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September 16, 2016

Talking Tactics: Is zonal marking the remedy for Union dead ball woes?

Soccer Union
091616_UNION_psp Daniel Gajdamowicz/ Philly Soccer Page

Set piece defense has been one of the few Union weaknesses in 2016.

Set pieces are a blender of clutching, grabbing, pushing, pulling, picking and diving.

And the Union suck at it.

The problem is that Jim Curtin's relatively young squad is made up of honest and courteous guys. That's great for post-game quotes, but not for winning nasty, physical battles.

Dead balls require a degree of cynicism and churlish simplicity. You need to pull an arm or a shirt or fight through a screen. You need to want it more than the other guy, and you can't worry about the referee. He can't keep track of 18 players at once.

We talked about the Union's corner kick defense in our player ratings from last week's 1-1 draw with Montreal.

As a starting point, take a look at how the Union were deployed on the game-tying corner kick.

This is pretty standard, and it's mostly well designed.

Most teams will place their fullbacks on the posts. In this case, the Union use Fabinho on the near post and defensive midfielder Warren Creavalle on the far post.

Tranquillo Barnetta is a floater at the near post, where he can clear any service that drops in front of the mixer. C.J. Sapong is pulled back to help as well, which might not be the case if this was not a late game situation. Most teams will leave a forward near midfield to provide an outlet following clearance. In this case, Philly has 10 guys in the box and Montreal puts seven inside the area, plus a pair of midfielders (Piatti and Bernardello) on the edge of the box. The only player who is not involved in this set piece is Montreal goalkeeper Eric Kronberg.

The rest of the Union squad is man-marking, and these are the matchups:

  1. Keegan Rosenberry on Laurent Ciman
  2. Ilsinho on Dominic Oduro
  3. Richie Marquez on Didier Drogba
  4. Josh Yaro on Matteo Mancosu
  5. Alejandro Bedoya on Ambroise Oyongo
  6. Roland Alberg on Donny Toia
  7. C.J. Sapong on Hassoun Camara

That looks pretty good to me. I think Creavalle might be better inside the mixer, but that's sort of splitting hairs at this point. Most coaches will assign players to the posts before a game. Sometimes they'll even explain explicit marks, such as having your taller center backs specifically match up with the most dangerous attackers. In this case, they have Marquez on Drogba and Sapong on Camara, which makes a lot of sense.

As the play unfolds, Josh Yaro leaves his mark, Mancosu, who slips to the back post and equalizes.

We've seen that before, and we've also seen instances of Union center backs getting picked and grabbed and failing to fight through it.

You might remember this one from early in the season when Marquez is "screened" in Columbus.

I put quotes around "screened" because there really wasn't too much going on in this play. Marquez starts a few feet off of Kei Kamara, and Columbus just runs a simple "X" stunt, almost like you'd see in the National Football League. It's just a simple criss-cross, something that you'd see from Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan, for example, that attempts to confuse offensive lineman and mix-up assignments on the fly.

Here's another freeze-frame of the Union defensive setup:

Even early in the year, it's mostly the same, right?

You've got a defensive midfielder and a fullback on the posts. Sebastien Le Toux is in Barnetta's role as the floater. The rest of the team is matched up 1v1, though the marking is very loose. It's a 6v6 inside the mixer, but Sapong and Marquez are too far from their marks and Roland Alberg is on the wrong side of his man.

As the play develops, again, it's just that simple stunt from Tony Tchani and Kei Kamara. Marquez is taken out of the play and Sapong attempts to pick up Kamara.

No dice.

So what's the solution?

For starters, you can keep this design and just ask the team to play tighter while holding marks. No duh, right? Well, it's not necessarily a deployment problem; these are mistakes being made by younger players who don't have the veteran savvy to bend the rules on set pieces. It feels at times like they are afraid to grab and hold and make contact inside the box in fear of conceding a penalty kick.

If you want to try something different, you can move to zonal marking, which basically just uses players in free roles to attack the ball at various spots.

Here's a basic bit of zonal marking:

This is a Liverpool corner kick defense against Manchester United.

The first thing you notice is that there are no defenders on the posts. They instead deploy a line of three players zonally across the six-yard box with two floaters and the rest of the team man-marking (rather poorly, look at where Fellaini is).

The two players circled in blue are deployed to deal with a short corner routine. The line of three in the yellow box theoretically clears anything that comes into that area without having to physically follow a marker while tracking backward. The idea is that they can attack the ball and step into a clearance.

The danger of zonal marking, especially in this setup, is vacating the posts. It's also an issue if the service completely bypasses the zonal area and a loose mark gets a good look on the ball. The positive is that the three-man line is not in danger of being held, impeded, or screened. That's something the Union have had trouble with this season.

And here's another design, this one more of a hybrid look from Barcelona:

Barcelona, enjoying a 7-0 lead, also leaves both posts open. They instead put two floaters inside the six, with the central player responsible for the attacker next to the goalkeeper.

In this case, the opposing team is only going forward with five players, so there's not much threat to begin with. You can see that all four defenders in the mixer are physically touching their marks as the service comes in. That's excellent stuff from one of the best teams in the world.

Anyway, zonal marking may or may not be the answer for the Union. It would certainly be one hell of a switch to pull off this late in the season, but if Philly is going to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in five years, they'll need to patch up the dead ball defense.