Reda Maher

Arsenal and Palace goals challenge the myth about marking

Reda Maher

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Laurent Koscielny escapes Brede Hangeland to score (AFP)

When Brede Hangeland gave Crystal Palace a shock lead at Arsenal on the opening day of the Premier League season, Manchester United defender turned TV pundit Gary Neville was quick to blame ‘zonal marking’ for Laurent Koscielny’s failure to track the former Fulham stopper in the build-up to the goal.

Using the perceived wisdom that zonal marking is a weaker form of defence than old-school man-to-man, Neville claimed that the system was at fault.

His theory was quickly undone when, late in the first half, Koscielny headed Arsenal level; appropriately enough, Hangeland was at fault, standing statuesque as the France defender stole in to nod home.

It was a form of poetic justice that Hangeland had failed in his role as a man-to-man marker for that set piece.

British pundits are fond of the clichés surrounding this fancy continental form of defending corners and indirect free-kicks; it is new(ish), and sometimes it fails, so it is wrong.

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Hangeland celebrates putting Crystal Palace ahead at Arsenal (AFP)

But zonal marking is equally effective as man marking – it’s just different, covering the allocated space, not the ball.

Marking in all its forms requires excellent concentration, but different executions.

Zonal marking is more about positioning and discipline to stay within the pre-determined area; man marking focuses on anticipation and reactions to track the opponent. The former allows defenders to keep track of the ball – which in its modern form follows different trajectories to the previous, heavier incarnations; the latter ensures that, whatever happens to the ball, there is someone to challenge a potential attacking opponent.

Koscielny allowed himself to be distracted by the melee in the box; so did Hangeland. As a result, both were left wanting in their defensive duties.

You would think that such a quick retort to Neville’s complaints would put the argument to bed once and for all. But humans can be slaves to tradition, unwavering from prior knowledge – so don’t count on the former England man backtracking at any point soon.

By Reda Maher - on Twitter @Reda_Maher_LDN

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