Beyond Set-Pieces: A deep dive into Vanni Sartini’s philosophy of zonal marking

Beyond Set-Pieces: A deep dive into Vanni Sartini’s philosophy of zonal marking

Vanni Sartini is a man who is not afraid to call it how it is. When I sat down with him after training on Tuesday, I asked him if he believed the Whitecaps were one of the most pure zonal markers in Major League Soccer. To my surprise, he went so far as to say that they were one of the most pure zonal markers in the world.

“I don’t know every team in the world… but [even] from the biggest leagues, no-one marks zonally like us”, Vanni told AFTN.

Such is Sartini’s commitment to the principles of zonal marking, as an Italian who studied soccer since the late 80’s and early 90’s, it’s no surprise that his philosophy revolves around its art. But to those who are used to a different kind of game, this steadfast devotion to an intrinsically idealistic style of play has caused a bit of skepticism and confusion.

So let’s break down what zonal marking is, from its origins to Sartini’s inspirations, and outline the reasons and motivations why Sartini has transformed the Whitecaps through this philosophy.

From Sacchi To Sarri – A Brief History Of Zonal Marking

Zonal marking describes a type of defensive structure where the emphasis of the defence is not to mark the opponents and follow where they go, but rather on a particular point of reference, usually the ball or the space. It relies on defenders staying in a cohesive group, with stellar communication and positional awareness.

While the tactic of zonal marking can be traced back to Brazil in the pre-World War 2 era, it became popularized in Europe in the mid-70’s thanks to Dutch icon Rinus Michels and his philosophy of Total Football.

Michels’ philosophy depended on an acute understanding of space, an unrelenting determination to win the ball back, and an extreme vertical fluidity in positioning. Famous clips of his Ajax and Dutch national team sides show defensive players switching positions with offensive players, the team pressing as a unit, and a clear grasp of marking the space rather than the opponent.

One man who took this philosophy and revolutionized a whole football culture was Arrigo Sacchi. Sacchi was the man who put an end to the defensive dynasty of the Italian catenaccio. Once a staple of Italian football from the 1950’s that became synonymous with Italy, catenaccio was a tactic that emphasized defensive stability over attacking flair, highlighted by the employment of a libero, a fourth defender, tucked behind the defensive line of three, tasked to sweep up attacks that came in behind. Instead, Sacchi set-out a pragmatic 4-4-2 lineup. His team was high pressing, with a compact block of two banks of four, and reliant on the exploitation of the now outdated offside rule that once ruled that any attacking player who was behind the defensive line at any time was offside.

Both were dominating systems that were built on players not getting pulled away by their opposition, instead remaining closely-packed in a unit and being aware of both the space that the ball was in and was yet to be in. Both yielded high praise and impressive results. However, as Vanni pointed out, with the modern game the times have changed and these systems have become antiquated.

“When Sacchi played, the rules were completely different,” Sartini told us. “The rule of offside was completely different. You could make a lot of fouls, but not get a yellow card.

“Obviously [Sacchi] is an inspiration… but when you need to think about what you want to do, you need practical inspiration for [the kind of game] you see now”

So Vanni got practical inspiration from one of Italy’s most renowned coaches in the last decade: Maurizio Sarri.

Sarri is a coach who epitomizes dynamic, fluid attacking football. His influence on the Italian game was so great that Sarrismo became a proper term in the Italian dictionary. Sarrismo, or Sarriball as it was called during his time in England, represented a philosophy that focused on fluid, vertical football with short incisive passes, asymmetrical fullbacks that granted width in an otherwise narrow attacking three, and, of course, an emphasis on zonal marking rather than man-marking. Sarri’s defence was organized based on where the ball was, rather than where the opponents were. His set up was focused on being proactive rather than reactive when the opposition attacked. This allowed his team to be secure when the ball did eventually move, so as to not allow space in behind.

But more than just tactics, Sarriball was defined by an idealistic view of playing. One that theoretically prevented his defense from ever being penetrated, and allowed his attack to penetrate any defence. One that would fit the title of “beautiful football”, as it was frequently called during his time at Napoli. In fact, prior to Conte’s Inter Milan of 2021, Sarri’s Napoli was the closest competitor to dethrone the dominance of Juventus.

Through this idealistic philosophy of Sarrismo, Sartini has now developed his own style of play: Sartiniball. And with it, comes similar principles to those of his inspirations.

Controlling Your Destiny

One still might ask, after everything, why is zonal marking so revered? And why is Sartini so dead-set on it?

Many fans who have watched the Whitecaps’ lackluster start to the 2023 MLS season will certainly be wondering why the system is still being upheld after conceding so many goals off set-pieces. What is the obsession with it?

Sartini revealed to me that it is because of two reasons. The first is a footballing reason. That when you are defending zonally, you are in control of your fate.

“If you stay positional when you defend, and if you don’t focus on the movement of the opposition, you are in charge of your destiny when you defend”.

To illustrate this, let us imagine that we are defending in a block of four, with an opposing midfielder looking to cross the ball into the box. On a man-marking system, we are tasked to follow our opponent’s movements in the box. We have to make sure that we stick close to him so that if the ball comes in, we can challenge for the ball and prevent him from having a clear goalscoring opportunity.

