One of the most important defensive football skills which players should learn (even quite young children) is how to mark an opponent so he cannot receive a pass or, if he does, is closed down so quickly that he cannot do anything with the ball.
There are two types of marking:
1. At set pieces, such as free kicks and corners.
2. Marking a particular player for the whole duration of the match, usually in an attempt to stop them from scoring.
It could be argued that the second type of marking is “anti-football” and it is unfair to remove two players from the game in this way.
Certainly, it is hardly in the spirit of the game to encourage a young player to touch, nudge and try to annoy/upset an opponent. But as long as coaches and players keep to the rules, marking is a perfectly legitimate tactic and it needs to be taught.
How to teach marking
The idea of marking at U10 level is abstract at best, so I suggest that you wait until your players are at least 10 years old before attempting to teach them how to mark opponents.
When you start to teach the technique of marking, you will soon come across two problems: at set pieces, young players tend to watch the ball rather than the person they are supposed to be marking.
And when marking players in open play, children can be told that they only have to mark an opponent when the other team has the ball but they often find it hard to react quickly enough when their team gains or loses possession.
Both of these problems can be overcome by lots of practice but don’t expect your players to “get it” immediately.
Marking at set pieces
1. Corners and free kicks
Defenders should be “goal side” (i.e. stand between the goal and their mark) and also be slightly in front of the attacker. This position will help the defender to beat their attacker to balls played along the ground. It will also give the defender enough room to move backwards and challenge in the air for high balls.
Note: not every defender should be assigned someone to mark. One defender should be left free to attack the ball or pick up an attacker who has got away from his marker. The fluid nature of this role makes it suited for the more experienced of your players.
Who’s in charge?
Goalkeepers (even the very young) should be encouraged to organise their defence at corners and free kicks close to the penalty area. They are in the best position to see who needs marking and they should be allowed to instruct their team mates accordingly.
2. Throw ins
Markers should stand close behind the player they are marking. If they stand next to them or in front they risk having the ball thrown over their head.
Marking in open play
As I mentioned above, asking one of your players to stop an opposition player from playing by sticking to her like glue is a dubious tactic in youth soccer. It’s the sort of thing a WAAC (Win At All Costs) coach would do.
In my opinion it isn’t right to remove two players from the game in this way, especially if the marking player just follows their mark all over the pitch regardless of which team has the ball. It’s poor, unimaginative coaching and it spoils the game for both players.
If you decide you need to stifle a particular opposition player, you should make it clear to the marker that she only needs to mark when the other team has the ball. And that’s where a problem arises.
In youth soccer matches possession is often lost and won and lost again every few seconds. This makes it very difficult for a child to know when to mark and when they don’t have to.
My advice? Don’t bother with marking in open play.