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.