is slightly miss-matched in speed to the attacker's favor where is the room to compensate or who compensates (re: where is the cover and balance?) if you’re players are not playing zonally?
They will continue on about how a simple short-short-long combination that starts with a ball played into a player whom has their back to their own goal can so easily break man-to-man marking down?
As these conversations get deeper and deeper, eventually someone will pull out the “chaos” card. “Don't we need to consider the chaos that develops for both sides when you man-to-man mark too high up the pitch?” is what eventually gets asked. Again, regardless of which direction I attempt to counter from, the response always seems to follow the same train of thought. If man-to-man marking can be done correctly; if athletic and physical superiority can be ensured (as well as technical defending above technicality on the ball), it would cause nightmares for the attacking team…Yet, the chaos on the defensive side of the ball would be even more extreme. As a defender, you would have the issue of first determining whom you are marking as either you transition to defense or began to get pressed in. Then you would have the responsibility of tracking that player who-knows-where and all over the field (even though it would be a shorter field now). Combine that with your team's shape and the almost necessity of having to turn your body away from the ball, etc...in order to maintain your mark...and the chaos would be tremendous and almost suicidal! Of course, there would be chaos on both sides of the ball, but it would be a more organized chaos for the attacking side simply because they have the ball.
Those are all not bad arguments and are even valid coaching points. In fact there are a tremendous number of coaches who whole-heatedly believe in these concepts and ‘live and die’ by how well they are executed. In truth, there isn’t really much of a counter argument that has any legs underneath it for any of them. History and the best the game has produced even will support these ideas about Zonal Defending, offering even stronger credibility to the arguments. Famous footballers such as, Alessandro Costacurta who is arguably one of the top football players ever and definitely among the best, if not the best defenders the world has ever seen, seemed to promote Zonal Defending with a comment he made after his Italianside bowed out of the 1998 Men’s World Cup in the Quarter-Final round, after staying notched 0-0 with the host-team, France, before failing to advance after penalties. When asked about the loss in the post-match press-conference, he said, "...we lost ball pressure and shape in the middle third which left us isolated in the back and you can't win football matches that way...."
However, while there may not be a straightforward argument against the concept of Zonal Defending, is there a better way to defend than defending within a zone?
Cutting Sugar Cookies with Mom!
One of the most common defensive sets used today and one that is more often than not used incorrectly, but is a primary example of Zonal Defending at its’ simplest, is the “Diamond-Back Four.” Referred to often as a ‘Defensive Diamond,’ a ‘four-back set’ or even a ‘sweeper-stopper’ formation (later we’ll find out why the term ‘sweeper’ is improperly used here), it is simply the positioning of four defenders; two of them playing as center-backs with one higher up the pitch and the other deeper, and two that form the outside points of the diamond shape (Outside Backs). The deeper of the two center-backs is the deepest player on the pitch with the exception of the goalkeeper.
One of the greatest defensive teams ever and a team that also defined defending, made it so dominating and set the standards for many years to come, was AC Milan. Before AC Milan became a defensive stalwart due to this ‘new’ tactic of playing with four backs in a diamond shape, teams were already using four back sets, but they were using them zonally as a flat-back four or as a flat-back three with either a high or low player and in earlier times, even as a box; which ironically is where the idea for the diamond-back four came from thatAC Milan put to such effective use. These earlier tactics didn’t incorporate much attention being paid to either Zonal or Man-to-Man Marking. This was primarily because, until AC Milanbegan to dominate opponents it was thought best to outscore the opposition, push more players forward and not be as concerned with defending. Still, no one had ever implemented the use of both a Sweeper and a Stopper, deep and shallow, respectively on the pitch. OnceAC Milan integrated this into their style of play they were into their glory years; years of which they were regarded as having the greatest defensive line the world has ever seen. In fact, they hold the all-time record of not conceding a single goal for more than 900 minutes.
Elemental defending used in most situations is not the only modern source of stopping the opposition. Low levels of pressure are found in youth tournaments, high-school matches, collegiate contests, and certain forms of professional football. The levels of pressure in most of these defensive tactics remain well below the levels that are needed to defend successfully.
Inefficient pressure and ineffective defending is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to other common football tactical ailments.
Soon after possession is conceded a player has a split-second of physically gut-wrenching torture where they have to make a decision of whether or not they recover and transition to defense or take the time to rest. Too many times, players will take this time to rest and not even be aware of it because it occurs subconsciously. This “slow transition” manifests itself as a player whom doesn’t appear fast or quick and thus, speed and quickness work is prescribed for them when all that is really needed is the awareness of what the player does in that spilt-second of transition. Some coaches continue to complain of vague lapses in their defensive shape, in difficulty stopping the counter-attack, or with problems with defending width; yet they don’t do anything about it and continue to cut sugar cookies with their kids the same way their parents did with them, and even their parents did.
