A straightforward guide to coaching zonal marking

Much maligned by weekend soccer pundits, zonal marking was not just designed for teams at the very top of the game, it’s a system that can be used at every level, even in grassroots youth soccer. The system has its champions and critics, but its use is often just a matter of taste.

Many coaches utilize the system very effectively, no more so than Rafa Benitez. When he was the manager of Liverpool he was a big advocate of zonal marking, helping the club to achieve one of the best records at defending set pieces in the Premier League.

So, should you try using it at grassroots level?

The simple answer is “Yes”, particularly if your players regularly struggle to man-mark opposition attackers or if they fail to organize themselves each time they face a set piece. Often giving your players a set position will help them grasp what they have to do defensively.

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.

“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,” explains Benitez. “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.”

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. Use the small-sided game her as a fun way to help your team understand zonal marking at set pieces.