The mainstreaming of football’s set-piece coaches
79th minute in United-Aston Villa: John McGinn is looking at set-piece coach Austin MacPhee for instruction. When Villa score in the 88th it is because Kortney Hause times his run to perfection to get away from marker Edinson Cavani and flick home the corner-kick. On the touchline, Villa coach Dean Smith has the long-haired MacPhee in a bear hug.
9th minute in Chelsea-Southampton: As Chelsea’s corner-kick is fired in, Anthony Rudiger runs away from the goalline but doesn’t do anything apart from distract defenders. As Ruben Loftus-Cheek meets the ball, Trevor Chalobah starts his run towards the near post leaving James ward-Prowse ball watching. Loftus-Cheek’s header bounces in the six-yard box and Chalobah scores with a diving header. If he had missed, Chelsea had Cesar Azpilicueta at hand. Two players had run at the near post for a possible flick-on.
43rd minute in Liverpool-Crystal Palace: Kostas Tsimikas takes a corner-kick aimed at Mo Salah who runs in to meet the ball and flicks it goalwards. Goalie Vicente Guaita parries but there is Sadio Mane ready for exactly such a situation. It is an easy finish for Mane.
In all these goals from 2021, the underlying idea is to create confusion in the team defending. That was also how the only goal of Euro 2020 from a direct free-kick was scored. When Mikkel Damsgaard lined up his shot, Andreas Christensen, Simon Kjaer and Jannik Vestergaard — three tall Danish centre-backs — stood in front and on the left of the England wall. As Damsgaard shot, they ran to the right. The whole point of their exercise was to ensure England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford saw the ball a little later than he otherwise would. It worked.
Against Wales, Italy had three players in an off-side position who drift on-side and into the wall as soon as Marco Verratti slots in his free-kick. Simultaneously, two players standing in front of the wall start running into the Wales penalty box. One of them Matteo Pessina scored with a placement.
These Euro 2020 goals and those listed above are worked out by set-piece coaches, that breed of trainers who are becoming increasingly important to a football team. Italy’s Gianni Vio and Denmark’s Mads Buttgereit may not be top-of-the-mind recalls for those who devoured Euro 2020 but they were as crucial to the teams’ progress as Roberto Mancini and Kasper Hjulmand. Vio, a former banker, is known to have 4830 set-piece routines, including one that had a pair of identical twins just staring at each other; no one among the opposition would know which one to mark.
“In Russia, 68 of the 169 goals were scored from set-pieces. That is 40.2%. Such a high number shows how important these actions are especially between teams at the same level,” said India head coach Igor Stimac.
Four years earlier, Germany were world champions scoring four goals from 32 corner-kicks and conceding none. “Dead balls are a good weapon for any team,” said coach Joachim Loew, crediting Hansi Flick, now his successor, for turning the team around from one which was skeptical about “Standardsituation” to being the best in business. Talking about this in ‘Das Reboot, author Raphael Honigstein said the free-kick against Algeria where Thomas Mueller stumbled provoking global mirth was a routine Germany had trained for and was inspired by one successfully executed by Maldives in an AFC Challenge Cup game against Afghanistan. Anything, even a fall, to catch the opposition off-guard.
That is why Stimac, the former Croatia defender who was part of the team that finished third in the 1998 World Cup said, “more teams than ever are involving set-piece coaches whose responsibility is greater training and tactical improvement in set-pieces.”
“Often, we have time only enough to work on set-pieces,” Stimac said, tongue in cheek referring to the pet peeve of national team coaches get players three days before a game. “In the situation we were in, set-pieces are probably the most important part of our game.”
It came together nicely against Oman in September 2019. India got a free-kick in the 24th minute and as four India players occupied the Oman defenders, Sunil Chhetri peeled away and ran into space where Brandon Fernandes placed his grounder from the left. By the time Oman realised what happened, Chhetri had scored with a left-footer that had the Indira Gandhi stadium in Guwahati shaking.
In an interview to the official broadcasters of the Indian Super League, Fernandes termed that goal as a team effort. Oceans away and almost 22 months later so did Buttgereit when talking about Damsgaard strike. “The teamwork involved in it is fantastic,” he had said.
Sixteen of West Ham’s 62 goals in the 2020-21 Premier League came from set-plays, the maximum, according to whoscored.com. Southampton were second scoring 15 of their 47 and champions Manchester City got 13 of 83. That explains why during pre-season, Liverpool got set-play specialists Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold to work with mental strength coach for greater accuracy. Set-piece coaches are now mainstream.
Therefore if Manchester United score off one, the credit would go as much to the scorer as it would to the 29-year-old Eric Ramsey. Manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, according to a report in The Guardian, got Ramsey over to plug an obvious weakness: United let in 14 goals from set-plays, the second highest in last season’s Premier League, and scored seven. That made them the worst with Sheffield United.
What Ramsey is to United, Nicolas Jover is at Arsenal, Anthony Barry at Chelsea, Carlos Vicens at Manchester City, Dino Toppmoeller at Bayern Munich and Bernardo Cueva at Brentford. The Mexican Cueva’s hand signals from the touchline are as crucial to The Bees’ phenomenal Premier League run as is Thomas Frank’s coaching. Cueva is also part of the Norway national team because coach Stale Solbakken said, “he is someone who can help us in a variety of ways including dead balls.”
Brentford are an important reference point in this conversation. More specifically, FC Midtjylland, where Brentford owner Matthew Benham has a majority stake since 2014, is. A former head of analytics at Brentford and Midtjylland had worked out that 0.3 goals per game come from set-pieces and they can be improved to 0.8 with specialised training.
In 2015, Midtjylland, having crunched hours of video footage of set-play details into a set of routines, were scoring more from set-pieces than every other team in Europe apart from Atletico Madrid. In October 2020, Midtjylland skipper Erik Sviatchenko had said 49% of their goals in 2019-20 were from set-plays. Among their left-field appointments has been a specialist kicking coach who oversees how players from the academy to the senior team are hitting the ball and the devises routines for them.
And it was Midtjylland where Thomas Gronnemark worked. As a throw-in specialist. Juergen Klopp hired him on way to Liverpool winning the Premier League in 2019-20. Liverpool were poor at long throws but when they won the league, they were the second best in Europe in retaining balls under pressure in throw-ins. Buttgereit has worked at Midtjylland and Vio at Brentford.
Being successful at set-pieces is like having another striker, Vio has said. It is an idea that is finding more takers than ever before.
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