There are definitely a lot of misconceptions regarding set-pieces, based on subjective opinions, individual experiences, or old „wisdoms”, without taking current trends or numbers -data analysis- into perspective – such as the death of the post player or defending short corners starting with 1 defender. Just as the game itself develops with new ideas, it constantly forces players and coaches to come up with solutions, adjustments in order to be effective. This also applies to set-pieces, with specific teams leading the way with their proactivity, such as Midtjylland or Liverpool, who not only base their decision-making on data analysis, but also employ specialists to help/coach during set-plays.
Obviously the game preparation also went through a huge development, with bigger and bigger analysis departments, allowing the coaching staff to gain more information on opponents, eventually forcing to make the preparation process more comprehensive, using the information also on set-plays. As a result of this, more and more teams come up with specific offensive routines or patterns, creating uncertainty for the defensive side. Usually the process of creating routines based on opponent analysis to find weak spots, which guides the decision-making on what routines to come up with, often copying other teams & each other’s ideas. Then as the next step you either determine a specific order for the routines – like 1st from left is ’Routine A’, 2nd is ’Routine B’ etc.- and/or you give extra signs for your players so they can identify, which routine the team is going to use – usually hand signs from kicker or using the positioning itself, if everyone moves to far-post then this happens etc. A probable issue with this process is that it’s predictable. Not specifically in terms of reading signs, formations, as better teams usually mix these a lot, but in terms of timing, as usually if a team comes up with a specific routine, it’s going to happen within the first possible occasions -1st/2nd/3rd kick. This generally means that teams are going to use their „trump card” as soon as they get the possibility for that. Let’s take an example: if a team have 10 corners they normally use their pre-planned movements in the first 4-5 case, leaving the rest 5 to go without a specific plan, using the „Basic Routine”, which every team have. Or to phrase it differently – how many times have you seen a team scoring in the last minutes from a specific routine? Instead the solution is usually to overload inside the box -even pushing up the GK-, trying to find the best header, who most often attacks the centre. Not to mention the fact, that as the game goes on the team’s mental-physical level naturally decreases, therefore it might be even better to keep the best routines for the latter stages within a match, where the defensive team becomes even more vulnerable. So it raises the question: wouldn’t it make more sense to replace the pattern-based strategy to a decision-based one?
Reasoning with Thomas Gronnemark’s work is probably a bit overused now, but he made a key point in one of his interviews, saying he mainly coaching intelligence regarding throw-ins, offering guidelines, methods for the players when and what to do, to create and recognize spaces: “When a space is created, it is not because we ask them to run here or there. No, we just developed their intelligence and their understanding of these game situations”
If we take a look at the usual training methods, it becomes clear why the pattern-based strategy is the tendency. Even if teams try to build in set-pieces within the specific game-forms, they leave a separate block to train them, most often at the end of the matchday-1 training. What happens there? Sometimes in order to protect players, one can use passive defenders for minimal contact, or no defenders at all, just to go through some of the planned movements, routines, mostly with the starting 11, meanwhile the others are just watching. Then the majority of the team is only standing there, not even focusing on the details in the routines, eventually reducing the possible effectivity in case they are going to be subbed in during the game. Not to mention that using passive or no defenders makes it very unrealistic, from where the transfer to the game itself is relatively low – such as the effectivity and the prevention (in terms of preventing to use suboptimal movements, signs, blocks etc., which would be more clear if trained against active defenders). Also, creating a separate block for set-pieces doesn’t represent the dynamics of a match, where a free-kick might happen from a counter, so there the players arrive into the situation from an intensive physical-mental state. Another issue is the lack of transition phases coming from the separate training block, which is an essential part of the set-pieces – in 2019, when Liverpool won the Champions-League they’ve scored 3 goals against Tottenham after the transition of a set-piece, 2 in the PL games, and 1 in the CL Final scored by Origi.
Obviously I’m not saying that the previously described method can’t be effective at all, but integrating it to the specific game-forms, allowing the players to not only train and practice set-pieces intensively in only the Matchday-1 training, but over the whole week in a generally lower intensity, also in a more implicit way. I believe mixing the 2 approach is definitely an option, as the explicit method is sometimes also necessary, to emphasize specific patterns, movements, principles, especially if you come up with a highly complex routine.
