While few sides deploy man marking in open play in the modern age, this remains a common and arguably preferable tactic when defending set pieces.

In fact, the debate between man and zonal marking continues to rage at all levels of football, with each offering distinct pros and cons that will vary in relevance depending on the players at your disposal.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘man’ and ‘zonal’ marking, and which tactic is best to impart when coaching your team? Let’s get into it!

What is Man Marking?

In simple terms, man marking is a tactic that assigns each of your players an opponent to mark directly. Commonly and historically used when defending set pieces, the objective is for players to stay touch-tight to their opponent and prevent them from influencing or impacting the game individually.

In open play, the idea of man marking continues to become less popular, although former Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa who’s best described as a staunch and incurable idealist did adopt an iteration of this tactic during his time at Elland Road.

When it is deployed in open play, you’ll most likely see one player subjected to man marking rather than several or the entire team.

This will often be done to minimise the influence of the opposition’s best or most creative player, in order to deny them space and time on the ball and (in some cases) prevent them from dictating play.

What’s Zonal Marking?

In the case of zonal marking, this refers to guarding specific zones on the pitch and taking responsibility for the players within that space during all phases of the game.

In terms of set pieces, the six-yard box alone comprises three or four zones that defenders must cover when preparing for corners and free kicks, with each individual directly accountable for defending their zone whenever the ball enters it.

In open play, zonal marking is the most commonly used tactic, as teams drop into a compact, predetermined shape when out of possession.

This is designed to cover specific parts of the pitch equally, while this will determine precisely how teams press and defend space when their opponents have the ball.

Which Tactic is Superior?

Ultimately, zonal marking is ideal when defending in open play, although it can be less effective during set pieces. This is because zones can become blurred or poorly defined in real-time, leading to player hesitation and a potentially fatal failure to close second balls.

Conversely, man marking leads to all sorts of problems in open play, especially when it’s deployed throughout the team and in all phases of play. More specifically, this makes it easy for skilled opponents to pull players out of position and create spaces in attack, which can be capitalised on by well-timed, third man runs.

Conversely, man marking remains the go-to tactic at set pieces, with this providing greater clarity and visibility to players. Sure, it can pose challenges when facing teams with taller or more physical players, but combining good positioning and aggression (and potentially introducing elements of zonal marking) can help to compensate for this.

Broadly speaking, your best bet as a coach is to adopt a zonal marking system in open play and largely rely on man-for-man marking when defending set pieces, but I’d always recommend creating a tactical setup that best suits your teams and the players at your disposal!

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