What if I told You to Forget The Zone?
As popular as Zonal Defending is (I have used it many times and may choose to do so again), I want to present an alternative. I want us to think outside of the box. I want us to forget for a moment that “good old reliable” flat-back four (because all it really is - is just a fancy trapping defense that keeps sliding from side to side and forward and back depending on how standard and predictable the attack is.) Now, let’s take a peek at an alternate way of approaching defending that barely includes (notice I said ‘barely’) any aspect of zonal work. This is something that I have tinkered with over the last several years, more because no matter how successful something is working, if I see a potential weakness in it, then I am always looking for a way to eliminate that weakness or to make adjustments to what we’re doing so that weakness is compensated for, etc… This may or may not be a new concept for you, but it is something that I recently have found does work if you have the RIGHTpersonnel. Regardless, it still fits in very well with the focus of this particular blog entry.
Let’s forget the zone! Let’s applaud its history, accolades and what it has taught us. Let’s bow to its place on the pedestal of football defending prowess. Then, let’s pack it up, store it away and let it collect dust, the same way that those old goalkeeper gloves with the neon colored palms are collecting dust. The same way those - size: TODDLER - shin-pads that we would just slip in and out of our socks and really provided no more protection than a piece of cardboard are collecting dust. Let’s not ever play a flat-back four with a diamond stopper and inverted sweeper offside trap zonal defensive scheme again. Instead, let’s play straight-up man-to-man marking all over the field! I’m not kidding…10 field players and a keeper…vs.….10 field players and a keeper. Who’s fitter…who’s smarter…who’s better trained…who’s better prepared…who’s just simply BETTER? Let’s eliminate all of the gobledee-gook that encompasses playing any type of zonal defense and just slim it down and make it simple: Man-to-Man!!!
An important characteristic of successful modern football teams is their ability to control the game even when they don’t have possession of the ball. Each and every player on the team plays a part in this tactic all with the intention of forcing the opposition into awkward situations.
No formation or defensive scheme will succeed unless a team can cover all avenues of which their opposition will be able to attack. This simply means that a team’s defensive objective is nothing more than to “stifle” play. Players must press as soon as the opposition has the ball and the entire team’s defending mindset is to always keep the action in front of them and to stop any balls the opposition tries to play through the center or in behind.
What Exactly is Man-to-Man Defending?
In a man-to-man marking defensive system, a single defender follows an individual opponent wherever they go. A team can achieve extremely tight marking with this mentality and “key” players on the opposition can often be neutralized in a match by using one of your players and assigning them to mark that ‘key’ player for the opposition. This particular player would be serving as a dedicated "shadow.”
Since playing man-to-man defense will take defenders to any part of the field, interceptions and broken plays will often offer up opportunities for a quick counter-attack or what is sometimes referred to as “offensive by accident.” The Italian teams of the 1970s and 1980s often used this approach with impressive results. The ideology behind man-to-man defending holds that almost all opponents need to be marked at all times. When defending man-to-man, all players will have to keep an eye on certain zone considerations, but this is usually compensated for by using a “sweeper,” who is given a free defensive role. In theory, it is true, that every defense will be a mix of zone and man-to-man, however, it tends to be the zonal defensive schemes that incorporate much more man-to-man marking than the other way around.
Two of the key elements of man-to-man marking (and also of zonal defending, as well – think initial ball pressure) are the concepts of “pushing” and “pressing.” While both ‘pushing” and ‘pressing” are quite similar, there are significant differences that must be understood, as both are great tactics for winning back possession.
PUSHING is simply what a player does once they lose possession of the ball by applying immediate defensive pressure on the opposition’s player who has the ball. The player is “pushing” the play of the opposition faster and even in a certain direction which can result in a potentially dangerous attack being disrupted or even winning the ball back again. There isGREAT value in pushing, compared to standing off and waiting for the second defender/cover to step-up.
PRESSING is the act of applying pressure to the opposition’s player with the ball when that player turns their back to the goal they are attacking. Whenever a player turns their back and faces their own goal, they are no longer in a position to do any sort of damage offensively and thus should be ‘pressed’ immediately. When pressing, a defender literally ‘presses’ on the attacker’s back leaning in with their forearm and leading shoulder on the shoulder-blades of the attacker. This will cause the attacker to lower their body to improve their stability and drop their head to look at the ball, thus decreasing their vision and ability to do anything constructive. Pressing properly means opposition players are rarely able to settle on the ball and mistakes can be forced, either through poor technique or a rushed pass.
