Has Man-Marking Lost Its Effect?

All defensive schemes have to be organized in both a zonal and man-marking sense: but football’s development in flexibility threatens one of these techniques. In an environment of deep buildups, rotations and third-man runs, is the art of the man mark losing its effectiveness?

Written by Joel Parker.

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Zonal versus man-marking is football’s eternal tussle. A century has passed, and even though more tactical terms have been defined, more styles have been meshed and the game itself has drastically changed, the general footballing public still refers to zonal or man-to-man.

To pigeonhole an entire defensive scheme into two categories is outdated within football’s complexities: Bayern München Under-19 Head Coach and former Spielverlagerung writer, René Marić, took this a step further: “Man marking and zonal marking shouldn’t/don’t actually exist. They were metaphors that became concepts.”

This is an understandable premise: on the ball, there are many different variables at play which affect the movement or angle of the game. Who exactly is on the ball? What position in the field are you in? Who is in proximity at any given moment? 

How you counteract this also draws many variables but off-ball actions demand one question to be answered – how can your team win the ball back as safely as possible? Over time, defensive techniques have blended and drastically grown: especially in regards to pressing. Within this area, you will find teams that set their defensive positions high up the field, more man-orientated than other schemes, and their strict man-to-man structure will continue further towards their own goal. This is who we will be focusing on.

During lockdown football, several teams in Europe’s top competitions were using man-orientated structures to punch well above their weights to compete in the league. Gian Piero Gasperini had Atalanta competing in European competition consistently and achieved three third-placed finishes in Serie A. Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa, who perhaps had the most aggressive form of the man-marking system, finished in ninth spot, a year after promotion from the Championship and with a squad value less than the Fulham team that was relegated that season. In La Liga, a couple of seasons earlier, SD Eibar was also achieving well above the odds with two mid-table finishes and with an aggressive man-orientated system. 

Fast forward to now and the trajectories of these teams have changed dramatically. Leeds and Eibar are now back in the second division, whilst Atalanta had missed out on European football for the first time in six years. Although Serie A is still a league that deploys a lot of man-for-man defensive schemes, it is not the league of Catenaccio that it once was. With these factors in mind, have man-for-man systems lost their effectiveness in modern football? 

Buildups become more flexible

It is no wonder that Serie A’s obsession with man orientation has led to Italian coaches being at the forefront of developing solutions against it. This has led to the development of expansive buildup units, building from deep and setting up transitions to attack the defensive line at pace. With heavy rotation, man-orientated systems become stretched and passing options can soon find separation from those on their heels or defensive schemes face a problem that they were ill-prepared for. 

We can organize these forms of rotation in three different ways. The first comes from a player moving out of the defensive line and taking up a more narrow/central position. With this rotation, two-versus-one scenarios can become more accessible, with two options in proximity to one another. Thiago Motta’s Bologna is a good example of this: within his 4-3-3 system, a center-back situationally moves ahead of his partner to take up zones in the pivot space. This disrupts the opposing team’s press as the striker has to either try to use his cover shadow to block a route or track the center-back deeper into his block. Bologna is good at working positions where the right-back moves towards the edge of his box to create a lane, whilst the center-back has made an inside run to receive the ball facing the play.

Center-back rotation from Bologna, from their 1-0 win over Atalanta. Atalanta’s wing-backs try to suppress space by pressing inwards, but the two Bologna fullbacks step into their box to connect. Charles De Ketelaere is unable to engage as center-back, Sam Beukema, has moved out of his position and into the space created through their midfield position. Also take note of Riccardo Calafiori’s position, the other center-back had already stepped up to drag Ademola Lookman inside of his block.

As a result, Bologna is able to utilize third-man runs to progress. Man-marking schemes, that try to perform a high press, struggle against this because the constant movement around the pivot space means that multiple markers are bunched into one area of the field. Teams that press Bologna find their center-midfielders overcommitted into this space and the protection of their center-backs is lost. 

The next rotation comes from filtering out the center of the field. Expanding your defensive line as wide as possible encourages more movement in the middle of the field, something that can drag markers away and pull the defensive shape apart. Integrate a goalkeeper, able to play as part of the circulation and can dink the ball into attackers, then you are always working with an overload. 

