Man marking or zonal marking? Whenever the debate comes up you will find advocates for both systems. Of course the reality is that the situation is not as black and white as the question suggests.
Whilst there are teams that will solely man mark or zonal mark, far more common is a mixture of both systems. That is the way Reading have defended set pieces so far this season, though there is no doubt man marking dominates.
In images below, you will see how when Reading defend a corner they nearly always set up the same way. They have seven men marking opponents, one attacker high up the pitch and two players zonal marking.
The most important zonal marker is Yann Kermorgant. The picture below clearly shows him, circled in yellow against Plymouth Argyle, marking the near post.
The other zonal marker has in most games been Danny Williams, who stands on the back post. The other seven defensive players all mark opponents. These battles are all circled in red.
In the situation below, Plymouth's Sonny Bradley got free of his marker, Jake Cooper, but missed the target with his effort.
Opponents getting the better of their Reading markers is a common theme in this article. The image below is taken from the defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
This is a rare case when Williams has moved from the back post. On this occasion he is zonal marking the near post and Kermorgant is zonal marking the six yard box. However, neither player comes into play, as the corner finds Joe Mason who gets the better of Jordan Obita to score a simple header.
Reading defend free kicks almost exactly the same as they do corners. Against Newcastle you can again see the Reading players man marking (red) and Kermorgant zonal marking.
Reading's problems at defending set pieces were further brutally exposed against Brighton & Hove Albion. A corner aimed at the six yard box, a regular opposition tactic, sees van den Berg battle with Glenn Murray with the Dutchman under pressure heading the ball towards his own goal. The image below again shows two Reading players zonal marking (yellow) and six others (red) marking opponents.
What is going wrong?
There are two things which are crucial with man marking. The first is that it is based on personal responsibility. It is the man marker's job to stay with his man and beat him in the battle for the ball. The second is that you are marking an opponent rather than the dangerous areas where the ball might actually end up.
In all the images above Reading only have two players marking the dangerous areas and only one can be described as a good header of the ball.
The problems Reading have defending set pieces were again on display again against Cardiff City. This game showed the fine margins in football. Last season a similar game was settled by two Cardiff goals from set pieces. Luckily this time Cardiff missed two good chances from set pieces and Reading were able to grab a late winner.
The image below shows a Cardiff corner with Reading operating their usual system. Kermorgant is zonal marking the near post and another player is stood on the back post.
Garath McCleary and John Swift are marking two Cardiff players on the edge of the box. There are then four Reading and Cardiff players in the red box. That has left the yellow area completely free and that is the area where Peter Whittingham is aiming to cross the ball.
Gunter is marking a Cardiff player who is standing in the six yard box. Mason's goal for Wolves showed the opposition have realised that Ali Al-Habsi will not come to challenge if an opponent is stood near him.
That instantly makes aiming the ball in and around the six yard box very attractive. There is little chance of a wasted opportunity being easily caught or punched by the goalkeeper, and it is obviously a very dangerous area. Gone are the days when a Reading goalkeeper would go through a brick ball to catch or punch a cross.
Reading's way of defending set pieces works if you have players with good aerial ability who love a physical battle. These incidents simply come down to who can get to the ball first, who's strongest and can the opposition find a way to distract the defending team.
The image below shows Matthew Connolly beginning his leap which saw him head wide. As you can see the players who were not in the red box haven't really moved from their original positions.
However, the eight players in the red box have all moved from their original positions. One Cardiff player has run into the six yard box closely followed by his Reading marker. Another Cardiff player is hovering around the penalty spot with Tyler Blackett in proximity.
Connolly and Sean Morrison both made runs to the back post. Paul McShane and Liam Moore are still close, but Connolly still gets a clean connection on the ball.
The dilemma for Reading's man markers are clear. They're marking opponents, but don't know where they are going to go or where the ball is going to be delivered.
This allows the opposition to potentially take them away from the danger area. This is shown again in the two pictures below.
The two teams are in almost identical positions to the corner above. However, this time one Cardiff player goes to the near post and another the far post. Their runs take Blackett and van den Berg out of the game.
That again leaves McShane and Moore against two Cardiff players. This time one of those players manages to block both McShane and Moore leaving Morrison with a chance he will feel he should have done better with.
Another potential problem with man marking is that players can sometimes follow their man and the ball rather than defending dangerous areas.
The picture below is from the Newcastle free kick above. When the ball is delivered every Reading player has followed the ball, or in Williams' case ball watching, leaving that lovely area in the yellow box completely free for the second ball. Newcastle didn't score from the resulting scramble, but did in a very similar situation for their first goal.
A rare example of Reading defending a set piece well shows how complex analysing set pieces can be. As I said just above, sometimes players need to defend areas rather than following the man they are marking.
The below incident is late on in the game against Brighton. Reading are lined up with their usual two zonal markers in a late free kick.
When the ball finally reaches the box it is eventually easily cleared by Cooper. However, as you can see below he has actually lost his man. Every Reading player has followed their man, but Cooper's (circled in black) has run off to the six yard box. The young centre back has instead correctly followed the path of the ball.
This incident shows the many variables that come into play at set pieces. If Cooper had not got to the ball and his player had scored from a second ball than he would have been vilified for losing his man. Something to remember the next time a defender looks like he's miles out of position.
Is there a solution?
As you can see Stam has a problem. At the moment his man marking system isn't really working. Cardiff are quite a big team so our last game was always going to be difficult when it came to set pieces.
The signings of Blackett, a player who first made his name as a centre back at Manchester United, gives Stam another player who should be better in aerial challenges.
Moore's arrival has allowed van den Berg to move back to midfield. By the fact he was playing at centre back you would expect that means Stam feels comfortable with the Dutch midfielder in aerial situations. So in a sense Reading have gone from having three decent headers of the ball to five. Going forward that should help. Some fans may dislike it, but I expect Kermorgant to stay in the team for the same reason.
However, personnel aside you would expect some debate amongst the coaching staff on how Reading actually defend set pieces. I do wonder whether Stam's current tactic reflects his career as a powerful centre back. He embraced aerial challenges so is there a possibility that he finds it hard to understand why some players wouldn't.
Centre backs probably more than other players love a physical battle. However, not every player will and the current system Reading use depends on players winning their battles as Kermorgant is the only player marking the area where the ball is likely to arrive.
I do wonder if adding extra zonal markers might help. Given how few goals are scored from defending set pieces, could there be a case for the attacker left forward to come back and defend. An extra zonal marker on the edge of the six yard box could act as a blocker or obstacle to the opposition players attacking the ball. As we have seen, if you try and mark runners you can end up running into each other, be it by accident (the Newcastle penalty incident comes to mind) or a deliberate opposition tactic.
Whatever Stam decides he will know there needs to be an improvement from Reading. The Preston game aside I found evidence of Reading struggling with set pieces in every game this season. Be it the personnel or the system, at the moment the opposition seem to have sussed Reading out when it comes to set pieces.