Liverpool have conceded 7 goals in the four games played so far this season. That’s an average of nearly two per game and it is something that must be concerning Rafa Benitez as it definitely concerns me as a fan. Injuries to Agger and Skrtel have not helped matters, as well as Liverpool legend Sami Hyppia moving on, but if one looks at the goals conceded by Liverpool this season only one has come from open play. Against Spurs the opening goal game from a rebound that resulted from a free-kick. Okay, we can debate whether or not a rebound from a free-kick is open play or not but I would still group it as a goal from a set piece. The second Spurs goal was directly from a corner. Against Aston Villa Liverpool conceded from a free-kick, then a corner and then a penalty. In the most recent game,the opening Bolton goal came from a corner again. Only the second Bolton goal to me is a legitimate goal from open play. Liverpool’s defensive problems can thus be narrowed down to an inability to defend set pieces. I think we can narrow this down further and say that of the set piece goals, three of them were corners. So 3 of the 7 goals conceded by Liverpool this season have been from corners. That’s a significant statistic and one that merits closer scrutint.
Generally speaking, if a defensive system is proving not to work it is either the result of the players failing to execute the defensive pattern effectively, or the system itself being defective. Liverpool uses a zonal marking system when it comes to corners. I am not a coach or a tactician, so my explanation and understanding of what a zonal system is will be rudimentary. But from what I know, this means that come a corner, the players within the defensive pattern are responsible for certain areas or zones within the penalty area. Any opposition player or ball that is in a Liverpool player’s zone must be picked up or cleared by that player. 3 different teams have found a way to break through this defensive system however and we need to ask ourselves why? Is it because the Liverpool players are just not executing the defensive plan properly or is it that zonal marking for corners is fundamentally flawed?
I am of the view that zonal marking within the penalty area is defensive suicide. An opposing player with good movement can drift from one zone to the other and cause confusion amongst the defenders. In the penalty box, that half a second where that man is free can result in a shot on target and quite possibly a goal. The problem is that the defenders cannot abandon their zone in an attempt to “track” their man because that would result in that particular zone being completely open to attack by another opposing player. So when an opposing player moves into another zone, one defender must move towards this player and pick him up while the other defender makes his way back to his zone of responsibility. It means that for a very brief period of time, the attacking player is completely unmarked. Outside the penalty area a zonal system works because in that short amount of time when an attacking player moves from one zone to another zone and is ‘free’, even if he does receive the ball he will be too far out from goal to pose any sort of threat. Now in my example I used the movement of one man; imagine the sort of strain the defensive system is put under where you have three or four runners making pre-planned runs; including sending two or three players into the same zone? Spurs, Villa and Bolton have all figured out that Liverpool’s defense of the corners leaves a lot to be desired, and I fear that if the system is not changed Liverpool will end up dropping more points because of conceding at corners.
It is an old philosophy but I think it is one that is sound. If the opposing players are in the penalty area, zonal system goes out the window and it is simple man to man marking. It is extremely difficult to get a shot accurately on target when there is someone leaning into you or about to put in a meaty challenge. Rafa swears by zonal marking but I think he may have missed a trick here.