The issue with this system is that the success of our task relies partly on our own abilities, and partly on that of the opponent. The opponents can manipulate the space between our defence by clever runs and a change of direction. Through these tactics, they can drag our defence out of position, thus opening up space for a cross to come into a dangerous area. That then allows both the attackers and the crosser to influence the result of the attack, and make it a split-outcome.

In a zonal marking system, you take that power away from the opponent. You do that by staying firm and organized in your defensive zone. Regardless of what runs the opposition makes, as long as you are positioned accordingly in relation to where the ball is coming from, the fate of the attack rests on you. Whether it be a cross, a pass, or a shot, if it’s in your zone, you are in charge of it. And whatever happens in that zone relies on your understanding of the situation and your ability to deal with it. The result is ultimately your responsibility.

Of course, zonal marking, like any system, has its flaws. Opposing players can overload a particular zone to overwhelm a defender. Short set-piece routines can tease players to step out of their zone and open up spaces in behind the last defender. Control of areas, like the wings, are sacrificed to maintain the structure, and can be exposed. But even with all these flaws, zonal marking still gives you an edge over your opponent than in a man-marking system.

That’s why zonal marking has become so popular even after the many evolutions of the sport. It allows you to control the defensive space by occupying it in a strict, organized manner. The chaos of clever runs and flair passes is minimized. You control your destiny.

Art Imitates Life

The second reason Sartini revealed to me why he chooses zonal marking over any other system is because it embodies an ideology that is very similar to his own personal philosophy, where everyone shares the same load, the same burden, and relies on one another to succeed as a team rather than as an individual.

“I am a socialist,” Sartini said. “I think collective work is much more important than individual work. I think that we live in a too much individualistic society, and people want to take decisions by themselves a lot of the time, when actually you should follow what is good for the team”.

“No one should have to run 50 yards while the other runs ten. Ideally, everyone runs 25 yards.”

If you abstract away some of the particularities, you can see the resemblance between this way of thinking and that of zonal marking. Zonal marking relies not only on the individual defender doing his duty, but the entire team. Its success hinges on complete trust between the 11 players to understand their role and to execute it properly. The minute that one player decides to think for himself, the system crumbles and it becomes vulnerable to attacks.

But much like socialism, while beautiful in theory, zonal marking is much harder to execute in reality. Players will always have a tendency to break away from the system, whether due to frustration, panic or desire. There will be moments where the system is exposed and players will go back to their individual tendencies based on what they believe is best. Players’ egos will inflate, and they’ll start pointing fingers towards teammates if and when mistakes are made. We have already seen these moments of frailty in the Whitecaps’ last five games. But this is something Sartini is aware of.

“[For] a lot of guys, they need a little bit of time, because no one does [what we do],” Sartini believes. “A lot of teams don’t do it. That is why we practice a lot [on the pitch], because we want them to take over the right decision based on the principles [in our philosophy].”

To try to re-educate grown men to go against their individualistic desire is one that might be considered near-impossible, but Sartini believes that it all stems from training a players first reaction.

“I never want them to think, never, on the field,” Sartini added. “A player on the field should take decisions, never think”.

Having players rely on conditioned instincts to dictate their actions is not something necessarily revolutionary to the game, as many of Sartini’s inspirations have also attempted to do this with varying degrees of success. But for Sartini, like Michels, Sacchi, and Sarri before him, the fact that such a feat has not, and likely cannot, be perfectly achieved, does not mean that one should not strive to achieve it.

Idealism in a Results Driven World

While one might applaud the almost romantic nature of Sartini’s philosophy, neither Sartini nor his philosophy can escape the reality of the landscape of professional soccer. The fact of the matter is that the state of soccer is like that of capitalism, where performances need to produce tangible results to be deemed successful. Points are currency, and when the performances are not satisfactory, clubs will demand swift change.

Such is the reason why Sartini’s influences have not had the most fairy-tale of endings in their careers. Sarri was sacked from his job at Chelsea because, regardless of the style of play, the results were not at the level they should have been. Sacchi, in his twilight years, was overtaken by traditionalists in Italy, culminating in a short and unimpressive final stint with AC Milan.

With no wins in four matches, fans are already starting to pick up their pikes and demand improvement or change. Some are already convinced that the writing is on the wall. Memories are short in the world of football, and to idealists like Sartini, this means that compromises must be made for the sake of your career.

Sartini has already made it clear that his philosophy of zonal marking is non-negotiable. However, he is open to discussion on how to tweak it to improve and we have already seen these results. In the game against LA Galaxy, it was the first time this season an MLS opponent had not scored directly off a set-piece or shortly after it.

“We changed some things for [defending] corners,” Sartini noted. “We improved the starting positions in the zonal [set-up]. We sacrificed the guy on the post and put another guy more inside to have one jumper freer.”

Sartini has always been open to critique, and to listening to his players so that they can work together to achieve success. What threatens him is that such approaches matter little when the results are not going your way.

However, with a Canadian Championship under his belt, and a quarter-final berth in this year’s CONCACAF Champions League, Sartini will likely still have the support from the bosses upstairs for a little while longer. And he will hope that that patience allows him to make tangible what is otherwise a beautiful, if not fantastical, philosophy.

Authored by: Felipe Vallejo

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