Man Marking and You

Xavi and Chico

 Xavi: Chico, you do know that the game ended two days ago, right?                                                                                                                                                         

Chico: Chill, Xavi. Just let me finish going wee wee and I’ll leave. 

There has been a worried reaction in the culé world about Chico’s now famous man marking job on Xavi during last weekend’s Almeria game. A bronze statue replica of the comic strip above is now being built and will be installed in front of Almeria’s stadium.  Hugo essentially said: “haha! I made you traded Xavi for Chico! That’s a net win for me all day long”. False, Hugo.  False.

That strategy works against teams that are extremely reliant on a single player for creative inspiration. Maradona’s Napoli and Argentina being examples 1(a) and 1(b) of this and notice how it did not stop him from becoming in the eyes of many, [ARGUABLY lest I invoke outrage] the best player in history. We are not Napoli or Argentina. Either one of Iniesta, Yaya, Messi, or Zlatan has more creativity than the whole teams of Almeria or Malaga combined. So, what do we do?


The idea behind completely man marking a player all the time like Chico did to Xavi is to take him completely out of the game. The seemingly obvious trade off is that your own player will be taken out of the game as well. The often used quote in regard to man marking which I have no idea who said but have heard many times before is: “you trade off their best player for your worst player and you end up winning”. However, this is not entirely true. Make a mental note of the quote and I will come back to it. Also, there is an often overlooked fact about man marking: it is conditioned to being employed only against a primarily offensive player. For goodness’ sake, when have you seen a centerback being man marked? What’s the point? Sure, you can do like Getafe wisely did and focus pressure from your forwards on Pique when we play the ball out from the back but once the ball goes past the center of the field, the forwards does not stay with Pique. I know this seems ridiculously obvious but remember this because it is a key part of how a team like us adjusts to man marking: a primarily defensive player cannot be taken out of the game by man marking.

A true 10 on 10 scenario typically means an advantage for the offense, especially when dealing with a parked bus. A team that executes a man marking strategy would like to avoid this. A good man marking job that is not adjusted to (i.e. the man marked player keeps trying to make plays in the offensive zone) does not turn the game into a true 10 on 10. Space is still being occupied by the marked player and his shadow. The marked players’ effectiveness is drastically reduced while the field remains cramped. Meanwhile, the player that is doing the marking is lost only when the marking team goes on offense. Thus, on defense, the man marked player’s team ends up with -1 attacker whereas the defending team still has the same number of defenders. Remember the quote about trading off your worse player for their best one? Well, this is what I meant when I wrote that it is not entirely true; especially if you are parking a bus.

As such, to take advantage of man marking, the attacking team must withdraw the man marked player so as not to occupy space in the offensive zone and turn the game into a true 10 on 10 when they are on the offensive. This is why man marking is typically more effective on forwards or enganches. These offensive players on many teams are the primary source of offensive inspiration and (1) cannot effectively play another position or (2) no other player comes even close to replicating their output. If you are talking about withdrawing Maradona in mid 80’s Napoli or Argentina or say Kaka in 2007 Milan then man marking a single player is effective because they just cannot be withdrawn. However, 2008-2010 Barcelona is a whole different animal. Why? Because (1) we have creativity to spare, (2) or “defenders” like Pique and Yaya are better attackers than most attackers in the world are, and (3) Xavi is one versatile mofo.  Let’s look at what we can do to exploit a team that copies Hugo and tries to man mark Xavi:

The idea is not to lose Xavi’s productivity to man marking but to turn it elsewhere. We don’t want him relegated to standing in a corner with Chico next to him.  Ideally, we should just switch Xavi with Yaya and have him stay back playing defensive midfielder which he has done before in the past and done well. In other words we simply turn an attacker into a defender and vice versa. Given that the marking team is likely in this case parking the bus then suddenly they find themselves with -1 defender while the attacking team still has the same number of attackers. If the man marking continues then a true 10 on 10 scenario develops from the offensive perspective of the marked team.

Remember what I said about man marking being conditioned to marking a primarily offensive player? What we do is switch the script. Suddenly, the player assigned to do the man marking finds himself marking a primarily defensive player and the marking team finds itself under siege from the same number of players while having one less defender.  Meanwhile, Xavi is not “out of the game”. Sure, he is not as influential as he usually is but he is still being productive by providing lateral cover for the CB’s or making plays from deep and he can even switch with Pique to push forward yet another extra attacker. If a team is playing with all 11 men behind the ball in a parked bus then this move turns 11 men into 10 while we retain the same number of attackers. It’s simple numbers. Just look at all the surging runs Yaya was able to make once this adjustment was made.

