Although man-marking reminds us of the old ‘70s and ‘80s, it has been enjoying rebirth since these days. In fact, man-marking has been reinvented, thanks to zonal coverage. Thus, giving birth to a new marking systems, such as zone-oriented man coverage.
So far, zone-oriented man coverage has been used in the Bundesliga by Dieter Hecking both during his time at 1.FC Nürnberg and currently at Borussia Mönchengladbach. In Hecking’s treatment, this system is a compromise between man and zonal defenses.
In Hecking’s coverage system, defenders are asked to man-mark opposing player who enter their coverage zones. This requirement is the system’s basic rule: if an opponent occupy a space, then the corresponding defender has to man-mark him.
This rule is a reactive strategy based on opponents’ positioning, and not just on the position of the ball.
If well-executed, zone-oriented man coverage allows a team to control opponents in the area where the ball is. On the other hand, this system exhibits a lack of compactness, since defensive teammates are often too far apart to protect each other. Yes, this deficiency sometimes it causes instability due to the lack of support by teammates, but well-organized defenses avoid this issue. For example, should an opponent leave the defender’s zone without the ball, then the player will move back into his original defensive spot.
Hecking’s defensive system features some components of man-marking. In fact, although zonal defense is the system’s main framework, it still applies some man-marking situationally, especially on free-cutting inside wingers, thus preventing them from gaining depth.
Although zonal defending is the framework around Hecking’s system, zone-oriented man coverage relies on individual man-marking skills in crucial discrete moments, which often allows defenders to regain the ball through tackles. Thus, ball winning can be coupled with the system’s advantage of being a compact formation when players are disciplined.
In Hecking’s formulation, the system’s initial goal is to cover the opposing forwards and press them when they receive the ball, while the rest of the defensive backline ensures there are no open gaps. But, truth to be told, some holes still can appear from time-to-time and this system can be vulnerable to quick one-twos, as often the remaining defenders—focusing too much on the opposing forwards—can be too far apart from their teammate, leaving the backline to cover the opposing forward with the ball.
Also, this kind of defensive system raises the philosophical question about its nature, since it is far from a pure zonal defense. In fact, it even violates a key zonal principle by breaking the defensive line according to the opponent’s position, which is what happens in pure zonal marking system like those currently used by Napoli and Sampdoria.
Basically in these pure zonal systems, each player is tasked with covering a specific zone, while also maintaining the right distance from his teammates. In this system, defenders remain heavily focused on ball’s position with the whole defensive unit shriving for central compactness and shuffling from side-to-side with the ball into wider areas. In this setting, defenders are asked to maintain the distance by not breaking their line.
The key point here is using central compactness to prevent the opponent’s vertical progression up the pitch. For example, Napoli and Sampdoria’s zonal systems preventing opponents from manipulating he defenders’ positioning, in order to open space in the middle of the pitch. Players can be trained in this system by using Arrigo Sacchi’s classic six reference points drill, in which the defenders are asked to attack each point as if was the ball carrier: ball, goal net, teammate, opponent … these are the reference points—in descending order of importance—to which defenders refer to in this system. Thus, the backlines of Napoli and Sampdoria shuffle, cover, and press according to the position of the ball.
Theoretically, Napoli and Sampdoria use a pure zonal system in which man-marking is not totally forbidden, but is restricted only to the zone where the ball is, and to the defender closest to the ball. Basically, for example, when the ball out wide, the fullback nearest the ball closes down the ball carrier, while centerback nearest the ball, the centerback and the fullback furthest from the ball shift over to close the ball zone, in order to maintain the proper distance with the fullback nearest the ball and to close the opponent’s passing lines. The downsides of this more pure defensive strategy are that you can leave your own weak side exposed, and also that you highly disciplined training is required in order to improve the syetem’s proper execution, which is why Napoli’s coaches use drones to supervise the team’s defensive alignments.
In the zone-oriented man coverage, the priorities are different as opponent himself is the main defensive reference point. This priority is evident at Gladbach, as Hecking’s defenders defend passively, preferring to man-mark the opponents in the zone where the ball is. Sometimes, this approach weakens Gladbach’s defensive organization, leaving channels between Gladbach’s outside players—fullbacks and wingers—open for opponents to play through. In these situations, opponents were able even to manipulate Gladbach’s defensive system on the strong side by finding a free-man on the far side. This type of a mistake can happens when you use a defensive system centered on the opponent’s positioning, rather than the ball’s positioning, since the opponents to be covered can quickly become plural, while the ball is singular!
Defensively overloading the zone where the ball is can also cause troubles when the attacking team opts to quickly switch play to the weak side. This happened in several games for Gladbach, and Hecking’s side struggled to contain it. Moreover, diagonal passes from one half-space to another half-space have been particularly effective against Gladbach, enabling opponents to advance the ball.
On the flip side, Gladbach’s opponents often struggled to make their possession effective in the zone where the ball is, as they have troubles creating a free man between the Foals’ defensive lines.
Hecking’s zone-oriented man coverage has been only marginally efficient so far with Gladbach by allowing 12.5 shots per game. Under Hecking, Gladbach typically defends in a 4-4-2-0 formation with both forwards playing narrowly to prevent rivals from progressing the ball through the middle. As for MD 8, Gladbach had also allowed 12 goals (the second worst Bundesliga tally), while their goal differential between for and against expected goals is -2.79 with their xGA being 9.05. Expected goals difference (xGD) is the difference between expected goals for and expected goals against, which in this case illustrates that Gladbach’s defense has actually been more efficient than is born out in the actual numbers this season.
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