Tactical Theory: the various methods of dismarking
In football there are two broad categories of defensive approaches; zonal defending and man-marking. Each approach has sub-divisions; however, the two styles differ mainly on reference points. In zonal defending each player references their team-mates and the ball, in man-marking however, the reference point is the opponent.
The difference in reference points leads to huge differences in how zonal and man-oriented defences operate in terms of speed and style of access, shape, and number of players in each duel. In turn, there are also large differences in how attacking sides approach these types of defences. The methods a team use to get free from man-marking is called dismarking, and this article will detail the various ways it can be done.
Man-marking seeks to pitch the game into a series of 1v1 duels with each defender responsible for an opponent. As such, being able to get free from an opponent on an individual level can be the basis to unbalance the opponentâ€™s whole structure.
In these situations, attackers (any player whose side have the ball) have a crucial advantage: they are aware of their movement before the opponent, the opponent can only react. On an individual level then, feints or â€śdouble movementsâ€ť are a common way to create the separation from a marker to receive the ball. Double movement here simply refers to when a player moves in one direction, before moving in another, usually the opposite.
Although the attacker has a natural advantage in being able to start their movement before the opponent, there are ways around this disadvantage for the defender. With this dynamic advantage, the defender needs time to react and re-position themselves, and in football distance is the key factor influencing time. The further away from the ball an attacker is, the longer the pass will take, and the more time the defender will have to adjust themselves.
It follows then, that attackers should seek to shorten the distance between themselves and the ball when moving to evade a marker. This is key in exploiting the advantage that the attackers naturally possess.
When aiming to get free from an opponent to receive the ball from deep, there are different directions in which double movements can be used. A common route is for an attacker to move towards the opponentsâ€™ goal, threatening to run in behind the opponent, before quickly changing direction and coming short to receive. Alternately, the attacker could come short initially, before running into depth.
In a double movement, the initial movement is used to increase the space for the attacker to move into in the opposite direction. Due to their man-orientation, the defender follows the initial movement, but are already slightly disadvantaged due to starting their movement later than the opponent. This often leads to the defender speeding up to reach the attacker in time for the ballâ€™s arrival. This increased speed from the defender means they will take longer to re-adjust when the attacker changes direction, and the separation is thus increased. Neymar is an example of an attacker who uses double movements extremely well.
Man-marking, of course, emphasises the need for individual ball handling skill from the attacking team, due to the number of individual duels the style leads to. With man-marking, the defensive team should have access to press every possible pass. Therefore, the receiving skills of the attacking teamâ€™s players are hugely important, since they will usually be made under pressure.
The defenders can only mark an opponent from one angle. Since the primary objective is to prevent the opponent scoring, defenders mark from a goal-side position. As such, the passing lanes to the attacking players are often open. If the defending team are actively aiming to win the ball back, this can be a rare situation where neither side are satisfied with the status. Since the attacker cannot progress, and the defender lacks access to the ball.
For the defender to win the ball in front of the receiving opponent, they need to leave their goal-side position and get in front of the opponent to intercept. This creates the potential for the attacker to bypass their marker and advance towards goal.
In these situations, there are interesting influences on the attackersâ€™ decision. Firstly, they must perceive the angle and speed of the opponentsâ€™ approach which can be done visually and/or auditorily. The speed of the opponentsâ€™ approach will determine how quickly the attacker should drop towards the ball, and the angle of approach will determine which direction to go in once they have received the ball.
The skill set of the players is also a huge factor in determining how the attacker behaves when receiving with an opponent behind. Players with great strength and mild to low mobility, such as Ibrahimovic, often keep their body between the ball and opponent, use their strength to hold the defender off and roll past them. Whereas agile dribblers such as Messi and Hazard often use said agility to quickly turn past the defender. Furthermore, the opponent can be mis-directed if the receiver feints to make a first time pass in a particular direction before turning out in the other, Busquets and Napoli’s Zielinski often use this to outplay their marker.
Of course, not all duels occur with the defender approaching the attacker vertically. In many instances attackers receive the ball with pressure coming from besides them, as the defenders try to combine their marking withÂ reducing the area of the field the attacker can move into.
In these situations, the attacker is able to receive the ball on one side (usually closer to the wing), whilst the defender attempts to prevent them turning towards the centre. Ideally then, the attacker will find a way to transfer this space from the â€świng-sideâ€ť of the defender to the â€ścentre-sideâ€ť. A body feint can be particularly effective in these situations.
