Sunderland set piece woes have been the prime catalyst for our poor start to the new campaign. Had we defended these with any real organisation or composure, we would theoretically have at least four points on the board. So where exactly has this huge defensive shortfall stemmed from?
Well, one person we certainly can’t blame is Martin O’Neill. In fact, one of the few positives you can take from his reign is the effective way we dealt with set pieces. Let me start with a few facts, despite conceding the second most corners last year at a whopping 254 – we only conceded 5 goals, this was only bettered by four teams. Only three of those goals conceded were under O’Neill, with a very impressive goals conceded from corners to corners conceded percentage of 1.56%. Under Paolo Di Canio, albeit just ten games into his tenure, we have conceded four goals from corners already with the percentage as high as 5.4%. Is this just a bit of bad luck? No.
The fundamental change that Di Canio has imposed at Sunderland for defending set plays is a man marking system, whilst O’Neill’s preferred tactic was zonal marking. You hear a lot of ‘experts’ on the telly and elsewhere describe their sheer hatred of zonal marking at set plays, commencing to attack its reputation with every goal conceded whilst enforced. Zonal marking may look a little silly when it goes wrong, but the fact of the matter is, for us anyway, zonal marking was very effective.
I think it is worth pointing out that I do not necessarily claim to prefer zonal to man marking, because I firmly believe that both tactics can be successful – if deployed correctly with the right kind of personnel. I do think, however, that zonal marking is the safest option for the majority of teams – and certainly for us.
Man marking from set pieces is very much a game of cat and mouse. Can the attacker get the better of the defender? Can the defender marshal the attacker efficiently to prevent them from getting to the ball first or, at the very least, make any chance very difficult? Man marking can put the defender at an immediate disadvantage due to his focus being divided between ball and man, leaving him susceptible to a deceiving run or misjudging the flight of the ball. If the defender also allows his man to get a run on him, it becomes almost impossible to rectify, with the defender getting no help from those around him due to their duties. Then its a case of shut your eyes and hope the ball does not arrive on the nut of your man. Quick, bigger and more physical sides like Chelsea love to be man marked because of the vast array of attacking options they have in those situations.
Going to back to Fulham’s goal on the opening day of the season, Valentin Roberge was completely dumfounded by Pajtim Kasami. Kasami did not actually do an awful lot, however Roberge was so intent on getting in front of his man, he completely ignored the flight of the ball. This allowed Kasami to take complete control of the situation, forcing Roberge too far in front of the ball flight leaving the defender no chance and giving Kasami a free header around the six yard box. Referring to Southampton’s equaliser, John O’Shea was too slow to react to both the free kick being taken and more importantly Jose Fonte’s run. As Fonte had a clear run on O’Shea, it was always going to be him to win the header – and it was a good header indeed. Daniel Gabbidon’s goal for Crystal Palace – Jack Colback was more interested in a wrestling match with him that when he had the chance to clear it, he had not followed the flight of the ball and missed it. All really poor pieces of defending and all should have been avoided.
Would zonal marking have prevented these goals from happening? Probably. If we had successfully deployed zonal marking in the same way O’Neill had set out, Roberge’s focus would purely have been on the ball, giving him an easier job to judge the flight and attack the header. This also goes the same way for O’Shea, without him having to pay attention to two aspects of what is going on, zonal would have given him the freedom to concentrate on the ball flight, giving him a better chance of competing for the ball. Colback would not have been brawling with Gabbidon and instead would have attacked the ball – dealt with.
That is not to say the goals would not have happened, however the defenders would have been in a much better position to give the attacker a much harder task to score. It would also potentially allow another teammate to get involved, making it even more difficult for the attackers to score. Zonal marking, if deployed correctly, should eradicate soft set piece goals and require an excellent cross and header to beat it.
Quite famously, zonal marking is most certainly not always deployed correctly. The best case in point would be our goal against Southampton. The Saints defence were attracted to the ball like flies around you-know-what and got in each other’s way - meaning none of them were able to make connection with the ball leaving the smallest man on the pitch, Emanuele Giaccherini, a free header.
For zonal marking to work, players must be very aware of their jobs and their zones which only comes from hard work on the training pitch. Zonal marking cannot just be thrown into the mix and all of the players must buy into it. It is very much a team approach, rather than 'you're on your own' man marking approach. O’Neill very clearly had us practicing a lot of defensive set plays and we were rather astute in that respect. We also had nine or ten players in the box mind – which helped of course!
To allow man marking to work, especially in the Premier League, you need very proactive and sharp defenders who communicate effectively between each other. The rapid improvement of attacker physicality in modern football has meant the main threat in set pieces can no longer be solely attributed to the archetype massive centre back lumbering up the field. For a defender, you do not necessarily need to be stronger than your man, but you must not be out foxed by him and need to be able to juggle that ability whilst concentrating on the ball flight. None of our defenders fit the bill for me as a man marking centre back – except maybe Modibo Diakite who seems to be excellent in defensive set plays. O’Shea seems to have too many lapses in concentration and Roberge looks to have little experience of man marking.
As long as we continue deploying man marking, with the players at our disposal, I’ll be wincing at every corner and crossing opportunity from a free kick. Then again, I would be sceptical at how organised a Di Canio zonal marking system would be, so maybe I’ll just wince regardless.