Pushing and Pressing requires a high-level of fitness from players because it is hard work. In order for either pushing or pressing to work, the whole team must prevent any switches of play as this will give overload initiatives to attackers. When pushing and pressing are executed well, the game rewards are significant.
Consider the effects that an opponent would feel when dealing with chronic exposure to man-to-man defense for an entire 90 minutes (plus). The simple consistent, unwavering pressure would cause irritability, anxiety, confidence withdrawal, frustration and lack of focus. Players under this type of continuous pressure may develop hesitation or apprehension in their game and have trouble doing what they are normally able to do. Teammates off the ball would also develop problems in the form of making runs they normally make and not getting the ball or constantly having to recover long distances due to their team consistently turning over the ball. These problems are specific to man-to-man marking and unlike zonal defending, cannot be recreated in training and thus the inherent inability to prepare for it. Many things can cause the opponent to fall out of their game. However, not many things can cause them to do so before the match even starts like proper man-to-man marking. Therefore, as a coach, I am more prone to prepare my players for and then use man-to-man marking as my primary defensive mindset.
Now, before we go any further, let’s discuss some of the weaknesses of man-to-man defending. The primary weakness of man-to-man defending is depth, especially when the opponent moves more attackers forward. The field is only a certain size and eventually the defensive team will run out of room and the opposition will be in scoring range. Playing man-to-man defense also allows defenders to possible be drawn out of position, which will open up gaps for other attackers to run into. This can be very dangerous when these gaps are exploited in vulnerable areas. According to some football analysts, this was Italy's fatal weakness in the 1970 FIFA World Cup Final.
The Lazio learned from that loss and as their history foretells, it wasn’t long before they devised a way to alleviate that weakness. To continue playing the man-to-man defensive style they were used to and were having success at, they had to overcome the problem with lack of depth. The Italians solved the issue by incorporating the use of a “sweeper.” The ‘sweeper’ is simply a central defender who has a free role (i.e. has no initial man-marking responsibilities). The sweeper sometimes takes up a position slightly behind the other defenders, as their defensive role is often to 'sweep up' any attacking threats that break through the defense and as such the sweeper adds valuable depth to the defensive unit. In order for this to work, the sweeper MUST be the controller of the entire defensive unit. They will determine where the back line should be at any given time.
Zonal Defending does not require a sweeper role, and as many teams have recently changed their tactics to incorporate a more zonal defensive scheme, ‘true’ sweepers in today’s game are rare.
Treatment for exposure to large amounts of zonal defending, as might occur in almost every match you play nowadays, is available but rarely used. It’s called Man-to-Man with a Sweeper!
Why is Man-to-Man Better than Zonal?
Learning from the successes of our past and returning to their ‘innovative’ ideas in the modern game is important because, even with coaching education, too many coaches stay transfixed on what is working in the “now” and are caught in a cycle that cannot be reversed. So, why is it that I say “Man-to-Man Marking is better than any Zonal Defensive scheme?”
Man-to-Man marking takes away miles and miles of possible lateral runs for the opposition. In essence, it simplifies decisions because a player is only responsible for one opponent at a time. When playing a man-to-man marking defensive system, a player is almost never caught “ball watching” to slide with other defenders, as would be the case in a Zonal System, thereby opening up the vulnerability of the back door.
When effectively running a man-to-man marking system, opponents will not be able to make runs through unmarked, nor will they have the time and space to receive the ball, look up and be able to move the ball comfortably. In this system, the players fight to steal every pass and not try to react after the fact.
Establishing man-to-man marking at about 45-50 yards from your goal makes life “hell” on the attacking team and takes remarkably less energy to defend.
No one played a flat back zonal system better than Bayern Munich with Franz Beckenbauer running the ship…and…he once said that playing it right, and they were the best ever at it, would kill a career because of physical and mental exhaustion.
In comparison, “Billy” Costacurta was one of the notably unbeatable back four in the history-making, record-setting, glory years of AC Milan.
He played as a stopper in front of Franco Baresi, whom combined with Costacurta to become one of the best “buddy center-backs” of all-time. Costacurta’s tactical ability was usable in almost any situation. He became the oldest footballer ever to play in the Champions League at 40 years and 211 days old. Costacurta is also rated by many football pundits as one of the best man markers ever, and the best man-marker during the 1990s where onlyJürgen Kohler could be considered comparable.