By dropping the shoulder and faking to move towards the wing, the attacker encourages his opponent to move in the same direction to maintain the pressure on him. When the defender commits to pressing towards the flank, the receiver can let the ball run across his body, bypassing the opponent in the process, and control it on the back foot (the foot closer to the centre), thus accessing the centre.
Generally speaking then, the aim of such receiving patterns is to either increase the space given to the attacker on one side of their opponent, or better still, to transfer this space to the side of the defender that is closer to goal.
Dribbling towards goal
Once a player on the attacking side has received the ball, how can they transfer this advantage further forwards and create a dangerous situation? The answer is simple; dribble towards goalâ€¦seriously! This creates two threats for the defending team, the active dribble and the positioning of the other attackers.
If the dribble is not pressured, the ball carrier can just dribble all the way to the goal. If the dribble is pressured, at least one opponent will vacate their marking assignment in the process, this should open a passing option to progress.
When a defender leaves the opponent they were marking to press the ball, they usually attempt to press whilst using their cover shadow, to prevent the pass to the opponent they just moved away from. As such, advancing beyond this point, requires manipulation of cover shadows.
One way of doing this is through continued dribbling. When a defender presses whilst using their cover shadow, they often slow down as they aim to maintain their position in the lane between the ball and the opponent they aim to cover. As such, they can be vulnerable to a change of pace from the dribbler which can allow the attacker to advance and/or bypass the cover shadow, opening the lane to the previously covered opponent.
Another way to lose a marker is to simply vacate oneâ€™s base position. Usually when an opponent drops from their position, they are followed by an opponent, who is encouraged to press intensely. This is due to the direction of the potential pass (advancing towards goal), the defendersâ€™ pressing direction (towards the opponentsâ€™ goal) and the attackersâ€™ field of view upon receiving the ball (facing their own goal).
However, when an attacker drops far from their position, the defender has to also consider the space they leave behind, and the opponentsâ€™ potential to use this space to create danger. This effect is clearer the further forwards the attacking player plays, since following more advanced players would mean vacating spaces closer to goal.
When a defender decides against following their dropping opponent, the attacking side can create an overload in another part of the field. With this underload, the defensive side no longer have the capacity to man-mark, and the possession team will have a free player. Usually, the defensive side will try to manage the situation by leaving the deepest player free, butÂ this still creates a free man further forwards, who can manipulate the situation with a dribble.
The alternative, of course, is that the defensive side follow their direct opponents regardless. In the process they will vacate positions within their defensive structure that can increase the likelihood of a direct attack being successful.
Take a striker dropping into midfield for example.Â If an opposing centre back follows him into midfield, the margin for error in the defensive line is greatly reduced. The centre of the defensive line becomes more open for diagonal depth runs from wingers, or a vertical one from an attacking midfielder. This is particularly dangerous since a margin of error helps the defence deal with the dynamic disadvantage that comes with reacting.
Vacating oneâ€™s position also exists in a horizontal sense. Players on the ball-far side can create similar dilemmas for their markers by moving over to the ball side. In this situation the defender has to decide whether the risk of leaving the defensive structure completely unbalanced is acceptable. Of course, some width is needed toÂ retain a threat on the far wing, and thus create the dilemma.
In this situation, the redsâ€™ right winger has moved over to the right wing, creating the dilemma for his direct opponent. Whilst the wingerâ€™s movement reduces his sideâ€™s overall spacing, it creates interesting potential. If he is not followed, they can benefit from an overload on the near side, removing the opponentsâ€™ ability to mark every nearby attacker. This overload can be used for a direct breakthrough on the near side through dribbles and/or combinations.
Alternately, if the winger is followed the reds can benefit from the reduced margin of error on the far side, where the right back, or far central midfielder can move to exploit the unbalanced defensive structure.
The idea of vacating position has interesting implications on team structure against man-marking. If the possession side play with an initial structure where the centre is occupied and the flanks vacated, the defensive side will also occupy the centre. The spaces left for a breakthrough therefore, would be the wings.
Alternately, if the possession side initially vacate the centre, the opponent has to decide between following and leaving dangerous central spaces open, or holding position and leaving the opponents unmarked. Vacating spaces closer to goal is thus more beneficial, both in terms of creating a dilemma for the opponent, and leaving said valuable spaces open for potential breakthroughs.
As mentioned earlier, one of the aspects that makes man-marking difficult for individual defenders is the reactivity. Since the job is to follow a particular opponent, the defenders have to react to the positioning or movement of the attacker. As such, when an attacker moves they will have a dynamic advantage, simply by starting their run earlier.