Look at it this way. It’s like forcing the opposing team to get a red card in exchange for having Yaya and Xavi switching positions for the rest of the game. I’ll take that all day long and so I hope will Pep, hopefully in the following manner:

pep in thought


 [*smoothly stroking his glorious beard] “So, Chico…you think you are marking Xavi?

 *screams and makes lots of crazy hand motions*

“Guess what? Now he’s marking YOU! April Fool’s motherfucker!”

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A diehard culé since the Rivaldo/Figo Judas days, I am also a rabid Argentina and Boca Juniors fan despite definitely not being Argentine. Read more articles by me by clicking on the name-link.


  1. Jim
    October 6, 2009

    Decent analysis, Hector. I suppose it works if the person moving up into attacking midfield has the vision to create openings. Still don’t think their tactics would have worked if Iniesta had more match time under his belt. Also, their forwards weren’t even really pressing up on our defence so the field might have stayed pretty congested.

    • Hector
      October 7, 2009

      Good point, Jim. Last season when Xavi was man marked, the “4” position was simply passed to Iniesta while Xavi tunrned himself into a “horse” midfielder and focused on crashing the box and covering for the other players. What caught us offguard is that teams now a days don’t employ man marking to the extent that Almeria did (a player sticking by Xavi 100% of the time). Its rarely seen. Furthermore, Iniesta is just not in form yet and Henry was not playing which meant we had little directness to deal with the packed defense.

      Regarding the forwards, Almeria was playing 11 men behind the ball regardless of whether they employed man marking. The opportunity to take one of those 11 out of their own end and reduce them to 10 behind the ball helps. It sure will stay congested (its the nature of a parked bus) but one less defender to deal with sure helps a lot.

  2. October 6, 2009

    Wow Hector what a good article…nice analysis on our man-marking situations.

  3. Tutomate
    October 6, 2009

    Nice analysis Hector, said what I meant on the last post but much better. Hugo said he also man-marked Iniesta but honestly I did not see it, or at least it did not seem that blatant.

    • Miguel
      October 6, 2009

      yeah iniesta. thats what i was gonna say. so that was hugo sanchez’ new signature move huh? i actually like hugo due to his vurtue of being mexican, so i’m not as hard on him as some, but he is a loser of a coach i must say.

    • Hector
      October 7, 2009

      I honestly did not see it either. That would usually be suicide because Iniesta, frankly is unguardable in man marking when he is in form due to his speed and dribbling. He can consistently win one on ones and when he does then he will get plenty of space. Xavi’s style is different. Another of the implied goals of man marking is that the rest of the marking team can then not worry about the marked player and focus on the rest of the marked team. When an Iniesta or a Messi breaks a man marker then they usually get plenty of space as the rest of the defense is worried about the rest of the team. That’s why you never see a whole team empoying man marking. The game becomes a series of one on one match-up which usually benefit the offensive player.

      The problem is that Iniesta is still not in form. 🙁

  4. drew
    October 6, 2009

    great work Hector, and perfect timing too!

  5. lovelymofo
    October 6, 2009

    Yay, a tactics post! These are among my favorite.

    While the tactic sort of worked in this particular match (mostly because the team hasn’t reached maximum cohesiveness), I don’t think we’ll see it much in the future. I mean, a team or two might start off man marking Xavi or Iniesta, but the fluidity and interchangeability of our players will take care of that.

    Are you gonna anatomize any of the recent goals? 😀

  6. poipoi
    October 6, 2009

    great stuff! 😀

    Every coach should know our true heart is Xavier Hernandez and thus man-mark him, but I feel like Jim does about ghostface.

  7. Boat Forever
    October 6, 2009

    Any body noticed Pep’s reaction after P! missed to convert that perfect cross-in after a nice individual piece of amazing work by Ibra??? I was so hurt and don’t want to see that again!!!

  8. inNYC
    October 6, 2009

    Thanks Hector, I think you stated really clearly what a lot of people were trying to work out after that game. I do think that despite the incredible versatility of many Barca players, you might be underestimating how difficult that logically simple shift in responsibilities actually is.

