What Did We Learn #2: In Praise of Pepe Reina and Zonal Marking

What Did We Learn #2: In Praise of Pepe Reina and Zonal Marking
November 21, 2008 Paul Tomkins

Perhaps the main thing we learned this week, following victory at Bolton and the fortunes of various other keepers, was how thankful we should be for Pepe Reina, and pray that he stays fit. We also learned that the Reds’ zonal marking is back to its best.

(When I say ‘learned’ in these pieces, it is often a case of confirming what we already know, but that’s always an education in its own way.)

No goalkeeper is exempt from errors, and Reina has had his moments over the years. But they have been few and far between. Having watched plenty of other games this week, I couldn’t help but feel assured at the Spaniard’s calmness and composure.

Finding a truly reliable, top-class keeper is essential; Manchester United’s worst recent seasons coincided with the retirement of Peter Schmiechel and the search for someone even half as good, eventually ended with Edwin Van der Sar. The best limit their mistakes, and quickly recover from them. The rest can fall to pieces. Look at Paul Robinson in his final year at Spurs.

It is a position that is as much about nerves as technical ability. Scott Carson has bags of the latter, but alas can also look like a bag of the former.

In the biggest games of his career – for Liverpool against Juventus, and for England – he has made some really poor errors. As a teenager when playing for the Reds, his mistakes could be understood. But while he’s still young, at 23, he seems to be showing no sign of handling the big occasion any better. Having said that, he remains a good bit of business by Benítez: signed for£750,000, but loaned to Aston Villa for £2m, and sold to West Brom for approaching £4m.

We haven’t seen enough of Diego Cavalieri, the current no.2, to know how he will fare; it seems he has talent, and is of a similar style to Reina, but he is likely to remain trapped in the catch-22 of lacking games to find sharpness and build confidence, and as a result, coming unstuck when he does play. But with all due respect to him, we all hope Pepe Reina doesn’t miss a game that maters.

It’s worth emphasising that Liverpool have coped aerially with teams like Stoke and Bolton, keeping a clean sheet against both. Portsmouth were another team who failed to register a goal against the Reds, despite Crouch, Bouba Diop, Distin, Diarra and Campbell making them one of the biggest teams I’ve ever seen (especially with Defoe left out). Wigan are also like Land of the Giants, although they did manage two goals at Anfield; neither was from a header, though. And ultimately they lost.

These are teams who are all dangerous from set-pieces, including long-throws. Yes, Reina was ‘beaten’ by Gary Cahill’s header at Bolton, but as Dion Dublin and Lee Dixon so rightly pointed out (and which Andy Gray and Chris Kamara bizarrely missed) was the two attempts by Kevin Nolan to illegally impede the Spaniard. Andy Gray keeps saying “nowhere in the rules does it say you have to get out of the way”, but misses the part about lifting your leg to trip an opponent. Perhaps blindness is setting in for him.

Of course, Liverpool will concede goals when marking zonally. Because all teams concede their fair share from set-pieces. But so far this season, excluding the Carling Cup with its makeshift defence (and Jamie Carragher’s misdirected header at White Hart Lane), it’s proving faultless. Which is all the more remarkable given the size of Benítez’s team.

The Reds no longer have the towering presences of Peter Crouch and Momo Sissoko, with these two in particular replaced by far shorter alternatives, while Sami Hyypia is now only a bit-part player. These three, who were regulars when zonal marking really started to succeed in 2005/06, have an average height of 6’ 5”. Robbie Keane, Javier Mascherano and either Martin Skrtel or Daniel Agger average out at around 5’ 11”.

While Crouch was never the best header of a ball, and didn’t have the spring of smaller players like Gary Speed or Tim Cahill, he still won the majority of his challenges. In defence, he was vital, too. Hyypia, meanwhile, is probably the most commanding header of a ball I’ve seen at the club, and few players before my time will have bettered him. One or two may have had fractionally better technique, but they didn’t necessarily share his height and a pretty good leap, too.

While his skill on the ball and happiness to stay out wide have drawn the most praise, Albert Riera’s height and ability in the air is arguably as crucial. Ryan Babel is tall but not a good defensive header of the ball, while Yossi Benayoun is neither tall nor bulky. Aerial competitiveness is also another important facet of Dirk Kuyt’s game; not a giant, he is still good in the air, as we saw at the Reebok. He is a handy player for defending set-pieces.