This effect can be crucial in small time frames, allowing the attacker to receive the ball free of a marker for a small period. However, the effect can also be felt in longer distance situations, where starting the run sooner can allow the attacker to reach top speed before the opponent.
For this reason, starting runs late and/or from deep positions can be an effective way of breaking through against a man-oriented defence. This effect can be felt best on the ball-far side for a number of reasons. On the ball-far side, attacking teams often have players in deep positions to cover against transitions, that could potentially be a threat in attack (full backs). Secondly, the far side of the opponentsâ€™ defence will usually have less cover, leaving them less potential to adjust in the event of losing a duel.
In the video below, notice when the marker realises their opponent is making a run. Also notice how reachingÂ top speed quicker due to starting their run earlier,Â allows the attacker to reach the box before their opponent.
Although man-marking creates several individual duels and can at times lead to a focus on these individual battles, there is huge potential in group interactions to beat individually focused opponents. Group-tactical dismarking then, refers to dismarking methods heavily involving two or more individuals.
Itâ€™s important to note that group-tactical methods are not mutually exclusive to the individual methods detailed above. In fact, many of the individual methods enhance the group-tactical ones, and several are fundamentally connected.
Using the 3rd man
One sub-category of group-tactical dismarking is playing with the 3rd man. Using the 3rd man refers to moves where player A indirectly passes to player C, using player B as an intermediary. Using the 3rd man can occur in three main forms; wall passes, layoffs and 3rd man runs.
3rd man wall passes
In most forms of man-marking the defending side leave at least one spare man in the defensive line. This in turn leaves their front line underloaded against the back line of the opponent. As such, one of the possession teamâ€™s centre backs are usually free on the ball. In order to advance, the possession side need to transfer this â€śfree man statusâ€ť further forwards.
As mentioned previously, dribbling towards goal is a common and effective way of creating a free man further up field. The active dribble will, at some stage, attract pressure from the opponent to prevent the dribbler advancing too far up the field. This presser will leave their assigned opponent in the process, the previously marked opponent becomes a free man.
However, they are rarely directly accessible since the presser will often use their cover shadow to block the opponent they were previously marking. An alternative route is therefore necessary. As discussed earlier under receiving patterns, the goal-side positioning of the markers creates open passing lanes to the players of the possession side.
As such, they can effectively play first time passes, since the small time period on the ball gives the defender little chance of access. The nearby marked team-mates can thus provide the alternative route to access the free man.
In these situations, itâ€™s important that the player providing the alternative route is close to the ball carrier and the next receiver. As I wrote last year in my theoretical analysis of the blind side;
â€śEssentially this makes use of the fact that one opponent can only cover a player from one direction, the key therefore is to create an alternative passing route to the team-mate. TheÂ alternative passing routes can only be created effectively if the ball can be moved into another position quicker than the opponent can re-position themselves. Therefore it is vital to create a passing option in close proximity to reduce the opponentsâ€™ time to reactâ€ť
Opening and/or using the deepest route and layoffs to the 3rd man
Due to the opponent-orientation, man-oriented defences often lack compactness, with small distances to the opponent favoured over small distances to the team-mate. In turn they are usually unable to prevent passes into even the most advanced attackers.
In fact, against a man-oriented defence the only reason that the most advanced attackers would not be reachable immediately is due to the positioning of the possession side itself. If a player on the possession team is positioned in the passing lane (blocking) to another team-mate, it follows that the playerâ€™s marker will also be blocking this lane. The possession side will effectively be halving the workload of the nearby defenders.
In a positional approach then, good spacing is vital to keep as many passing lanes as possible open. With all passing lanes open, there are huge benefits in using the furthest option possible.
â€śWhen a team defends man to man, you have to play a lot with the strikerâ€ť Pep Guardiola May 2017
When the ball and the opponent are both in front of a defender, the decisions and actions are simple. They can see the ball, and their opponent and can simply press forwards if their opponent receives the ball. When the ball moves behind a defender, their decisions and actions become difficult. Seeing both the ball and the opponent is no longer possible. This is particularly an issue for man-markers, since they need to see the opponent if they are to mark them.
When the possession side play directly to a striker from deep, the ball has moved beyond the midfield and forward lines of the defending team. The attention of the defending midfielders and forwards is now drawn to the ball. This is a vital reaction since the ballâ€™s movement will imply their next action, for example if a defender is outplayed, a nearby midfielder will need to drop.