Internazionale have set up a system that is very consistent in dragging man markers away. Playing in a back three comes with very different positional arrangements between buildup phases but Inter can switch to a flat four with a wing-back dropping deep and a center-back pushing wider – usually Alessandro Bastoni. This makes them a difficult team to engage with high up the field because a lateral option is accessible, whilst a variety of movements can be made to open up space between the lines.  Hakan Çalhanoğlu can drop towards the defense to build overloads, whilst Nicolò Barella and Lautaro Martínez can move into different lines for Inter to work off the third man. 

Combination from Inter to create two-versus-one, as Fiorentina attempted a man-orientated press. With Kristjan Asllani closer to the center-backs, and Davide Fratessi closer to the attack, Inter filtered out the  center of the field to create space to rotate into. Henrik Mkhitaryan moved towards the touchline and Carlos Augusto followed his pass on the inside.

Leeds’ kryptonite under Bielsa came in the form of a center-back of the opponent carrying the ball into the midfield. His team operated with a strict defensive rule: the first line of pressure would work with one player taken out of it and the extra player would be positioned in the defensive line, to double up on a dangerous opponent. 

The problem that this scheme faced was that it did not take into account that the center-back could move the ball through the lines himself, which led to their structure unraveling as one player higher up the block was forced to engage with the ball carrier and leave his target free.

Buildup structures established by the likes of Thiago Motta, Simone Inzaghi and Roberto de Zerbi are perfect systems when they are faced with man-orientated high presses. Once the bait is taken, the circuit can be executed: refuse to take the bait and both these predetermined patterns can face play. Passivity can solve these problems and here lies the problem with man-orientated high presses – there has to be a form of organized aggression because you have already sacrificed your defensive shape to the cause. As distances are already close between players, it encourages the defensive scheme to be more aggressive.

To mirror the opponent’s buildup shape, center-midfielders are often committed high up the field, whilst your defenders are on the halfway line. That creates a lot of space for not just the ball to be played into, but also for the speed of the attack to increase. Reshaping is pivotal in remaining compact, and in the climate of flexible buildups that football has moved towards, it becomes more and more difficult if you plan on following your opposition. 

What does this do to man-marking? 

More expansive buildups and rotations within those systems mean that you are covering a lot more ground if you aim to follow your opponents around. In Serie A, this has caused behavioural changes in the pressing intensity, now that the goalkeeper can partake within the circuit. Defensive schemes will remain high and man-orientated but do not directly engage with the goalkeeper, leading to the game state becoming static. These freezes within the match do not help the team off the ball: firstly the goalkeeper can move the ball out of the box without engagement, which forces your defensive block lower before the team in possession finds separation within their movements. 

Game state freezes are an effective way of baiting defensive blocks to react. The integration of a goalkeeper means that buildups can always have an overload on the first line of pressure. Once again, Inter is a great example through Yann Sommer, but we have seen such events take place in the Premier League. Burnley approached Manchester City with a man-orientated system, that did not engage with Ederson and was exposed by City being able to connect through long passes, with receivers underneath the target. 

The game state freezes between Burnley and Man City. As Burnley remained man-marking, Ederson was able to take the ball out, until he was between the center-backs. Burnley’s defensive shape dropped as a result and it gave Man City time to trigger a combination and create a two-versus-one on Vitinho at left-back.

A team that tries to use this phase to their advantage is Bournemouth. Their high press under Andoni Iraola aims to be much more flexible within their man marking, with multiple targets for each receiver and leaving an option free to trigger the movements. Their schemes have become more effective as the season has continued, but it hasn’t been without some fine-tuning. Opponents were successful in doubling up on the far side of Bournemouth’s man-to-man press when they attempted to shut them down in the corner. 

Ultimately, the involvement of the goalkeeper can nullify high blocks to a great extent because there will always be a spare man. With this in mind, it’s not uncommon to see teams with these defensive schemes try again, closer to the halfway line when integrating the goalkeeper is not as easy. However, man marking in a more passive or deeper area draws its problems.

Problems for Bournemouth have occurred when teams discovered that they could manipulate their press diagonally. Gary O’Neil highlighted this earlier in the season after his Wolverhampton Wanderers team faced them. From the left, Boubacar Traoré received to drag Philip Billing, Lewis Cook was forced to step up onto the spare center-midfielder and this enabled one of the forwards to take up a position behind him.

