West Ham vs. Crystal Palace: In defense of zonal marking

Saturday saw Sam Allardyce’s West Ham continue a dismal run of form, having won only once in the league in 2015. Alan Pardew’s rejuvenated Crystal Palace secured a comfortable 3-1 away win, with all of their goals coming from set pieces.

Surprisingly (or not), there was no outrage at the man marking system West Ham used. All of the media focus was on the defenders who were responsible for losing their men; Carl Jenkinson, Winston Reid, and James Tomkins. But each goal showed a specific aspect of play that could’ve been avoided with a zonal marking system.

Goal 1: Glenn Murray v Carl Jenkinson

The play begins with a huge space in the most dangerous area: the central area just outside the six yard box. At this point, the ball is often too far away from the goalkeeper for him to come and catch or punch the ball. All it takes is for one of the two runners from deep (Glenn Murray and Scott Dann) to beat their defender and there is a chance for a shot on target.

Glenn Murray is the closest to the ball, and does well to hold his run. He stops for a brief moment, gaining a yard of space on Carl Jenkinson, and therefore with more momentum to jump higher. Given Jenkinson must remain in front of him, it is impossible for him to keep his eyes on the ball *and* his man. This means he doesn’t account for Murray’s stopping motion, as he simply doesn’t see it. Murray uses the yard of space to gain momentum and is therefore able to jump higher than the stand-still Jenkinson.

Within a zonal marking system, the players are all spaced uniformly. This means the need for awareness of opposition attackers is less; if the ball comes into your zone, you attack it. The impossible situation of having to look at the ball and your opponent is eliminated.

Goal 2: Scott Dann v Winston Reid

This goal is almost identical to the first. Crystal Palace run exactly the same play, where they have three men near the outside of the box, with two of them attacking the ball. The difference this time is that the ball goes slightly closer to that back post, meaning it is Scott Dann’s area rather than Glenn Murray’s.

Much like Murray, he takes a small step backwards to give himself more room to attack the ball. Again, Winston Reid is unable to see this as he must look at the ball so he can time a header. Dann uses this momentum combined with his massive frame to easily win the header.

Goal 3: Glenn Murray v James Tomkins

Crystal Palace win a free-kick not far outside of the area, in a dangerous location. However, they only have two men attacking the goal due to their comfortable lead and it should therefore be fairly easy for West Ham to defend it? Wrong.

The poor marking of James Tomkins is inexcusable (although it is not certain that he was actually the one instructed to mark Murray). But again there were systematic issues in the defending of the free kick.

As there are so few attackers, the man marking system means only few defenders drop back as the free kick goes over the defensive line. Whilst previously West Ham had seven defenders marking two men (as well as a two man wall), only three of the defenders actually drop back. This means there is no man in front of Glenn Murray able to stop the ball, and all he has to do is flick the ball.

A zonal marking system would have a man stationed immediately in front of Murray’s position as the whole team pushes backwards, and it would have been a simple clearance.

Conclusion

Every defensive system has it’s faults. This is no different for defensive setups from set pieces. But there is a [British] media obsession with criticising zonal marking.

This obsession stems from the fact that zonal marking is more complex in its analysis: it is not as easy for the commentator or pundit to immediately label an individual player as culpable. A poorly implemented zonal marking system has more complex issues, such as poor spacing; something that much of the British media are either too apathetic or ignorant to analyse.

All it takes is for a zonal marking system to concede one goal, and much of the British press goes into meltdown at its use. But a team such as West Ham concede three goals, all because of the man marking system they implement, and no-one bats an eyelid.

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