However, this reaction also creates the potential for the deeper players to become free. In some instances, the defending midfielders and forwards will adjust their position when the ball goes beyond them, preparing to cover, whilst in other cases, they remain in position. In either case, their focus on the ball creates the potential for a blind side adjustment from the possession side. By moving out of their previous markersâ€™ cover shadow, the midfielders on the possession side can become available for layoffs.
With a long pass, the time taken and the predictable nature of its destination means the defenders can generate high pressure where the ball arrives. Having an option to lay the ball off, is thus of huge importance. Naturally then, using the 3rd man is an efficient solution. Due to the aspects described above, when receiving the lay off, the 3rd man will have a forwards facing field of vision, as well as space, advantageous conditions for a progressive next action.
An additional point to maximise the benefits of this pattern is the direction of the layoff. Pressure will accumulate in the lane where the ball was played to the striker. If the lay off is made within the same lane, the pressure can easily be transferred from the striker to the next receiver. Ideally then, the layoff will be made diagonally, meaning more space for the receiver, as well as having a forwards facing field of view.
This same pattern of using the deepest route and laying the ball off, can be performed in a more dynamic way. Although it seems counterintuitive, there are some benefits of having a structure where midfielders are positioned in the passing lanes from defenders to the attackers.
When the possession side start with such a structure, the movement of the players will likely be in a direction that opens the route to the next lines. In the positional approach explained above with all passing lines left open, all the oppositional defenders must be aware since the ball could immediately reach the opponent they are marking.
Alternately, in this dynamic approach some of the possession sideâ€™s players are not immediately available, since team-mates and thus opponents are directly in between. When a defenderâ€™s direct opponent is not immediately reachable, the attentional demands are reduced, often leading to looser marking.
The possession side can take advantage of this with quick movements to open the line to a more advanced team-mate. In many cases, this will mean movement into wider positions to open a vertical passing option. If the movement and pass are quick enough, the advanced team-mate may receive the ball with enough separation from their opponent to turn towards goal. If not however, the wide movement from the deeper team-mate can easily translate into a curved run to receive a layoff.
A further interesting note about the dynamic approach to this pattern, the prior movement to open the direct passing lane means that by the time the layoff is received the receiver will have momentum.
3rd man runs
3rd man runs are the third pattern of playing with the 3rd man. ThirdÂ man runs differ to the other third man patterns, in that the 3rd man is used for a dynamic breakthrough past a line of the opponentsâ€™ defence (usually the back line).
Similar to using the deepest route and laying the ball off (explained above), the feature that makes 3rd man runs difficult to defend is the attention that the ballâ€™s movement demands. In my theoretical analysis of the blind side, I explained in detail the issues that 3rd man runs pose to defenders, here I will make it specific to man-marking.
Whilst seeing the opponent is an important factor for any defence, it is particularly important if you are tasked with marking them. In many 3rd man run combinations, the first pass bypasses at least one line of the opponentsâ€™ defence, often the midfield line.
If this initial pass moves on the inside of the defending midfielders, they have to adjust their body position to see the ball. This opens the potential for blind side runs on the outside of these defenders. If the initial pass moves past the outside of these defenders, the potential for blind side runs is on the inside of the defender, particularly dangerous since itâ€™s closer to goal.
Whilst the defender changes their body position, and reads new information (pressure on the ball, direction etc) they are tasked with marking a runner. Even if the defender remains aware of the blind side runner, the act of changing body position, whilst their opponent sprints forwards creates a dynamic disadvantage that is difficult to negate.
This dynamic advantage is what allows the runner to breakthrough lines of the opponentsâ€™ defence. The last line defenders may switch from their assigned opponent, to tracking the runner, but they have to attempt this from their previously static position. At this point the runner will have significant momentum.
The speed of the ballâ€™s movement must also be mentioned. When the ball moves at high speeds, access is very difficult for the defence, and on an individual level, the constant adjustment of their field of view makes losing their opponent more likely.
Dynamic positioning is another sub-category of group-tactical dismarking. This simply refers to the attacking sideâ€™s approach to finding and acting in space, dynamic positioning is where the attacking side primarily use movement to find space.
On an individual level, dynamic positioning is quite a natural response to man-marking, being the result of trying to lose oneâ€™s marker. However, it can be applied more consciously on a group level; through positional rotations, opposite movements or overlaps.
As explained within the individual dismarking section, man-marking is inherently reactive. The nature of following means reacting, and markers often experience a disadvantage due to this. This is the key factor that positional rotations exploit to create advantages.
