Veljko Paunovic’s Chicago Fire use zonal marking on corner kicks, which is often derided by fans as ineffective. It almost came back to bite the Fire against the Montreal Impact before Bastian Schweinsteiger scored a late winner, so I think now is a good time to look at the pros and cons of the Fire using this system.
The main “benefit” of zonal marking is probably the phrase you will hear every time there is a discussion on it: it allows you to “attack the ball instead of reacting to the opponent”. In theory it makes a ton of sense–every player knows exactly what they are supposed to do, so in a high pressure situation they are doing something they they’ve drilled over and over again. In practice it gets messier–the reality is that you have to react to your opponents, because they will get in your way if you don’t.
Another pro is that zonal marking can set the team up for an effective counter attack. With zonal marking every player knows where everyone is going to be and the team can script movement and runs when on a break. Attackers like Przemysław Frankowski and Djordje Mihailovic are always in the front line of the zone. If they see an opportunity to counter they are both in great positions to do so and lead the break. This is smart, but I don’t think it outweighs the negatives of the system.
The biggest negative, and the main reason why many are against a zonal marking system, is that the attacking team gets a running leap and the defending team is mostly static. Just the jumping difference alone should be enough to shy away from zonal marking. Then add on the additional force that comes from a running start, both in putting force on the header and maintaining balance in the air. All of those make it much harder on defenders.
Having a zonal marking system means that opponents can look for weak spots in their weekly game preparations. Things like lateral runs are killer against zonal marking. It’s actually what happened in the goal that Bacary Sagna scored on Saturday. He starts behind Francisco Calvo and pops up for an unchallenged header before Calvo can do anything about it.
In Mick Maley’s “What We Learned” story on Monday, he brought up another negative. What happens when there is a short corner? The short answer is chaos. The long answer is this:
When the ball goes short to Corrales, the Fire defenders are caught in no man’s land: they get stretched and the pockets in the zone open up slightly because now they don’t know where to shift and can’t step as a group, they have no idea where the runners are coming from because now they are focused on the change of angle for the cross coming, and late runs into the area are incredibly difficult when you are just marking space.
Sagna hit every single one of the negatives of zonal marking, and that’s why he scored. He got a running start, so his leap was higher than the static jump from Calvo. His running start gave him more force to put behind the ball. His running start gave him the better balance in the air, so he knocked Calvo over very easily. Finally, he took advantage of the scramble of the short corner and made a lateral run into the space that opened between Calvo and Sapong.
There are way too many things to exploit and not enough benefits to keep zonal marking on corners as a viable strategy for the Fire.