Anyone who’s watched City this season will recognise their major Achilles heel.
Despite all of the positive, aesthetically pleasing phases of play, which have been riveting to watch and left supporters in sheer shock at the high quality, there is an element of the Canaries game that, certainly of late, has been continuously exposed.
Zonal marking is, despite its high volume of critics, an effective method of defending set pieces. Like man marking, it has it’s positive and negative elements. Continentally, it is seen as a way of taking the onus away from players as individuals and instead working as a collective unit to prevent goal-scoring opportunities from set pieces.
This is why City drop all eleven of their players back to help – each playing an individual role within the system – the premise being that space is occupied as opposed to men, preventing players from being individually at fault should a goal be scored.
It’s pragmatic and tactical, and for extensive periods in both campaigns, Norwich have performed zonal marking with great effectiveness.
It relies upon two dominant centre-halves as the nucleus. The middle zone is regarded as key, so those aerial operators usually sit in front of the two centre-backs and are tasked with ensuring those aerial duels are won. A key battleground from set pieces, City’s middle zone hasn’t contained the same physicality or aggression as previously.
Continuity is intrinsic for this middle zone.
Injuries have prevented City from deploying a regular pairing in the heart of their defence and so the aerial dominance and strength of relationship between Christoph Zimmermann and Timm Klose has been broken. Ben Godfrey, whilst combative, lacks the presence of the aforementioned duo.
Experience is another factor; zonal marking requires game experience. It isn’t something that’s easily performed without rigorous and in-depth coaching – it takes time to educate footballers about the intricate details of this system. One that isn’t synonymous with British football.
I wrote about it last season – it’s here – when this debate reared its head for the first time, on this website in fact. There is no right way of opting to defend a set piece, but the reality is it’s integral that in this division, you can prevent goals conceded from these situations.
The increased physicality in this division makes it so demanding, and if a player doesn’t perform his role with as much conviction as his team-mates, then the whole premise of the principle deconstructs.
Norwich have conceded 16 goals from their 41 this season from set pieces. The issue they have had is not generally the initial phase of the set piece, but actually the second phase.
Defensively, this structure is rigid, it doesn’t provide the licence to improvise or react quickly. Once the ball is cleared, Norwich break this system in an attempt to regain their conventional tactical shape. What’s more, the involvement of all the operators in this system means that the ball is cleared only for it to be returned.
So, thus begins a frenetic period whereby Norwich don’t possess a defensive shape and aren’t responding to the ball, but rather are attempting to vacate their penalty area and eliminate the space they’ve initially defended with success.
And all of this happens in a heartbeat.
The zones don’t allow for direct man marking, so those operators on the edge of the area are usually left unmarked. When the ball is cleared to them, they put it into the areas of space left by City’s system. Aerially, zonal marking is dominant in theory, but on the floor it is less so.
Second phases require Norwich to be sharper and more aware.
Collectively breathing a sigh of relief when the ball is cleared isn’t a positive response and while the ball is live, their job is complete the task.
Derby’s goals were an illustration of how second phases are notoriously difficult to respond to from set pieces generally, be it man-marking or zonal marking.
Proxemics are critical, and if the opposition manage to create a deflected scenario off a defender in the first row, then the second row, usually responsible for blocking attacking runs and usually offensive operators, relax and that’s when space becomes available.
A lot of it hinges on confidence as well. If you’ve conceded from a set play previously, then in your next game, more pressure is placed on your shoulders to ensure that doesn’t happen again. It creates uncertainty about completing your duty because the mind become clouded with self-doubt, even subconsciously.
Overloading that middle phase from the second phase is where sides are having success against us.
Daniel Farke won’t elect to opt out of zonal marking though; as with all his philosophical methods, they won’t be averted because they aren’t bringing success, but will be coached and tweaked with more intensity in order to perfect them.
Positively, they are conceding goals that are coachable and preventable.
Despite the effectiveness of Brentford’s offensive movement on New Year’s Day, they only scored through a set piece (albeit if Norwich relied on expert goalkeeping to prevent them from doing so). Eradicate the mistakes and clean up the routine, coupled with ensuring a consistent centre-back partnership and this will aide City and their work from set pieces.
Resorting to man-marking would involve a switch in coaching focus – no doubt something Farke won’t want to deploy.
As soon as you’re responsive to what you’re witnessing on the pitch, you lose what your core beliefs and that can mark the downfall of your management style – e.g. Alex Neil. Once you lose your method of work, that can become inherently visible in results on the pitch.
Football should be about proactivity but with that needs to be an element of pragmatism.
Since City are adopting a new way of working that involves a core of continental talent, then it’s logical to ensure they adopt continental methods. Farke is an adept coach, and he’ll know how to ensure this method is perfected in as little time as possible.