Even Djimi Traoré is missed in this sense, if in precious few others. Fabio Aurelio has steadily improved as a Liverpool player when he’s been able to stay fit, to the point where he now looks a class act, but aerial dominance is not his game. Indeed, it’s also probably what holds back the even smaller Emiliano Insua. There just isn’t enough height in the team to cope with a 5’ 8” full-back. Which is a shame for the lad, who has a lot of talent, but it remains an understandable piece of pragmatism on the manager’s part.

It is well-known that even in the 1980s, during his initial coaching role with Real Madrid’s youth team, Benítez knew the height of all of his players; even now he can recall the exact figures. And in English football, so much of the game, despite improving technical standards, comes down to crosses or balls hit long into the box. Even Arsenal have a couple of target men, in Adebayor and Bentner.

But what zonal marking has shown is that you do not need the tallest players if they are in the best positions. As as I’ve pointed out many times in the past that you don’t get the buffeting associated with man-markers, where it just takes one NFL-style block to see runners left totally unmarked.

You see so many free headers with man-marking, because the opposition invariably lose their man, either with good movement or from blocking. With the zonal variety, the main criticism is that the opposition can get a running jump, as the defenders are static in their zones. But every delivery into the box will be contested, unlike man-marking. And the goalkeeper has more space to command his six-yard box.

By leaving Reina and the front and back posts unguarded, he is in charge. At 6’ 2” the Liverpool custodian is a few inches smaller than many of his peers, but as the giant Huerelio Gomes has shown on numerous occasions, your own defenders can cause as many problems as the tallest attackers. (Okay, so having the attitude of a particularly hell-bent kamikaze pilot doesn’t help the Spurs keeper, either.)

So by leaving Reina exposed, Benítez is actually allowing him room to manoeuvre. And a 6’ 2” keeper, with a good leap and an outstretched arm, can reach far higher than even someone like Crouch. The key is that he is not blocked off or crowded out.

When teams who man-mark see an attacker stand in front of their goalkeeper, they go and mark him. Then another attacker may join the fray, meaning one more defender, too. You can have four or five attackers and four or five defenders standing in the keeper’s way; against Sunderland at the weekend, Blackburn’s Paul Robinson just couldn’t get past a mass of players. It becomes a mess, and almost a game of pinball.

As I noted earlier in the week, Liverpool are bringing everyone back to defend set-pieces, but then breaking at super-speed. In the last two league games the Reds have scored within seconds of defending deep in their own area. Bringing everyone back encourages the opposition to send more men forward, but so far it hasn’t resulted in them scoring; what it has done is give lots of space for the Reds to attack.

It’ll be interesting to see how heavily criticised zonal marking is once the Reds finally allow an opponent to score from a ball delivered into the box from a set-piece. Against Spurs in the Carling Cup, Alan Smith (actually one of my more preferred co-commentators) pointed out the flaws in zonal marking when Spurs headed well wide from a difficult chance, at a point when man-marking had already seen the home side concede twice from corners – without a single mention of the flaws of that system.

Whether or not Liverpool do make a sustained bid for the title will depend on the fitness of Pepe Reina, and maintaining the kind of set-piece security we’ve seen all season.


“Tomkins not only shows why he is a prolific, talented writer but also cements his status as very knowledgeable and passionate Red. In my opinion this is Tomkins’ best work to date; a thoroughly excellent read.”

Vic Gill, Shanks’ son-in-law and former LFC trainee

“The project that Tomkins has taken on here is highly ambitious: assessing each of Liverpool’s managers since Bill Shankly. He does this in his own irrepressible style of analyzing in detail every area that falls within a manager’s remit. And whilst Tomkins has a talent for such a task, where he excels here is in approaching each manager without any apparent pre-conceived ideas.”

Paul Grech, Squarefootball.net

“A unique analysis of the club’s managers, which is no mean feat given the extensive bibliography of the club… informative … another perspective on the last 50 years at Liverpool.”

Programme & Football Collectable Monthly