On a side note, integrating the model of football actions in possession & out of possession is a useful way to facilitate the players’ situational awareness – concepts as ’recognizing oppositional cover’, ’reducing oppositional cover’, ’cover teammate’.
Chelsea’s corner routines against Leeds is a great example on how many ways you can reduce the oppositional cover using basically the same principle in all situations.
- games on narrower pitch with smaller numbers – start with throw-ins instead of always starting from GK – when ball goes out wide -› throw-ins
- if shot made from throw-in successfully – double points/score – build-on it then only reward goals etc. – although start with the basics, so initially you can reward the movements itself even if they are not successful to emphasize importance of opening & exploiting spaces during throw-ins
- a possible rule/constraint here – forbid passes back to the throw-in taker – this will force the players’ off the ball movements into a direction, where they are going to look for opening up spaces or a higher attention towards their body-posture (such as throwing technique and direction) from where it’s accessible to turn out of the pressure
- triple points – successful switch to far-side – the often used „Liverpool pattern”
- use side wall players as throw-in takers – mix the classic wall game with throw-ins after ball goes out of the pitch
- instead of rewarding offensive team – if defensive team regains possession and score – double points -› forces offensive team for a more conscious usage of space, whilst maintaining balance in depth
- start games from either corner or free-kick – not only to practice recuperation/transition phase but also to implicitly emphasize offensive-defensive principles + wherever ball goes out – either start with throw-in or set-piece
- here I suggest to have an assistant coach to work with either the defensive-offensive team – so they don’t know about each other’s strategy (as that is again a problem that basically kills game realism – defensive team usually knows what they are dealing against) -› this offers good possibilities to teach/facilitate decision-making based on specific signs, tif your team have troubles to collect 2nd balls – at first you need a structure for that, but then you can give extra points for collecting rebounds & then crosses back to the box again to maintain pressure, momentumriggers what the oppositional team offers
- such as at throw-ins, start from the basics – at first reward the initial setup, distances to gain dynamics from an offensive standpoint, then offer rewards for successful block; 1st touch made; shot; goal etc.
- based on oppositional analysis creating rules to implicitly guide them towards the pre-planned solutions – e.g. if a team struggles to cover movement towards the near-side – give double points for any near-side movements/touches -depending on where you are in the process of developing the player’s set-play intelligence, decision-making -, therefore implicitly guiding them to the solution you would like to see
- in case your next opponent struggles to cover short corners/free-kicks – reward short variations with double score -› implicit guiding
- after scoring a goal during a game – chance to take an extra set-piece as reward – scoring team can select if they want to take a corner or free-kick
- reward for target player(s) -› purpose is to find the best headers, so rest of the team have to create a structure from where it’s possible – might be a great rule to emphasize importance of using overloads-underloads, playing with distances, create traffic to dismark or using blocks – at first reward if optimal situation is created, then successful 1st touch etc. – possibly better to use more than 1 target player so more players are involved/routine’s effectivity less dependent on precise cross
- based on trends/data – zonal setup with blockers/man-marking 2nd line usually concedes the most touches/shots at the edge of the near 5 or near post, whilst mixed setup with 1-2 zonal-markers + rest man-markers mostly concedes touches/shots between 5-penalty spot -› from zonal setup – if defenders make 1st touch on near side – extra point, from mixed setup – if defenders make 1st touch at centre – extra point -› building this into games going to make them even more competitive, as not only the goals count, but the successful actions as well
- defending against blocks – if defenders manage to prevent target player’s touch – extra point / or if defenders manage to make a defensive shift against the block – extra point – as that is possibly the best strategy against the block
- line’s timing at free-kicks – e.g. offside trap/dropping late – if attackers left offside – extra point
- if attackers touch made higher than penalty spot – extra point – implicitly forcing the late movement, prevent to drop early as that would allow the closer touch to the goal from the attacking team
- extra point if GK directly collects the ball – might be useful against specific opponents, who like to block the GK’s movement for inswing crosses inside the 5
For more details on set-piece principles and strategies check my article on Spielverlagerung.