**image courtesy of chelseadaft.org

Arsenal conceded from a set-piece once again. That is nothing new. First Torres, then Mata. And last week, Lescott. Corner, free kick, (and when you count Stoke City) throw in. The dead ball has become a means of killing off the gunners.

And after the dust settles, and the players look at each other cluelessly. After the ball has been picked up from the back of the net, and the opposition celebrations are over, the old age question arises. Zonal defending – or man to man.

Someone, something has to be blamed, always. In Arsenal’s case, it is the system of defending set-pieces. The scapegoat, more often than not, is the zonal system. “The guy who scored wasn’t picked up.” Followed by the usual cliché, “A zone has never scored a goal.” Depending on how you look at it, it’s true. A zone has never scored a goal. It is therefore useless to persist with zonal defending while men are left free. Isn’t it?

Well, it depends on how you look at it. Zonal defending is a defensive strategy just like any other. It is thus neither right nor wrong. It is in its application that it brings about success or failure. Changing variables and conditions, context, all come into place once the strategy has been put in place. Failure doesn’t mean you used the wrong strategy, it just means that you applied it incorrectly.

As Michael Cox asks in this excellent piece for ESPN, why the hate for zonal defending? Cox argues that English football, ever so slow to adapt to changing tactics, is yet to fully appreciate zonal defending. He validly points out how British TV punditry berate zonal defending whenever a team concedes from a set piece. I remember clearly how last season, after Arsenal’s 4-3 loss to Blackburn, I watched as Andy Townsend took to demonstrate how zonal defending had cost Arsenal the game. The words that he used then were ‘this zonal rubbish’. At the time, it really was rubbish.

But Andy Townsend is no Arsene Wenger. Why does Wenger persist with this ‘zonal rubbish?’ Because it is what he knows is best for his team. Just have a look at his team. Apart from the height of Per Mertesacker, and the aggressiveness of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen, no other Arsenal player has the physique to match tall well built players. Arsenal is mostly comprised of small, skilful players who dazzle with their magnificent technique. Passing out of a crowd is their strength, defending in a crowd isn’t.

So when you have Joleon Lescott, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and Edin Dzeko coming into the box for a set piece. When you have John Terry, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic doing the same, who do you tell to pick them up? Santi Cazorla? Aaron Ramsey or Carl Jenkinson? Perhaps Mikel Arteta or Kieran Gibbs. Maybe even Gervinho. Clearly, Arsenal would be outpowered if they attempted to do this. Marouane Fellaini towering over Michael Carrick all over again.

It is therefore why Arsenal defend zonally. They would not match up any other way. Sun Tzu once said that the key to winning any battle is knowing oneself first. Wenger knows his team. He knows that they cannot match up physically. So rather than go for a system which places more demands on the physical aspect, he goes for one which ascribes to his overall philosophy. Wit over brute.

Having said that though, the fact that Arsenal still concede lots of goals from set pieces should not be overlooked. Just picking the strategy that suits you is not enough; you have to apply it well. Arsenal’s set piece problems point to the fact that the application of this zonal defending isn’t right. A solution needs to be found.

The solution however is not necessarily a change of strategy. The introduction of Steve Bould to Arsenal’s coaching staff this season has brought about more defensive solidity. But Arsenal haven’t changed the way they play. They do not hoof the ball aimlessly upfield or hit it to row Z. They still calmly pass it out of defense, creating as they go along. There has just been a new, more solid ‘two banks of four’ defending strategy  that has ensured that cheap goals are not conceded. The same should be applied to their zonal defending. More solidity, different application, but not a change of stategy.

Set pieces are a part of the game. You can’t change that. You can’t change the fact that Rory Delap has a long throw on him, or that Peter Crouch is tall. More physical players will exist. And just as Arsenal have found a way to play football that suits them, other teams use set pieces as a means to an end, because it suits them. Arsenal will always be called upon to defend set-pieces as long as they exist in football. How they defend them is key. And as long as Arsenal have this small clever players, with skill and excellent passing and technique, man to man marking will not suit them. Zonal defending is perfect for Arsenal. They just need to learn how to perfect its application.


    • So if Arsenal switch to man to man for set peices, you want to tell me they will do better? Physically they will be overpowered. Zonal defending is about ensuring that the player in that zone doesn’t get good contact on the ball. It suits Arsenal because they already defend zonally in play, so they are clever enough to make their physical ineptness count.

      Arteta is one such player. Not the biggest but how he gets into position to stop a potential counter attack, placing his body so that the attacker is not clearly through on goal is magnificent. The same applies to set-pieces. Have the players defend a zone, when a player enters that zone, the player defending it prevents him from having an easy jump, or a free header as it is called.


