Tottenham concluded their usual pre-season fare with a traditional home friendly to precede the Premier League’s return. Notable for the home debuts of Chadli, Paulinho and Soldado, it gave fans a taste of things to come next season. The well-contested tie with Espanyol also saw a return to zonal marking, something that Villas-Boas has flirted with at times before at Spurs.
But as Spurs continued to look vulnerable from set pieces, is zonal marking the answer?
There is a common misconception that zonal marking is naturally a bad thing. This attitude often sparks from lazy commentators whose goal analysis checklist always seems to put the prevalence of zonal marking high in importance. ‘No responsibility’ or ‘he is too static’ are the usual ignorant comments that are made when analysing the system. The reality is yes zonal marking can be catastrophic when implemented badly, but when it is done well it can create an impenetrable back line from dead ball situations. If zonal systems were universally bad why would someone with the tactical nouse of an Andre Villas-Boas ever use it?
The usual criticisms are the fact defenders are stationary and that when it doesn’t work it is hard to see who is responsible. Both of these criticisms are totally unfounded, but can appear legitimate when the system isn’t used properly. If anything defenders are much more dynamic under a zonal system, with the freedom to move as they wish within their zone rather than be tied to a particular player. The difference is that defenders focus on the ball rather than the man; there is no reason why defenders should be static if they are attacking the ball within their zone. Similarly culpability when analysing mistakes is not a question of looking at who didn’t pick up their man, more of a which zone did the attacker win the ball in. In England there is a certain aversion to defending zonally which is totally at odds with most of Europe, this is simply stubborn unfounded resistance to a system people largely fail to understand.
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Dealing with set pieces has traditionally been a weak-point for Spurs and have always been greeted with trepidation and fear. Last season was arguably less disastrous than previous years, but this defensive issue still represented something of a weak point for the side. The change in tact for the Espanyol game clearly highlighted that this is an issue of concern for the manager as well.
Lopez’s equaliser brutally exploited the unfamiliar system and was just one of many moments where the backline looked clueless to the high ball. So should Spurs be so quick to ditch the zonal system? Zonal marking is all about the right personnel and familiarity, it isn’t a quick fix. Barcelona and Manchester City’s successful use of the marking system built up over a number of years. Ultimately it is a risk worth taking in the long-term especially when man to man marking is proving largely ineffective as well.
The benefit to a club like Spurs is that it allows for a decongestion of the box with players defending zones rather than focusing on an individual man. Man marking can often lead to unnecessary pressure on the goalkeeper with attackers and defenders crowding the six-yard box. Under a zonal system attackers are still free to take up these positions, but defenders will not follow them, which affords the keeper more space. Hugo Lloris is a famously nimble sweeper keeper, moving to a zonal system will allow him to collect or punch balls much more freely and alleviate pressure from defenders.
So what is required of the backline to make this work for Spurs? In the main the system necessitates unwavering concentration and focus from beginning to end of a match. If AVB wants to implement these zones he will have to work on it tirelessly to ensure that players know their roles inside out. In the meantime there will naturally be instances where attackers are afforded free headers and the backline appears shambolic, a necessary evil I am afraid if Spurs are looking towards a long-term answer.
In my opinion zonal marking is probably the long-term fix to Spurs’ defensive frailties. Whether Spurs have the patience and perseverance to make it work is a totally different matter. Many in the game tout Andre Villas-Boas as a tactical genius and if he has sought to change tact then clearly man marking just doesn’t suit the players he has at his disposal. In the meantime the way In which fans, players and press deal with a painful teething period could largely decide whether zonal marking can be the answer for Spurs.
The unfortunate aversion to change in English football is what largely hinders these sorts of moves by managers, Benitez and Mancini were both famously castigated for their use of zones. Criticisms that were largely unfair in respect of the overall results that they produced
Is zonal marking the answer for Spurs?