Prior to Saturday’s game at West Bromwich Albion, Arsene Wenger was aware of the home team’s ability from set pieces. He described the prospect of facing the Baggies as a “menacing challenge”. They were known to have “strong deliveries”. It was also apparent that West Brom had scored more goals than any other team in the top flight from free kicks and corners. Yet 12 minutes into the match, the first set piece of the game and Arsenal concede to a Craig Dawson header. The ease with which the defender scored the goal was down to the lack of a challenge from an Arsenal player. And the reason for this? Zonal marking.
When zonal marking at a corner, a player’s responsibility is a defined area of the pitch, not a specific opponent. If the defending team are well organised, everyone has their zone to protect, the defenders cannot be dragged out of position and the goal remains well defended. A zonal marking system strategically places the defending players in the box so not only is the goal well covered but the players are in position to counter-attack.
In theory, zonal marking is a good idea. In practice, it has been shown time and time again to be an ineffective way of defending set pieces. Instead of marking a zone, the Arsenal players should have been touch-tight to the West Brom players when defending corners. The prime reason for this is that players, not zones, score goals.
If Arsenal had adopted a man-marking strategy when defending the corner after 12 mins then Dawson would not have had an unimpeded run through the penalty box, but somebody matching him stride for stride. Arsenal could have paired their best headers of the ball with those of West Brom. Dawson would not have been allowed to cause the havoc he wreaked as he charged from one zone to another. Instead, one Arsenal player would have taken the responsibility of tracking him and challenging him for the header.
Zonal marking requires confidence and good communication, two of the many facets of the Arsenal game that are sadly lacking at the moment. After identifying the strong points of West Brom’s game, the decision of Wenger and his assistant, Steve Bould (a brilliant defender in his day) to set Arsenal up to zonal mark from corners and not go man for man is baffling. Both men are obviously hugely experienced and knowledgeable sothere must be some logic behind the decision. If only they’d share that with the fans.
In the 75th minute of the match at the Hawthorns, Dawson scored again for the home side, ending the game as a competition. Again, Arsenal set up a zonal defence. And again, Dawson ran through the zones with no one attempting to stop him and buried the header. For both of his goals he got a run at the ball while the Arsenal players were static in their zones. Allowing a team renowned for their aerial ability the opportunity to run through the box, gaining momentum and have a running jump against a player who has a virtual standing start, smacks of poor planning.
Like so many of Arsenal’s recent flaws, it’s hard to see past the manager when looking to point the finger of blame. Wenger knew about West Brom’s style of play and his own team’s fragile confidence, yet still sent them out to defend set pieces in a zonal formation. Even after being punished at the first corner, Wenger didn’t adapt his tactics. Arsenal didn’t learn from the past but continued in the same way. And were duly punished in the same way.
The manager setting his team out to zonal defend corners was hard to fathom. Not reacting when the tactic clearly wasn’t working is hard to forgive. Arsenal are on their worst run in the league since 1995. Once again their opponents outran them (this time by 7.8km!). The players look like they’ve stopped playing for the manager. Despite Wenger’s ever-mounting problems, he still must have shaken his head on the long journey back to London at the thought that West Brom’s manager, Tony Pulis, had outwitted him twice.
Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me!