Tactics: What to know about Man-marking & Zonal-marking

Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “Attack wins you matches while defence wins you titles.” You agree with him or not, defence is as essential for any football game as the attacking play. Defensive strategies include a marking system to prevent an opponent from creating a threat. Man-marking and Zonal-marking represent the two marking systems applied in football, depending on the team’s formation, structure, and philosophy. As follows, we will analyze the man-marking and zonal-marking systems’ applications and their variants.

What is Man-marking ?

Man-marking is a tactical term describing a defensive strategy in which each player sticks to an opposition player on the pitch. Defenders, most often, act as a shadow for the assigned opposition player. This system was mainly used in the early stages of football and was dominant between the 1920s and 1950s. Nowadays, with football evolving towards more open and attacking play, some teams abandoned such tactics to zonal-marking. However, some coaches persist in man-marking as Marcelo Bielsa and some Italian coaches in Serie A.

man marking

A tight man-marking system can be annoying for the opposition to face. Every player in the defending phase takes the opposition player as the reference to mark tightly, track, close down.

Although this tactic is easy to work with and apply in training and matches, it can put the team in danger against highly technical and fast squads. Defenders create spaces when they follow the target player. Some players benefit from such tactics to create channels by dispersing the defensive line with tricky and threatening moves. If the marking defender did not follow his target, a free man is left behind. Therefore man-marking is a double-sworded tactic that can break up teams against good positional plays and moves from the opposition.

Man-marking different systems

  • Flexible man-marking:

Deficiencies in this tactic delivered a flexible man-marking system. If an opposition player moved a lot, another defender handles him. This means it is harder to drag defenders and cause chaos in the defensive line. For example, if a winger cuts inside, the full-back leaves him to the central defender to prevent opening a space on the wing.

  • Space orientated man-marking:

It’s an extension of flexible man-marking, where each defender is responsible for a zone of a pitch. The defender is responsible to handle any opposition player entering his zone. This can be presented in midfield as each player marks an opposing player in the same area.

  • Counter a specific threat:

it is simply marking the opponent’s main threat. Often, the marked player is the playmaker who tends to create spaces and pass into channels. A specific player tracks the playmaker to stop his influence on the game even in a zonal-marking system. Pablo Maffeo performed such a role against Lionel Messi when he was on loan at Girona. He did a neat job against Messi, who hailed him as one of the tough opponents he faced.

What is Zonal-marking ?

Zonal-marking is a development for defending systems presented in the 1950s, especially in Fluminense. As football evolved, space became a principle in the game. Teams started seeing the pitch as zones to cover, and every player is responsible for his own. When an opposition player enters the zone, the defender marks him instantly. Narrowing spaces, blocking, and pressing the opponent are the target of this tactic.

Arrigo Sacchi identified four reference points that decide how the team player must orientate through the match. Position-oriented and man-oriented are the most notable models of zonal-marking.

  • Positon-orientated:

It is mainly applied when defending as a block and pressing the opponent. The whole team moves vertically and laterally to narrow spaces and obtain the ball. Teams using this strategy tend to control space and prevent any attacking options for the opponent.

  • Man-orientated:
zonal marking man orientated

It is not the opposite of position-orientated. In position-orientated, the zone is the reference, while in man-orientated the man with the ball. The defending team adjusts position depending on that man and keeps a certain distance from him.


Teams today tend to use zonal-marking to easily adapt and better control spaces. This strategy guarantees players are continuously within the right position and supports open play.
A tight and compact man-marking structure can be extremely difficult to confront, particularly if not have the skills and technique to manipulate them. These days teams have learned to employ a man-marking system against them to create space, that’s why these strategies are now largely used in set pieces.

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