Wolves’ four-versus-three overload created against Bournemouth, which led to their equalizer. This left Alex Scott with a problem as he was tasked with pressing Tom Doyle, but had Neto free behind him. If Marcus Tavernier were to step inwards, then Max Kilman would be free to circulate. Scott hesitated and the lane was left open for Doyle to connect with Neto.

Eddie Howe attempted damage limitation earlier in the season, as a squad full of injuries and suspensions saw a tactical switch, out of their 4-3-3 high press and into a 4-5-1 medium block. Howe attempted to keep their intensity on a reduced scale with their midfield man marking opposition buildups: which involved Bruno Guimarães stepping out of the pivot spot to occupy his opposite number. The result of this was not only Newcastle’s midfield being bunched and not protecting the defensive line, but it also conceded the semi-transitional chances that elite attacks thrive upon. 

Buildup to Tottenham’s first goal against Newcastle. Newcastle’s man orientation in midfield led to gaps for Dejan Kulusevski to laterally connect. Lewis Miley tried to block the direct lane to Kulusevski, whilst Guimarães was on Yves Bissouma and Joelinton followed Pape Matar Sarr towards the Spurs center-backs.

Against Tottenham Hotspur, they conceded 4.27 xG, against Liverpool, they conceded 6.55 xG. In both of these games, it was easy for the opposition to formulate waved attacks against a retreating Newcastle defensive line. In the first phase of Liverpool’s buildup, Joelinton would follow Trent Alexander-Arnold as he manoeuvred in narrow spaces, which left a lot of space for Ibrahima Konaté to move wider and split the lines. 

Teams that use strict marking techniques run a risk of altering their defensive shape and conceding faster attacks as a result. With more players committed to a deeper buildup, it encourages the center-midfielders to step up and follow potential receivers. This leads to the opposition’s creative attackers dropping into vertical space and having the space to turn. The elites’ obsession with the box midfield leads to two eights being in these kinds of areas, and man-marking suffers from transitional moves.

Problems can leak into their own half

Progress being made past the midfield line forces the defensive line to react. We are already accustomed to fullbacks stepping out of a back four to engage, but a lot of Serie A defenses remain in a back five, and this encourages both a center-back and wing-back to step out further. The problem that this causes is that a striker pinning another defender back leads to a lot of space opening behind those that are pressing, for a third man to run into.

The left side of Juve’s defensive line stepped up on Inter’s buildup, but this created a lot of space behind them and Çalhanoğlu was left as the free man in possession. Barella made the third man run to connect in behind, left onside by the far side of the defensive line not stepping up.

Juventus under Massimiliano Allegri are known for their heavily compact defenses, but in search of a goal, you will see them move into a more man-orientated arrangement to engage closer with the ball. Such space behind the pressers, out of the defensive line, gives room for a third-man runner to move into. Inter connected with these moments by moving one of the strikers deeper, lateral access would be open to Çalhanoğlu, who is facing play, and a sprinting midfielder who moves in behind the wing-back. 

These distanced defensive lines are not an uncommon occurrence for Serie A teams to move into. José Mourinho’s Roma were exploited in similar manners when they were arranged in a medium block. Players in the deeper part of the buildup were able to follow their outside passes by making an inside movement, as Roma would often commit Bryan Cristante high up the field to maintain an asymmetric midfield line (or with two outside center-midfielders that press higher towards the channel.)

An inside run from Sead Kolašinac was able to exploit Roma’s midfield line, and left them with an overload against Roma’s vertical defensive line, with runners on the far side if needed.

Strict man marking/orientated systems are suffering from similar issues, between them in a high press and sitting in a deeper defensive block. Opponents can safely circulate the ball out wide, to make space in the center and that’s why so many third man, or runs from deep, can exploit such spaces. Creating overloads, or moving an attacker into a midfield area, can carve open space behind markers, and because central midfielders are committed to sticking to their opposite numbers, it can leave defenders unprotected. Deeper buildup units are designed to create counter-like attacks against a retreating last line, but they can also create the same attacks when man-marking is still the order in a deeper block. 


Man-orientation, in various states, will always be intact in football. Players can still man-mark targets out of games, or establish themselves high up the field against less dynamic buildups. Defensive structures can always utilize a man close to the opposition, but the best schemes use elements of both man-to-man and zonal techniques, to work opponents into pressing traps.

Teams that attempt to lean more towards man orientation across the pitch are running a huge risk off the ball. More dynamic and flexible buildups are not only disabling their effectiveness but also getting their most creative players in dangerous areas. 

Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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