As reported by Brian Marjoribanks in the Daily Mail, Urby Emanuelson found it “especially surprising to face a British team which lets you score from corner-kicks not once, but twice. It’s not often you see that, because that’s an old British strength.”
Previously in the Scottish Premiership, Niall McGinn scored a short-lived equaliser after more poor marking at a corner, further undermining an area that has recently served as one of Celtic’s few trump cards in Europe.
If technique and creative passing are seen as the hallmark of a good attacking side, it is frequent at any level for “disadvantaged” sides to bridge the quality gap via tenacious defending and strong use of set-pieces. It takes the utmost will and concentration, qualities Neil Lennon has recently instilled to good effect.
But the Celtic defence committed the ‘punching above your weight’ cardinal sin by conceding cheaply from a corner – not once, but twice. What exactly went wrong?
Zonal marking at corners, by definition, places responsibility on your defenders to defend zones instead of man-marking players. The immediate advantage is that you define where your best headers are placed, as opposed to the dragging effect that is the downside of man-to-man.
Often this can come down to maths – if you drag the defending team’s 3 good headers out of position and you numerically have stronger headers of the ball, in theory the attacking team should be left with a good header in a dangerous area.
Zonal marking isn’t without disadvantages. It can make for ambiguous allocation of responsibility when balls land between zones. Like on Tuesday, Anthony Stokes looked at Virgil Van Dijk, he looked at Georgios Samaras, and he looked at Fraser Forster, and most have been targeted for criticism one way or another.
There were two major flaws with it’s application against Milan, amazingly resulting in a goal derived from each “flaw”.
In the above image I’ve attempted to transpose the defensive positioning from the screenshot further up the page. I’ve also included responsibility “zones”.
Crucial things to remember: zonal defenders are not supposed to go backwards, as this reduces vision and jumping power. The job of the “blockers” – Derk Boerrigter on the left and Efe Ambrose on the right – is more to prevent anyone from getting a running start on the 3 main ZM defenders, as we all know a running jump will trump a standing jump every time.
Forster’s (almost career defining) achilles heel is his reluctance to leave his line. It’s safe to assume therefore, that in this ZM iteration, any balls not directly on top of Forster are to be challenged by the 3 on the 6-yard.
The flight of the corner comes into “headerable” territory somewhere between Van Dijk (centre of the 3 on the 6-yard) and Samaras’ (left-most of the 3). From the images, it is quite clear that Samaras, for whatever reason, has a larger area to defend, and unfortunately for Celtic the ball landed *just* behind Van Dijk.
Now bearing in mind, Van Dijk isn’t supposed to move backwards (in fact, he does readjust himself backwards half-heartedly) his original positioning seemed too far forward, but the onus probably has to fall to Samaras to attack the ball.
The image to the right demonstrates the confusion of responsibility, with most assuming Van Dijk to have vacated his zone (for example, the BBC reports that the Dutchman “drifted off Kaka”), though he quite rightly looked to Samaras.
The sheer quality of Valter Birsa’s delivery however, was a primary factor in confusing the two ZM defenders. The wicked curl and dip pushed Van Dijk forwards then back, while Samaras didn’t expect it to fall into his territory.
But that’s not all that went wrong, with a second factor going largely unnoticed as it didn’t affect the move.
Andrea Poli can be seen easily bypassing the “blockers” and ghosting into Samaras’ zone. Were Kaka to miss the ball, he would surely have an easy tap-in, further undermining the defence of this set-piece. It is also amazing, imagining Kaka missed the ball that the ball would’ve been able to bounce deep in the 6-yard box – an unthinkable situation at this level.
The lesson wasn’t learnt for the second, as substitute Nocerino was able to amble unmarked into the backpost area, with the “blockers” concentrating on other runners and Samaras again making a poor job of tracking the flight of the ball – again managing to hit the deck without a challenge.
This is where finding a solution becomes entirely hypothetical. Take Milan themselves – when defending at corners they have the same 3 zonal defenders on the 6-yard line, but they use man-to-man with the other players – no defenders on the post. This is a bit more fluid as “extra” bodies outwith the traditional areas of the zones can be picked up.
But in short, the flight of the ball was poorly read and Nocerino was in the right place at the right time to knock the ball back in.
The solace, if any, for Lennon is to contemplate that there is no full-proof defence, that individual brilliance (pin-point delivery from Birsa) and a perfect storm of slight misjudgments were to blame.