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01 November 2014

Review: "The Concept of Marking in a Man-to-Man and Zonal Defense" by Ciro Ferrara


Former Napoli, Juventus and Azzurri defender, Ciro Ferrara, discusses concepts about man-to-man and zonal marking for his UEFA Pro Masters Course license thesis at the Italian Federation.

"The biggest difficulty for a defender is therefore understanding when to MARK and when to COVER."

Discussion Items

1. Thesis Overview
2. Writing Style
3. Images and Graphics
4. My Ratings
5. Link to Italian Source Document


"The Concept of Marking in a Man-to-Man and Zonal Defense"
by Ciro Ferrara

Italian managers present a thesis to their colleagues and teachers at the Italian Federation (FIGC) site in Coverciano, Italy. This discussion finalizes a three-part training process that currently lasts over nine months according to the FIGC.

Ciro Ferrara was born and raised in Naples, Italy. He came up through the Napoli youth ranks, and later played for the senior side, when Italian football was at its zenith. Ferrara spent ten years with Napoli winning the Italian Scudetto twice along with the UEFA Cup and Italian Cup, respectively. He then moved to Juventus where he continued his winning ways for the next decade: Six Italian Scudetti (one revoked), one UEFA Champions League, one Italian Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup (the Club World Cup of its day) and one European Super Cup, respectively. Ferrara was capped 49 times for the Azzurri.

Mister Ferrara presented his researching during the 2007/2008 UEFA Pro Masters Course. He has managed Juventus, the Italian U-21 and Sampdoria, respectively. Ferrara was also an assistant coach on Marcello Lippi's staff during World Cup 2006. Currently, he is doing football commentary work for Cielo TV and co-hosts a show called, "Stop&Gol."

Let's take a look at the contents of his intriguing thesis.

His farewell friendly at Stadio San Paolo in Naples.

1. Thesis Overview

Given that he was an excellent defender, his choice of a thesis topic was no surprise. Ferrara's thesis was 32 pages in length.  He used a larger typeface for reading ease. The document was well-organized and contained five main sections along with introductory and closing remarks. In my opinion, Ferrara provided a concise yet detailed presentation of this complicated topic.


(I will translate it in full:)

'Follow him even to the bathroom.' With this preemptive order from my first football coaches, I began my long career as a defender. It was obviously the primary characteristic to mark man-to-man: Rigid, very tight, implacable.

I had to follow my adversary in every zone of the pitch. Stop him in any way and possibly looking to anticipate him to be able immediately to provide the ball to the midfielder who began the offensive play. Then football changed. Above all, in the defensive aspect that passed quickly from man-to-man to zonal marking. I was involved personally in this change both tactically and technically.

I intensely experienced both phases: As a man-marker first and as a zonal defender afterward. I can't deny having faced a difficult acclimation phase especially with the Azzurri where I experienced the Sacchi era. He was methodical, theoretical and idealistic about zonal defending. I went from the mentality of 'it's good enough if your rival doesn't score' to one of waiting for him, stopping him and possibly anticipating him and then to win possession of the ball to start an offensive play. I had not only to review my position on the pitch but also improve my fundamentals, soften my ankles and raise my head to have a more complete vision of the field.

I admit it wasn't easy, but at the same time, it was fortunate to live through the passage of one 'era' to another. Because, even in zonal defending, at times you have to execute a rigid type of marking. During a game, there are times when you can't concede any space to your opponent. You have to cut down his space and don't allow him to turn. Which are exactly the same rules in man-marking.


Photo credit: Old School Panini.

In the last twenty years in Italy, we have witnessed a general defensive tactical change. From the traditional man-to-man marking style (one or two defenders tightly marking with a libero in cover), we transformed to a zonal marking system (three, four or five defenders distributed over the width of the pitch with direct responsibilities in certain spaces of the defensive unit.)

This new image of our football was nevertheless discounted by the judgment of a few experts. The missing attention for the instruction in the defensive phase was noted. And, above all, the total elimination of man marking brought forth a general technical weakening of defenders. Such that nowadays, they don't know how to mark well as defenders did years ago. Is it really this way? Is it true that our current young players don't know how to execute marking?

1. Defensive schemes and the tactical evolution of football after World War II to today:

The true tactical change in Italian football was imposed at the end of the 1980s by the tremendous successes obtained by AC Milan who were managed by Arrigo Sacchi. Milan, adopting a system of play with four players positioned in a zonal defense without utilizing a fixed libero, won in Italy and Europe. They enchanted fans with the quality of their play. This complete break with the traditional Italian style produced a radical 'cultural change' in the tactical concentration of play. The success of the new system was such that at the end of the following decade, no Serie A side lined up with a classic 'libero' and/or man-markers.
Arrigo Sacchi's training exercises at Coverciano (FIGC site) before World Cup 1994.
"Ball possession, pressing and velocity."

2. Marking

The principles of individual tactics that primarily interest the development of my thesis are positional placement and marking. In fact, it clearly appears that the two behaviors are very closely related. Without an adequate positioning with regards to your opponent, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to apply the correct principles of marking.

We'll define marking as an action of individual tactics that permits a player, in the non-possession phase, to control a rival and his eventual movements in such a way to be able to impede and/or limit his movement.

