Barcelona are on average, the shortest team in Europe but they have an excellent record when it comes to defending set pieces. There is a perception that defending set pieces is a function of height and physicality but Barcelona have challenged this belief by employing an effective zonal marking system when defending corners.
THEORY INTO PRACTICE
The point of zonal marking is to defend the danger zones at corners, which are the near post and the area around the penalty spot. The team is set up so that the best headers defend these zones regardless of how the opposition lines up. A final point is that after the initial ball is cleared from the corner, all defenders must move forward quickly away from the goal line in order to create an offside trap.
The image above shows how Barcelona typically line up when defending corners. As you can see the Barcelona players are mostly ignoring what the opposition (Mallorca) are doing and sticking to their zones. Pique(red) usually defends the near post zone and Puyol patrols the penalty spot zone. This makes sense as they are the best headers of the ball in the team. In the image above, Milito(blue) has replaced Puyol but the zonal assignments remain the same. Xavi (yellow) usually stand in front of Pique to cut out the low flat corners that teams use as a surprise tactic. Another key player is Iniesta (black) who stands close to the edge of the penalty box, clearly not picking anyone up. His role is to prevent the cut- back corner to the shooters lurking just outside of the penalty area. All the other defenders patrol the penalty box zone to deal with knock-downs in case the initial ball is not cleared.
One last thing to note is that Barcelona do not put any players on the goal line at either of the goal posts. This is considered HERESY in British football but Barcelona do it all the time with success. The reason they dont put any players on the goal line is because it would be very difficult to create an offside trap after the initial ball is cleared. This was the flaw in Mexico’s implementation of zonal marking, the player on the far post kept playing people onside as he was late to push up.
In this specific game Mallorca scored when Pique, the most important defender, missed his header. This shows that no matter how good the tactic is, the players still have to execute their roles for it to be effective.
Above we have Barcelona zonal marking against Arsenal in the Champions League. The set up is the same but the personnel has changed. Pique and Puyol were not available so Busquets was defending the near post zone and Abidal was defending the penalty spot zone. Xavi and Iniesta are in their usual roles cutting off the surprise corners. We see that there is an Arsenal player standing right in front of Valdes but Barcelona ignore him and just stick to their zones. Most teams would man mark this player as they do not want him blocking off the goalkeeper but this would go against the theory of zonal marking. Once again Barcelona have no players standing at either post.
In this game it is again the near post zone defender (Busquets) who makes an error and the opposition scores, proving just how important his role is in this tactic.
Barcelona’s zonal marking system covers up for their lack of height and makes them very difficult to score against from corners. The system only needs 2 or 3 good headers of the ball because the other players perform tasks that do not require aerial ability. They have shown that strategy and concentration are more important than height when it comes to defending corners. Teams with short players could learn a lot from this system and use similar ideas to overcome their physical weaknesses.