Another reason, I’ve become such an adamant supporter of man-to-man marking is not only because I have seen it work efficiently at different levels, but also because I’ve seen its benefits when used against a team that we’re equally matched. More importantly, I have also seen its benefits for teams of lesser ability when facing teams with better personnel.
The Romans Weren’t Wrong…AND…Neither Were the Greeks
Earlier I talked about how the Italians innovated the mentality surrounding defending in the 1970s. Well, do you remember the 2004 UEFA European Championship that Greece won? The Greeks played strict man-to-man defense and beat Portugal twice, once in the final, on their way to winning the Cup.
Not a single player on that Greek roster started for any 1st Division Club in any league, anywhere in the world. Yet, they were able to negate that disadvantage by how they played. Think about it for a moment, what would you do with the ball, if after you receive a pass, you looked up and every single one of your teammates had an opponent marking them tightly?
Before we approach that question, let’s pose it to one of the greatest players of all time and see what they have to say.
In the opening match of the 2004 Euro-Cup, Portugal hosted Greece. Greece won 2-1. However, what is more interesting than that surprising result was a comment made by a young Cristiano Ronaldo, who came off the bench in the 46th minute of that match and also scored Portugal’s lone goal in the 93rd. He was quoted after the match as saying, “…it was like a sea of blue out there. Every-time I turned around all I saw were blue shirts…” Greece wore blue uniforms in that match.
So what is Ronaldo to Do?
So, what would be your options if you were faced with this predicament? You could either dribble trying to escape the pressure or you could just keep holding the ball waiting for a teammate to lose their marker; assuming you’re a defender that is. However, if you’re fighting to receive a pass, you might not feel you have a lot of time to look up and decide where you want to play the ball next, because the only open options you would have available to you is playing a square ball or dropping a ball back. Playing a ball square with your back to goal is never healthy from any position on the pitch and dropping it back would just compounds the issue of trying to move the ball forward. You would have another other option, which would be to play the ball into space, but that would force you to make a decision to give-up 100% possession of the ball and instead throwing it up for grabs as a 50/50 ball. If you do choose to play the ball into space, you would have to take into account that the defenders will be goal side and ball side on their mark and they would have the best chance of getting to a ball played into space.
Can Basketball Tell Us Anything?
Several years ago, I was coaching a women’s high-school varsity soccer team and for some odd reason, the players would never attack inside the box. It was as if there was some invisible shield around the penalty area and they couldn’t enter the area with the ball. After trying every “soccer-oriented” idea I could think of, I eventually decided to change up our training a bit.
The next session, instead of what we normally did, we went into the gym and played basketball. We didn’t just play for fun the entire time; as there was a point to it. I was on one team and made sure I was the primary ball handler for that team. What I did was rather simple: I would penetrate and be in for an easy lay-up, but then I wouldn’t take it and I would proceed to turn around and dribble back out to the perimeter. I had several players whom had played competitive basketball before and they were quite bewildered about why I wasn’t finishing my drive. In addition, sometimes, I would also break someone on the dribble, and begin to penetrate, but once I reached the three-point line, I would stop and pass the ball off. After about 20 minutes of this, one of them asked me if I was ever going to “really start playing?” I responded by asking her what she meant and she responded with her frustration at my not finishing drives and not taking open shots. BINGO! That was what I was waiting for! I used that situation in basketball to get my point across about penetrating into the box…and…they got it! How do I know? They went on to win the State Championship!
What else can we learn from basketball?
One aspect of playing man-to-man defense is that the support for the defender who is winning the ball develops faster, as soon as it is seen that the player is going to win the ball. Zonal minded teams tend to back off in order to start defending further up the field and only offer token resistance closer to the defender’s goal. When they win the ball, it takes longer for them to press forward, which allows the opponent more time to apply pressure and get behind the ball. In comparison, if you are marking players up tightly, once you win the ball all it takes is one extra pass in order for your team to reshape. Depending on where the ball is won, another option is to breakout with whomever you have up front.
In my opinion, we don’t spend enough time in training developing players to play other positions with reasonable quality. We continue to DEVELOP “players whom play football” and NOT “football players.” Obviously, if a player is playing an attacking role, then they are more-than-likely better at finishing than their teammates who play behind them. However, if everyone on the team can play all positions with a reasonable quality, then a player’s (or a team’s) speed of counter is not hindered by players being in different positions.
Let’s go back to basketball for a moment and take a look at how a basketball team transitions after a missed basket. The opponent takes a shot and misses. The missed shot is rebounded by the other team’s Center. The Center then begins the transition by playing an outlet pass to a teammate who was drawn out from under the basket. The Center who throws this initial outlet pass not only launches the counter after collecting the rebound, but also runs the court and finishes it with a slam-dunk; following in behind the guard whom he played the initial outlet pass to and who was out front on the break to begin with.
