Gordon Strachan’s Scotland are positioned on both sides of the camp when it comes to imposing this particular part of the game on their opponents, and it will remain to be seen whether or not the same tactic is used in both games against the average, Georgia, and the very good, Germany this weekend. There’s a certain way of doing it and rarely is it dependant on opposition. It takes time to hone and perfect and then you stick with it, seemingly through thick and thin. You protect it and fiercely defend it, even in the face of the harshest of criticism and occasional failure. Celtic are very staunchly in one camp, deciding to do it their way to their recent cost, while others are dead against that particular philosophy and would never dream of doing it, preferring to employ their own variation of it.

Rarely has a system divided opinion so widely between fans, players and coaches alike. No-one can decide what’s best, particularly now with the high profile analysis on Sky and the never ending dissection of autopsy proportions.

Zonal marking has never been more to the fore than in recent times as clubs, driven by the desire to succeed and the occasional warped sense of trying to be clever or different, implement their own brand of hari kari on players already muddled by formations of play that now, more than ever, resemble morse code, rather than basic instruction.

Whatever happened to ‘dot, dot, dash?’ That’s the good old 4-4-2 to you and I.


I have to say at this point that when I played, I enjoyed being a man marker at corners. I was good in the air and would relish the physical challenges and using every part of me and every trick in the book to stop the opposition centre back from scoring. I enjoyed, as most defenders do, the responsibility of pitting my wits against hairy arsed, 6ft plus centre forwards and making sure by fighting, jostling and being verbally intimidating, that the very most they got was a header that was at least interrupted by some part of my head or body, crashing into them. Most defenders, in my opinion, enjoy the responsibility of picking someone up. They enjoy defending.

Strikers in their own box on the other hand, now that’s a whole different ball game. Keith Wright was brilliant in the air and won many, many headers for us. Plonk big ‘Ted’ on the middle of the six-yard line and he’d attack the ball with the grace and power of the best, growling, centre back; but ask him to man mark? Like most strikers, he’d rather have gone in goal than pick up and that’s the key, finding the system of marking at set pieces that suits your personnel and circumstances and allows you to delegate equal responsibility throughout your team.

The Myth

Let’s examine the myth that zonal marking takes away that responsibility from the individual, because in truth, it doesn’t.

As a defensive unit, there are only three things that can ever be a threat to your goal at any particular time; the man, the ball and the space. As a defender, you must decide which of these is the biggest threat to you losing a goal. For example, if the ball is in a wide area about to be crossed and the striker is standing on his own at the far post, clearly HE is the biggest danger to your goal. If a striker is running through on goal with the ball at his feet, at that point the ball is the biggest threat and you must make a tackle. Conversely, if the ball is in the wide area about to be put into the box and the striker is outside it, waiting to run in, at that point the space he is about to run into is the biggest threat of all.

Accordingly, you adjust your position to try and cut the ball out and stop the striker from being first to reach the more dangerous area. Corner kicks are no different and the idea is, that when the ball is kicked, you must decide, which of the three is the biggest threat to your goal.

The principle behind zonal marking at corners is simple. You are responsible for the space in front of you. Players face the ball, with an open stance in order that they can see both opponent and ball. Celtic will generally line up, with Charlie Mulgrew in the front post area (to clear out that dreaded cross hitting the first man,) Van Dijk, Lustig and Boyata on the six-yard line covering front middle and back, Brown and Armstrong on the posts, Johansen, and Bitton 8-yards out, either side of the penalty spot, Forrest on the edge of the box and Griffiths threatening the short corner on the side the kick is being taken.

If the ball goes over the head of the player in front of you then it automatically becomes your responsibility. If it goes over your head, then it’s down to the player behind you, and so on.

Crucially though, it also means that if someone comes into the space in front of you and he becomes the main threat, you now have to deal with that. Zonal marking does not absolve you of that responsibility. Where Celtic came unstuck, was by being out-thought by the Swedes, as they cleverly deployed a player to either block, or jostle with their best header of the ball (Van Dijk) meaning he could not deal properly with his space, or anyone who came into it.

Where it becomes more complicated, and ultimately more difficult to keep a clean sheet, is when teams start to suss out that you are marking zonally, and deploy players to run from deeper positions to gain momentum and beat the standing jump. In this instance, players MUST have a good open starting position in order to see both man and ball. As the attacker gathers momentum, positions must be adjusted in order to block, jostle or derail the oncoming train as he passes through YOUR tunnel. Failure to do so will result in at the very least, a clear header, and at worst, the ultimate sanction of a goal against.

The answer?

Like Scotland, at Dundee we also used a combination of both man marking and zonal play at corners, whereby we would have two men on the posts, one in the front post area, one on the six yard box centrally (who’s responsibility was also for the opponent who was being a nuisance to the goalkeeper,) four main markers who would pick up their four biggest threats, one on the edge of the box and our quickest attacking player up the pitch. It was very successful for us, but that still does not mean that it was the right way to do it.

There is no right way, only the way that suits YOUR group of players.

When either zonal marking or man marking fails, it is almost always down to the individual, rather than the system. A player who cannot, effectively protect a zone, is just as likely to drop his man in a marking system, resulting in the inevitable post mortem. Whichever formation is employed, if it results in failure, the answer is not to say “well it’s worked for us before” but to say “how can we make it work for us again?” However, as a coach, if it continues to fail and you never look to change, then there comes a point when it is no longer the players who are most culpable, but YOU.

My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available to pre-order from All pre-orders before November release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

1 thought on “IN THE ZONE

  1. That was a good read, thanks.

    One question – how does zonal marking deal with an opposition player coming from deep to attack the ball? Does the fact that he is carrying forward momentum not immediately put the static defender at a disadvantage?


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