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Can you use zonal marking at grassroots level?

Simple answer is “Yes”, particularly if your players regularly struggle to hang on to the attackers they are marking, or if they fail to organise themselves each time they face a corner or free kick. Given a set position, your players will grasp what they have to do and respond well to their part of the defensive responsibility.

That’s because, when using zonal marking, defending becomes a collective responsibility for the team rather than an individual one. Some go as far as to argue that the success or failure of the system is dependent on a coach’s ability to explain the concept to his players.

Rafa Benitez and zonal marking

According to Rafa Benitez the former Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea and Newcastle manager: “When you talk about man-to-man (marking), it’s very easy for the manager to say it’s your responsibility, and that’s it.

“But when you talk about zonal marking, in reality you as a manager take responsibility. You have to explain (to your players) what to do and how they will do it… But obviously, if you do it well, it’s a good system for defending.”

Each player has a role

The point of zonal marking is to protect the space around the goal by assigning each of your players a role that they can adopt without thinking each time the situation requires it. In full zonal marking you have two players on the posts, three men along the six yard line with another three men in front of them and one further ahead around the edge of the D.

One man remains up the pitch as the “out ball”. So they are not colliding, the zone players only move forwards and towards the space around them in an attempt to go for the ball. The keeper is also much freer to come and claim it. Depending on the trajectory of the ball, the players attack the space around them if the ball is close enough to warrant action.

There are variants of zonal marking, notably a hybrid where you assign someone (your biggest and best header of the ball) to mark the opposition’s aerial danger man, but obviously, you need to know the opposition well to identify such a threat.

If you’re thinking of employing zonal marking, remind your players it takes time and practice to work the system to perfection and don’t be tempted to give up the first time it goes wrong.

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