Man marking in soccer is really a thing of the past. The days when exceptional players were assigned a man marker are essentially gone. It does happen in today, it’s a rare phenomenon in the world of soccer. You might see a team try to man mark someone like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but not too many other soccer players are "man marked" during a game. In soccer these days it's all now all about zonal marking.
However, man marking is still the crux of all defensive strategies in the game at its core. Man marking is the foundation of all defense in the game.
The old school job where one man shadows a soccer player throughout the game still happens, but as I said, this is increasingly rare. This old strategy is an assignment worthy of world football’s elite players of the past and the future: Robinho, Messi, Pele, Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Cristiano, and Maradona.
Again, in mondern soccer, the game is all about zonal defense, with man marking as the foundation. Players still must follow their man throughout the game, but they pass the player on to a teammate when it makes sense. If their player makes a run across the soccer field they will try to pass this player on rather than chase them across the pitch - it just doesn't make sense to follow the player to the other side of the field.
But again, if you can't man mark how can you play zonal defense or any defense at all? Yes, learning how to mark a player is crucial to playing any style of defense in soccer.
Soccer is a fluid game, players are moving all the time and changing directions in an instant, so you need help from your teammates and it doesn’t make sense to always man mark in the open field. Instead, you communicate with your teammates and cover for one another – pass players from one zone to the next.
Communication and cover comes in many forms on defense, it could even just be telling a teammate to steer a player inside or outside or letting players know there’s a man coming into their area. But the days of man marking exclusively are gone.
Usually, a soccer player still monitors the player opposite them, the right back defending the left-winger or the central midfielder matching up with the opposing central midfielder, but this is all up to a point. Players switch and move throughout the game, and thus defenses must make adjustments. If the wide midfielder is beat down the line then the player closest to the play will still move over to defend this space and the opposing team’s outside midfielder. The team must adjust and shift, leaving the player on the other side of the field who’s the least dangerous open.
In the end, soccer players must know how to man mark so they can play zonal defense, sounds like a contradiction. But again, the foundation of good defense is man marking.
The Keys to Great Defending:
Keep your eyes on your man and the ball
Keep the player in front of you
Don’t let the player turn when they receive the ball with the back towards goal
Close down fast when the ball is in the air
Funnel back towards the goal when chasing down a defender
Stay compact as a defensive unit with your teammates
Defend as a team - pressure the opponent when you have numbers
Don't dive in
Wait for support before you go to win the ball
In world soccer today it’s all about zonal defense, and passing players on when they move into new areas of the field. However, it’s not a casual passing on of players but an assured one. In other words, you don’t leave your man unless someone else has taken up that player – has their eyes on them and is now tracking the player.
Teammates have to let one and another know, communicate that it’s ok to let this player go or that player go, like a wide midfielder letting their marker run on down the line and the fullback behind them picking the player up. Each player is assigned a certain zonal area, which essentially makes up his or her positional area – and those players who come into that area are the players that they mark.
The biggest keys on defense are being goal side, steering the offensive player into areas where there’s cover and additional reinforcements, forcing the player to put their head down by putting some pressure on the ball, not diving in and being suckered in by feints or moves, and just generally keeping the player in front of you. There’s never a need to dive in or try to tackle right away unless you’re sure you can win the ball, and if you aren’t going to win the ball, you have to get a piece of the player to prevent them from advancing.
This is much like a professional foul – when an offensive player is impeded from moving on if they beat the defener or you’re caught diving in. Sometimes a professional foul is done by obstructing the player to the degree of blatantly stepping into their path, or with a hard tackle or pull of the shirt – all fouls that most likely result in a yellow card but could warrant a red card if that player is the last defender. If only Barcelona's Bartra had fouled Real Madrid's Gareth Bale when he ran around him. That was when Bartra should have fouled him, made sure he wasn't beat.
The one case where straight man marking is the rule is often on corner kicks or free kicks. In these dead ball situations teams will man mark exclusively and then have a few players who are zonal – players at the goal posts or a player in front of the goal at the six yard box might watch that zone while the other players are all man-markering opposing players.
The reason man marking is used on set plays is there’s less space to cover and if there is interchanging it is within a five or ten yard area - a darting run to the near post for example. Still, it’s a battle in the box on a corner kick or when there’s a free kick, players fight to be first to the ball and jockey for position. Often you’ll see player in wrestling like holds before the ball is kicked – all it takes is a yard or two for a player to beat another to the ball. I’ve even seen a team use a pick in the box and screen a player out of the play.
Zonal defense gives a team the ability to adapt and adjust more easily than a strict man marking system. It’s ok to leave the man your marking and cheat a little bit. Move into the middle to close down the space and leave your player out wide. You can do this because you have enough time to get back if a long ball is sent out wide. You’re reading the play and hedging your bets that you can get back in time to defend if they hit the long ball. You’re testing the player on the far side of the field to hit that perfect long ball as so few can do, like say David Beckham.
But man marking is the underlying foundation of soccer. Even though soccer is a fluid game, players have to be marked individually when they’re in your area and until they leave your area.
Fitness Drills Related to Man-Marking:
Only man marking. A good training exercise is to play a game where you can only defend the player you’re marking. You’ll find this is a great exercise to work on fitness and individual defending, because you’ll be chasing the player you’re marking all over the field rather than passing that player on or switching like you’d do in a real game. It is an exhaustive but useful drill.
Change the rules. When scrimmaging, teams can only score when their whole team is over the half line and double the points if the defending team doesn't get their entire team over the half line. For instance, say the attacking team counter attacks and is able to get their whole team over the half line, and the defending team has a few trailing defenders, then the goal counts double. Of course goalkeepers don't count in this exercise. This puts a little more fitness work into a regular scrimmage or small sided game.
Extra: Recently, Manchester United's Ander Herrera set out to to man-mark Chelsea's Eden Hazard throughout the game. Herrera was able to more or less shut down Hazard by often denying him the ball and not allowing him to create attacking chances for Chelsea. I wonder if we won't see more of this in the English Premier League, especially against creative attacking players like Hazard.
If one player is man-marking another, that means the rest of the team has to step up their play and get back on defense to cover for the player who's focus is man-marking another. It also just takes a toll on the player who's being man-marked, when another player is following you everywhere, you might start to second guess where to run or how to find space. In a way, that's the key directive for somone who's man-marking, get in the head of the player and make them change their game.