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Friday, April 10, 2009

Media Myths: Andy Gray, Rafael Benitez, and Liverpool's Zonal Marking

Original article
by Jamie Ward (Columnist) 592 readsStatsApril 09, 2009

Media myths is back and this time around we will be combating the accusations made by "expert" pundits and supporters about zonal marking and why we believe Rafa should not stop using it—despite the ideology that it is not working.

After a disappointing result at home to Chelsea in the Champions League, it is no surprise to see the Liverpool forum boards filled with complaints about the zonal set-piece system that Benitez has championed since he joined the club in 2004.

Last night the Liverpool players conceded two goals from two corners against a dominant Chelsea team—which has given The Reds a very difficult trip to Stamford Bridge if they hope to proceed in the competition—and unsurprisingly the papers and sports-news channels are now filled with the recycled zonal marking debate.

What is also not surprising is this subject for debate appears just a couple of times a season and is not a constant source of discussion every week. It is probably because this "problem" with zonal marking is not actually a problem and the system has ensured Liverpool have had a fantastic defensive record over the last four seasons.

This zonal marking frenzy is not a new situation as it has been common place ever since Benitez took charge of Liverpool.

His first season in charge would no doubt bring with it problems in terms of conceding goals. The Spaniard had to get a group of players to change their ethos on defending set-pieces and get them playing to his system as quickly as possible. Despite this, match commentators routinely attacked the system as players struggled to adapt in the first few weeks and this led to the team letting in 41 goals in 38 matches.

Of course this was all because of the zonal marking system Rafa was stubbornly forcing on to his players. That is what the media "experts" would have you believe anyway.

What this statistic doesn't tell us is that from those 41 goals only four came from set-pieces all season. Rafa's players had 137 corners to defend and conceded just twice, with only two goals being scored against them from free-kicks.

After spending a season working with the new system, Benitez managed to get the players performing close to the way he had envisioned with a worthy tally of just 25 goals conceded in 38 games—his lowest amount in the league to date.

This came against the initial tide of media speculation that the new zonal system was ridiculous and would never work, and if Rafa persisted with it his time at the club would be a short one. However, Rafa has gone on to record the club's lowest goals-conceded tally in the league since 1984, and his three previous seasons of 28, 27, and 25 are Liverpool's three lowest records since 1989.

Not bad for a system that experts would have you believe is riddled with flaws.

What is amazing—and greatly hypocritical—is the amount of goals that are conceded every single week of every single season from the man-to-man marking system. But how many "experts" and supporters are heatedly debating that system and it's many fallacies?


Propaganda: "is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognition's, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the person providing the information."

Famous Liverpool propagandist, Andy Gray claims in his recent article; "Much has been made of Liverpool's defensive strategy and let me say now I'm not a fan of zonal marking and never have been. I guarantee that a running jump will beat a standing jump at any level of football at any time."

I would like to challenge this claim that Andy Gray guarantees a running-jump will beat a standing jump at any time. I could be incredibly pedantic and state that a static Peter Crouch (6'7") could probably beat Aaron Lennon (5'5") running to meet a header eight times out of ten. But surely I wont have to go that far to prove that a running jump does not beat a standing jump every time.


The First Goal

Andy Gray goes on to claim: "I'm not saying it's a shocking system, but it is flawed and that makes it very difficult to blame people who are marking space."

With Andy claiming it is the system that is flawed and that the players can't be blamed, he is just creating a very subtle straw man fallacy in order to lay the blame at the door of Rafael Benitez for choosing the flawed system—when in fact it is down to the players not doing their jobs properly.

The first goal was conceded because Ivanovic lost his man-marker—that's right, man-marker—Xabi Alonso, who tracked his run inside the box but lost him due to some intelligent maneuvering from the Chelsea defender. With blocking-off and dummy runs, this is something that happens in the man-marking system pretty much every time.

Another contributing factor for the first goal was the positioning of Albert Reira who mistimed the flight of the ball and the area it would land as he took three or four steps to meet it. Despite being just a foot in front of Ivanovic when the Chelsea man headed the ball, the Spanish winger could still not manage to clear the corner as he lept from a running jump.

Not a standing jump.

But the most interesting point, and probably the most important in terms of blaming zonal marking for the goal, would be that despite Ivanovic's run in to the box; when he met the ball he was actually standing still, and the momentum of his run in to the box had absolutely no bearing on the pace of the header.

Ivanovic could have been standing in that exact position from the very beginning and the Liverpool players would still not have cleared the corner. Simply because it was the players at fault and not the zonal marking system.

Andy Gray rightly states the system is not shocking but has its flaws. So because it is not a system that guarantees 100 percent of the time no-one will score from set-pieces; does that make it a subject that is worth criticism every time a goal is actually conceded?

And it seems only when it is Liverpool who conceded that goal?

The man-to-man system is flawed and teams who utilise that type of marking system routinely let-in goals every single week on more than one occasion. Where are Andy Grays criticism's of that system? Where are his debates and statistics complaining about a system that is actually more flawed than zonal marking?


The Second Goal

If we look at the second goal Liverpool conceded "due to the zonal marking system," we can see a repeat of the first goal. The keeper does not come to claim a cross that is flighted on to his six-yard line, Steven Gerrard mistimes his reading of where the ball will land in order to clear, and Ivanovic does not meet the ball with great speed from a running position when he scores.

During the game Andy Gray—after highlighting zonal marking as being the reason for a second goal being conceded—claims that the cross clears "five" Liverpool players without them being able to clear the corner. I am sorry but four of those five players would have had to be something like 12 foot tall or bigger if they had any realistic chance of getting near that cross.

The only person with any chance to clear the ball was Steven Gerrard who was a couple of feet in front of Ivanovic. As we know, he failed. Steven Gerrard was also man-marking Ivanovic before the corner was taken but once again intelligent running from the Chelsea man—which are just as prolific in the man marking system—created space as he lost his marker.

So that is two goals that was not actually down to a system that is apparently so flawed that it should be abandoned at all costs. I am surprised "experts" have not tried to make out Chelsea's third goal was down to zonal marking as well.

Once again people are ignoring the glaringly obvious that when the system works—and the system works a great deal week in week out without any mention during its success—it is not a problem. When players fail the system and don't do their job properly, it is the players who are at fault and not the system. When  players make mistakes during man-to-man marking, the system is not ridiculed or debated furiously the next day.

Andy finishes with this little gem: "They could easily go man-to-man if Rafael Benitez wanted but he chooses to go zonal."

Would that be because Rafael Benitez has spent quite some time studying under some of the best managers in the world and actually worked as a football manager for a few years, Andy?

And could it be that the system does actually work?

When a defender goes to tackle a player who has the ball, he sometimes ends up fouling that player and giving away a penalty. Should we just eradicate tackling all together because the idea of tackling has some flaws to it?

Or maybe we should just accept that sometimes in football players get it wrong and not everything is 100 percent guaranteed—apart from Andy Grays theory about a running jump beats a standing jump every time.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009