3. Marking in Man-to-Man Defenses

As I said above, in a man-marking tactical system, the libero's role takes on a great deal of importance. From a practical perspective, the presence of a libero gives greater security to the defensive marker such that 'he controls' the three variables (ball-adversary-position of the goalmouth). He also provides coverage of dangerous space; namely, the area behind his teammate is secured and taken care of by the libero. Such that he decides what and how to be a back-up in situations.

4. Marking in Zonal Defenses

The biggest difficulty for a defender is therefore understanding when to MARK and when to COVER...

Translator's Note:

Ferrara used capital letters for mark and cover, respectively.

In fact in this zonal disposition, there isn't any player at the back of the line in comparison to when you are lined up man-to-man where the libero ensures an automatic change in marking. The fixed libero does not exist any further to protect offensive width. Your teammate on the defensive line is not always directly positioned between the marker and the goal. And at times, he can't completely be there because he is occupied in marking or covering another space.

There exists an important difference that is embodied in the distance from your opponent:

In man-marking, the distance is determined by the defender who moves up or backs off depending upon the distance from the ball. He always finds himself ready to anticipate and fight to win the ball back.

In zonal marking, the defender isn't always able to determine immediately the distance from his opponent. Because the same parameters for man-marking have to be augmented by a series of other factors.

5. The Teaching of Marking

To mark literally means 'to control' a rival and his movements. Therefore, we can begin to distinguish marking in two larger categories:

a) Marking of a rival who doesn't have the ball.
b) Marking of a rival who does have the ball.

In the first case, the objective of our marking action will be one of impeding our opponent from receiving the ball. Or, if this wasn't possible, make him receive the ball in the least dangerous ways as possible with regards to our goal...
For a defender, the behaviors of execution when you take on an opponent with the ball are of vital importance. Whether these attempts to overcome him (the defender) by dribbling or to try to find time and space to free himself from the ball, or making a pass or a shot on goal.

In these difficult situations, the fundamental technique of a challenge is very important. It is an indispensable method to impede the development of your rival's play. And in some cases, to be able to win back the ball.

A challenge can be carried out in various ways. A general classification can initially divide challenges into three larger typologies:

a) Frontal challenge
b) Lateral challenge
c) Sliding tackle

6. Conclusion

(I will translate it in full:)

In all of the histories of manual changes, from the passage of one phase to another, they consecrate the affirmation of a new system. Which puts the previous one in crisis. Even in the history of football, evolutions and transformations in systems of play have happened, and up until now, still occur. Of special interest, the passage from man-marking to zonal that represents the most important defensive tactical change, was historically consistent and responded to a need. That in time was always stronger to rationalize the defensive organization.

This is why today a defender must know how to integrate his own technical attitude by making these convictions:

It is essential to understand that man-marking is an absolutely necessary condition to integrate better in the defensive zone. To forget it would be the same as forgetting the classical basics of football, to lose sight of his fundamental teachings, to cancel or underestimate a chapter in his own history. Definitively, a defender must be a ... tough nut to crack.

2. Writing Style

Ferrara was clear and concise, professorial at times, used a very enthusiastic tone and was a serious student of the evolution of tactical systems. He discussed the WM (3-2-2-3), MM (as he called the 3-2-3-2 Hungarian formation), the introduction of four defenders by Brazil at the 1958 World Cup and as he noted, the much maligned Catenaccio system. These comparisons provide you with the necessary background to digest their modern equivalents. For example, the Total Football system of the Dutch in the 1970s leading up to his analysis of Sacchi's zonal marking innovations at AC Milan.

3. Images and Graphics

Image credit: Ciro Ferrara.
An illustration of the Catenaccio formation.

"In the 1960s, almost all Italian teams used this system. It was very
aggressive marking in defense as well as in the midfield.
The three defenders had the sole task to follow their rival
strikers everywhere. The only exception was the left fullback (#3) who
often, in the possession phase, had the creative license to push up due
 to his own abilities. Of fundamental importance was the role of libero ... 
(both defensively and offensively.) "

Ferrara used ten basic diagrams in this thesis which were easy to follow for non-coaches such as myself. Professional coaches likely would want to see more detailed graphics (although his explanations were adequate). Most of his diagrams were found in Sections 4 and 5 where he discussed actual game positioning along with various training exercises. I suggest that you download the PDF file to examine these in more detail; however, one showing man-to-man marking is illustrated above.

4. My Ratings

Photo credit:
Coaching education: 9/10
Editorial organization: 9/10
Graphics: 6/10
Writing style: 8/10
Overall: 32/40 = Four and one-half Stars.

Ciro Ferrara has written an educational thesis about a topic close to his heart and that of Italian calcio: Defending. His personal experience with both defensive systems, along with being a part of the defensive tactical transformation in Italy, greatly enhanced this analysis. It was a great pleasure to review this thesis.

5. Italian source document courtesy of Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC)


Tesi corso Master per allenatori di prima categoria
Corso Master 2007/2008Autore/i: Ciro Ferrara

Related Articles

Arrigo Sacchi.

Photo credit: Fernando Zueras.
Please click the image to visit my page dedicated to Mr. Sacchi's coaching education articles.

Related Italian Federation Thesis Translations

Translated excerpts and reviews from FIGC (Italian Federation) UEFA Pro License Coaching Theses. 
Image credit: F.I.G.C.
Soccer Translator

Steve Amoia is a freelance writer and translator from Washington, D.C. He is the publisher of World Football Commentaries since 2006 and The Soccer Translator since 2008. You can follow Steve @worldfootballcm on Twitter.

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