      • This is what happens during set pieces.. players run around to confuse their opponents.. they do this more freely if there is no man marking.. when you mark your zone it gives the opposing player in this instance a bigger player than most arsenal players time to meet the ball hence leaving the defenders hopeless, man marking you dont neccesarily have to be as big as your opponent but you ‘hustle’ them.. disturb them hence making it harder for them to meet the ball.. tryn to mark your zone in such a small area of the pitch leaves u exposed.. eye on the ball defending is what could have saved arsenals goals.


      • Firstly, let me clarify. I am not saying that one is better than the other. Whichever you use, it depends on the players at your disposal, and the opponents you face. But you can’t go on changing a strategy on a game to game basis, cause you need a constant that the players are used to. This constant, in my opinion, in Arsenal’s case, is zonal defending.

        Rightly said. In set pieces, players run around to confuse their opponents. Man marking would thus be easy for Arsenal’s opponents: run around if you have either Per, or Kos, or Verm on you, so you leave the area into which the ball will be delivered free. Look at the goal Man United conceded against Everton on the opening week. Man marking from United, but there was nobody defending the zone into which the ball was eventually played in. Fellaini noticed this and gestured to Gibson, who delivered perfectly. Fellaini then overpowered Carrick with his run and jump. Even if it had been Vidic defending Carrick, the ball would still have been played into a dangerous area.

        Problem with man marking is, if the opponents are clever enough, they can manouver and leave a zone free. If the ball gets delivered into that zone, then it is man against man, pure strength against strength (this is where mismatches occur). It may also be disadvantageous for a defender, because a player coming in has more power, and more often than not, the defender will be following the player, thus running towards the goal. Getting a defensive header when running towards your own goal is difficult.

        Granted, no system is perfect. With man marking, you have control of the men, but not the zones. With zonal, the men are free, but the zones are taken care of. Whichever you pick, you will be conceding either control of the zones, or of men. Each reduces the capability of the opponents scoring, but not absolutely. Goals will still be scored from set pieces, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop this. But considering the quality of players at your disposal, and the quality of your opponents, you can reduce how many goals will be scored from set pieces.

        P.S. >>>> The greatest teams of this era, Spain and Barcelona, use zonal. It would however be foolish for Stoke City or West Ham to use zonal just cause Barca and Spain use it. Their players aren’t the same.


  1. the essence of zonal marking is to neutralize or pose threats from a particular space. conceding from it is a reflection of the player not the tactic


    • It can also be a reflection of the tactic when the right/dangerous zones are not covered, or cannot be covered. It becomes a flaw of the player when the right zone is covered, but the goal still gets conceded.

      (This however assumes that the conditions are perfect in the defending side’s favor. Variables such as a lucky bounce, slight deflection, perfect delivery, a player who is good in the air etc. may negate the reflection of the player’s defensive capability, no matter how good he is).


  2. Nice read. Keep it up!In my opinion, Arsene has chosen zonal marking because he has never and will never teach defence.It is the easy way out. As Tony Adams said sometime ago that they never practised free kicks offensive nor defensive steve bould is not a student of zonal marking as when they played under George Graham, who had made man marking mandatory just as a means of making players accountable being accountable. Zonal marking like u said just needs to be perfected. THATS WHy our best signing of the season will ensure its done


    • Thank you!

      Allow me though to disagree with you a bit. I get your point that Wenger doesn’t concentrate on the defensive in training, but to say that he never teaches defence is a bit harsh on him. He is a football manager. Defence is a must. His purist nature however means that it is not as much a priority as more pragmatic coaches who will be reactionary and will look to be efficient if it means reducing on beauty.

      Also, on the contrary, zonal defending is not the easy way out. Man marking is. In man marking, you know which player to blame. If zonal fails, then all eyes turn to the manager. Besides, zonal marking requires more cohesiveness and concentration. It is thus much harder to teach, and to implement. Any odd group of random people can come together and man mark on a corner. Not just any group of random people can come together and defend zonally.

      Love the reference to George Graham. But lets remember that Steve Bould also bought in to Arsene Wenger’s philosophy when the Frenchman took over in 1996. If Arsenal’s ‘greatest signing of the season’ that you allude to is Bould, then you are right. He knows both systems, and with time he will know how to make it work for Arsenal defensively on set pieces. Hadn’t actually thought of it that way!!


  3. Good article. I agree with your point of view that zonal marking is the system for Arsenal, its execution is the issue. They should aim to perfect it in training.



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