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Zonal cover comes in two forms

By Jens Bangsbo, Birger Peitersen

Zonal cover is a way of organizing the defensive game. The thinking behind this form of cover is that you allow players to take responsibility for an area of the pitch, particularly in their own half. This ensures that the team covers the pitch both widthwise and depthwise. The size of an individual player’s area depends on the part of the pitch the relevant player is to cover.

There are two forms of zonal cover:

  • Zonal cover with zonal marking: The players position themselves in a particular area of the pitch and move only in reaction to their teammates.
  • Zonal cover with player marking: The players take up positions in a particular area of the pitch and move in accordance with their closest opponent.

A high percentage of elite teams use zonal cover. For example, three of the four semifinalists at the 1998 World Cup in France played with zonal cover (Brazil, France, and Holland), as did just over half of the teams at Euro 96. The strength of zonal cover is that the team’s defensive position always forms a compact area consisting of individual player zones. To create a united front, it is important that these areas overlap both lengthwise and widthwise.

Using the zonal cover principle requires tight organization and a high level of understanding between the players. You should stress the importance of collective understanding in creating a single unit for defensive work.

Zonal Cover With Zonal Marking
Players on a team have their set areas when defending, and they move in accordance with their closest teammate.

It was British teams, particularly Liverpool, who first succeeded in employing an effective form of defense based on zonal cover with zonal marking. Today, many more top European teams, such as Juventus, have developed well-organized zonal cover. The purest example of zonal cover with zonal marking, however, was the Norwegian national side under Egil Olsen. In this team’s defensive work, we can almost see strands of elastic between the players, drawing them back and forth in accordance with the game. The synchronized patterns are formed in conjunction with lots of communication between the players.

This form of defensive organization creates an ideal jumping-off point for an attack after winning the ball because there will almost always be good options for playing the ball away from the area where it was won to a well-placed teammate.

• No free areas are left for the opposition.
• The players can quickly establish an attack when they win the ball.
• The pitch is “made smaller,” which makes it more difficult for opponents to keep the ball.

Zonal Marking Fundamentals
A player is responsible for a specific area, and for being in position in relation to the ball and to the closest teammate. If the player with the ball is in this area, the defender should follow the principles of individual defensive action (see chapter 1).

When cover is organized with zonal marking, there should be no free areas near the ball that the opposing team can exploit. While the player in possession on the opposing team is under pressure, the other players on the defensive team should move quickly toward the center of the area around the ball, trying to maintain the distance between themselves and their closest teammates on both sides and up ahead. In this way, the team’s defensive organization remains balanced.

When the opposition switches sides in upfield play, the defenders’ areas change in turn.

To play zonal cover with zonal marking, each player must have an overview of the game. The player should know what is happening both close by and around the player with the ball. The defender’s movements should be in accord with those of the closest teammate, as shown in figure 6.2. The players should be encouraged to give short instructions such as, “Move left,” “Closer,” “I’m falling back,” and, “Someone’s coming across.” Communication is vital if players and sections are to reposition quickly.

Zonal Cover With Player Marking
During defensive play, each player is responsible for a particular area of the pitch and marks an opponent in this area until exchanging opponents with a teammate or until the ball is won.

Zonal cover with player marking is a form of defensive organization more frequently used than zonal cover with zonal marking. British teams, in particular, have inspired people to use this type of defensive organization, which gives individual defenders responsibility for marking in their own areas. There are many examples of how a player becomes a specialist in marking within a set area. The Dane Jan Heintze and Arsenal player Tony Adams have often demonstrated the positioning ability that makes them important links in their teams’ defensive chains while leaving them in a position to win the ball from their opponents.

• Closely covering an opponent near the ball in the last third of the pitch.
• No free opponents in the defensive area.
• Quickly establish an attack when the ball is regained.

Player Marking Fundamentals
A player is responsible for a specific area and should mark any opponents in it. Player marking follows the principles of individual defensive action (see chapter 1). The defender should judge position within the area relative to the opponent, the center of the game, and any teammates in the vicinity. The player should also have an overview of the positions of teammates, which will make it possible to advise them regarding their positions if, say, an opponent moves behind them. In order to obtain this overview, the player should use split vision: besides registering the opponent and the game, the player should also be aware of what is happening inside the area of responsibility.

This is an excerpt from Defensive Soccer Tactics.

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