I’ve referred to basketball several times in previous blogs and one reason why I continue to make reference to the sport is because I don’t think we’re learning much from our sister sports. College basketball shows us one thing that we could do in football more often: they are always adjusting to an opponent’s offensive advantage by changing up defenses. Correlating this to football; if we can transition from high pressure to low pressure and from man-to-man to zone at different times and for different situations, a team could add a whole new element to the opposition’s attacking problems.
Basketball coaches would herald this Center for their overall skill-set; ability to rebound, pass accurately, run the floor and finish and wouldn’t pigeon-hole them as a one-dimensional player. Basketball doesn’t require “total players,” it DEMANDS it. So, why don’t we?
Have We Already Forgotten the Dutch?
The Dutch led the world with the “Total Player Concept” and initially it was thought of as the greatest invention since Swiss Cheese. However, after a while, the initial allure wore off and the rest of us in the football world seemed to make the collective decision that it was too difficult to Develop Players that could defend and attack with equal skill. So, instead we have tried to build specialists and started compartmentalizing players into specific positions and skillsets. The act of compartmentalizing players has led to the idea that they are really only good at one aspect of the game and if they get forward, especially defenders, the best you can hope for is a decent cross.
Watch carefully how few players on today’s current teams actually attack and change positions all over the field. I was recently watching a fixture between Liverpool and Cardiff and I noticed something rather odd. It seemed that Stephan Gerrard was the only player on his team that was actually moving all over the field. The rest of his mates were really just playing in basic channels that made it actually restful for Cardiff to mark them. Most teams haven’t spent the time developing the match fitness-base that would be required of them to run laterally and vertically for an entire match, while defending.
Two other players to watch that really “piss” opponents off and cause a consistent and annoying distraction for the opposition are front-runners Craig Bellamy (Cardiff City) and Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahçe).
These two are particularly effective at what they do because they find their marks quickly and close them down extremely fast. Because of their rate of play, they force opponents into hurrying their decisions. They just simply force the opposition out of their comfort zone.
Given the overall speed of teams in today’s game, I believe that if a team was functioning under the guise of one or two free defenders and then man-marking the rest, they would be able consistently take opponents out of their game. In addition, if the entire team was properly developed to begin the counter with whoever is in position to initiate it, they would make for an exciting and even devastating attack.
When no one is really prepared to play against something that is well executed, they will eventually realize what they consider old fashioned is in reality, suddenly new and effective. It’s only chaos for those whom are unprepared.
Personally, from coaching all-levels from youth club through college and into the professional ranks, I have learned that if the defender is smart, they will create a “cat and mouse” game with the opponent. One minute they are applying tight pressure and staying within arm’s length of their mark. The next minute, the defender is falling off their mark about a yard. Once any difference in speed or quickness between the defender and their mark is understood - and I expect the player to gauge it immediately as the match begins - the defender should know how much pressure to put the server under and adjust their position accordingly. I train my players to adjust by falling off just enough to enable them to be even with the attacker by the time they are within shooting range of the goal. The speed difference decreases when the attacker has the ball and is penetrating on the dribble, but it can quickly be maximized when the attacker is chasing a through ball. However, this shouldn’t be an issue, because it is harder to play efficient balls in behind for the attacker to chase when the server is under tight pressure. In turn, this gives a slower defender a way to negate any speed differential.
One of the simplest, quickest and most common ways to break down any team; especially a team defending zonally, is by the use of some variation of the pattern “short-short-long.” However, short-short-long types of combinations aren’t as effective against teams who choose to mark up man-to-man. If a team is in a Man-to-Man with a Sweeper defensive scheme, they will always have an extra player at the back to supply cover as needed. Thus, any short-short-long combination – even one followed by a second long diagonal ball - should easily break down any zonal system and especially a flat-back 4; but, the Sweeper in a Man-to-Man Marking system would “sweep up” those long balls…if the opponent was even able to get them off?!?!?!
A porous defense must be cleaned up immediately, even if you have to use special tactics and potentially philosophy-contaminated ideas. However, instead of going with the flow and just implementing a different version of the same old zonal defense, what about refining how your team defends and even redefining your own defensive philosophies?
Zonal Defending can work. It has worked and it will work again. However, heed this warning: It is not the best way to defend! It is a dangerous way to defend! It takes control of the game away from the players and gives it to fallible, vulnerable and historically proven to be breakable tactics. Tactics don’t play the game, players do. So, let them play!