Positional rotations refers to when two or more players in the possession team swap positions. When one attacker begins a movement, they will briefly create separation from their opponent, giving them the effect of a free man. If this, momentarily free, attacker moves towards another defender, it creates a brief 2v1-like situation.
If the 2nd attacker moves in a different direction simultaneously, the defender has to decide between following their original opponent or staying in position to mark the incoming attacker. Both decisions, of course, imply how the first attackerâ€™s marker should react. If the defender chooses to follow their original opponent, the second defender has to move quickly to also follow their original opponent.
Alternately, they can perform a switch, where they both hold position and mark new opponents, but this goes against the instinct of a man-marker who is trained to follow any movement.
The decision of the first defender is tough, and has to be made at speed, the second defender must quickly react to the first defenderâ€™s decision. Creating these decisional crises is what makes positional rotations effective.
In many cases the first defender fails to make a decision quickly enough, being caught between the two opponents, temporarily leaving both free. The second defender then has to read their team-matesâ€™ indecision, and take a decision, by which time one of the moving opponents could have received the ball.
In some ways, opposite movements can be considered as a type of positional rotation since they share many of the same factors and effects. An initial movement is used to create a temporarily free attacker, whilst a nearby team-mate moves away, giving both markers a decision to make.
Within opposite movements however, the attackers do not switch positions, but simply move in opposite directions. Just like positional rotations, creating â€ś2v1-likeâ€ť situations for the defenders is the key effect here.
Vertically opposite movements also have the characteristics of vacating position. If an attacker drops from one line of the opponentsâ€™ defence to another, their marker will be reluctant to follow if another attacker is running from deep towards them.
The problem for defenders in these situations is that they are trained to follow any movement, so the movement will initially be covered. When the opponent continues to move, far from their original position, the defenders are caught between this trained instinct to follow, and the understanding that moving so far out of position will create an unbalanced structure.
Since the priority when defending is to protect the goal, both defenders usually prioritise the opponent moving towards goal. Therefore, the attacker who moves towards the ball is often, briefly, left free to receive the ball. Only when both defenders are sure that the opponent moving towards goal is covered, will they move to press the one coming short.
Using open man and combining past pressure
The idea of leaving a spare defender for cover, whilst the rest of the team-mates man-mark is highly common in most man-oriented teams. In some forms of man-marking, the individual marking is mixed with ball-orientation as a team. This means the ball-far players are positioned more narrowly to help cover the centre. This of course means the ball-far defenders have bigger distances to their assigned opponents. The distance for the possession team to access these ball-far players gives time for these covering ball-far defenders, however there are potential advantages in playing to the ball-far side.
Since the players on the ball side will be marked tightly, receiving the ball in a static position will mean receiving under heavy pressure. The static position also makes the pressure very difficult to outplay with an opponent so close, who can close the ball carrierâ€™s potential movement angles before the ball is moved.
On the ball-far side however, the larger distance to the opponent gives the receiver a small time frame to receive, before their marker comes across to press. This time frame can be used to take a touch forwards, allowing the possession team to push the opponent deeper.
Alternately, the receiver can take advantage of the favourable situation-dynamic. In this situation, the receiver gets the ball in a relatively static position, whilst the opponent comes towards them. If the receiver has a nearby passing option, they have the potential to combine past the pressure. By passing the ball whilst the opponent presses, the carrier can ensure the ball bypasses the opponent.
The receiver of the next pass will be pressed from behind, and will thus need a passing option. The previous passer can quickly move into space immediately after passing, to go against the grain of the pressing opponent. As such, they can become available for a return pass, breaking the pressure in the process.
Although exploiting the far side was used for a simple explanation, the same dynamic can also be created on the near side. When the possession team can pass to a team-mate who has a passing option and incoming pressure, this same dynamic can be created.
The general idea is that the ball carrier passes and moves into space WHILST the opponent moves towards the carrier, going against the grain of the defendersâ€™ movement to create a dynamic advantage and breakthrough.
A final note
All the patterns detailed above share a dynamic nature (at some point in the process) which is a logical necessity, if one is to create separation from an opponent that is trained to mark tightly.
An interesting point is how the reactive nature of man-marking, forces pro-active actions from the attacking side. To effectively beat man-marking, the movement and actions on the ball often need to be manipulative. These manipulative actions aim to create dilemmas where man-orientation will create undesirable situations for the opponentsâ€™ defensive structure, and abandoning their marking assignments is the alternative.
Acting to manipulate, the attacking team can have â€śprior knowledgeâ€ť of the situations that their movements/actions on the ball are likely to create. This prior awareness will have benefits when it comes to exploiting the resulting situations.