    That’s one reason that I sorta hesitate when the “total football” label is applied to Barca. It seems to me that instead, this team, last year’s team and the club in general tends to incorporate elements of total football particularly in attacking midfield/forwards, but I think our DM/fullbacks are actually fitted to very specific roles, each depending on what the other pieces can do. Luckily for your theory (and our results, let’s hope) Pique and Yaya are probably the best examples of players who could pull it off.

    • Hector
      October 7, 2009

      Excellent point. We incorporate Total Football elements but are never 100% Total Football. Like you said, everybody from the DM on back has specific roles. Its just our luck that our most “Total Football-ish” players IMO happen to be the Yaya who can play anything from centerback to attacking midfielder and Pique who’s style would have fit in perfectly at 1970’s Ajax. Lucky us (hopefully), like you said. The shift should be the hardest on Xavi but being the smart player he is as well as somebody who has played like a traditional DM back in the van Gaal/Reign of Terror days and some in the Rijkaard days, I think he can adapt to it.

  9. Helge
    October 7, 2009

    Haha, that’s a hilarious comic 🙂

    Don’t have time to read the article yet, but will definitely do so later.

  10. Cesc Blanc
    October 7, 2009

    Great analysis…well done! Obviously, we saw that in Almeria game with the way Marquez and later Piqué played their role as center backs, but I guess with Yaya in the mix, this will be a whole different game, and then add to it, that this also gives, although difficult but still, Xavi the occasional chance to break into the penalty area and be free. So basically, as you say, the trade off is playing with 10 against 11.

    • Roja-N
      October 7, 2009

      I think Hector means that its more like 9 against 10 if u remove xavi and his marker

  11. Alexinho
    October 7, 2009

    Relief flows over me like a warm, fuzzy blanket. Thanks Hector-

  12. Helge
    October 7, 2009

    Well, that’s a nice trick to turn a disadvantage into an advantage 🙂

    But what if the marking player recognizes that the marked player is being pulled back and his positin replaced by a different player. Can’t he adapt to the new situation by simply changing the player he is about to mark? Like, as long as there is a (maybe even constant) switch between our players, the only thing the opposing player has to do is to “go with the switch”?
    So he would not be man-marking s single player over 90 min., but two players for all together 90 min.

    • skyislm
      October 7, 2009

      Helge, if that player is so intelligent to mark the position and not the player, then I think, we will be playing against a strong team! You can expect a fair result! Last time I checked, neither such a player nor such a team did exist. 🙂 (remember, we dont mark anyone!)

  13. Blow-Granite
    October 7, 2009

    You nailed it Hector!!! Excellent article!!!!

  14. bill
    October 7, 2009

    Great article. But the tactics you suggest pretty much mean you take Xavi out of the game. Xavi is the barca and spain engine. Without him, there is no flow and midfield control. If you can trade off one of your players for taking xavi out of the game, i think most teams will take it. Wouldnt a better solution be more movement, constant switching and faster one touch football? I think if you move him to the wing where there is a defender already covering the area, you force a double team situation and create more space for the other players.

  15. JMoynihan
    October 7, 2009

    When it comes to isolating Xavi to the defensive side of the pitch, it actually opens up several options that many of us who read the Offside blog as well as this one, have been hoping to see…

    – Yaya running the show from an attacking midfielders position.

    Just think back to his run and goal changing score against Athletic B. in the Spanish Cup final. Those runs are miraculous, they’re intentional. He’s capable of not only forcing defenders off him with his strenght, he’s able to control the ball in a supremely cheeky manner while drawing so much attention, it leaves space for Ibra, henry, messi, and don andres.

    In addition, xavi’s creativity and fluidity get applied in our back 4 so when the opponents do in fact counter, we have a maestro in the back assuring us that the ball will be handled properly.

    We don’t just clear it. even though we sometimes should. But this tactic (although unhealthy at times) will only work better with xavi moving in the back creating space for pique, puyol, and alves (when he’s not playing superman on the right).

    Good take Hector, I’m interested to see yaya step up in this way. I think deep down he desires more attention for his offensive play, something which he is HIGHLY UNDERATED for. Just ask FIFA10.

  16. Donnieboy
    October 12, 2009

    Just wanted to drop you a line to say, I enjoy reading your site. I thought about starting a blog myself but don’t have the time.
    Oh well maybe one day…. 🙂

  17. December 6, 2009

    Hi mate, this doesn’t look so great on the Imperefct browser. But anyway keep up the writing.

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