A Featured article by Mushir Ahmed (Twitter – @mush112)
Corners, free kicks, penalties constitute a set piece! There are always talks about how important it is to tackle a set piece in crucial moments of the game. Remember David Beckham against Greece when he scored a stunning free kick in the dying embers of the qualifier to take England into 2002 FIFA World Cup Finals?
Or recall a normal Premier League match where set pieces are an important avenue for goals for every team.
But the question is whether the set pieces are equally effective as the normal play possession? This can be retorted in two parts. Firstly, the answers may vary from team to team. It is usually (historically) understood that lower ranked teams focus more on improving their ability to score using set pieces as they lack the skills to score through normal attacking strategy (open game).
For example, if we understand from the research done by Paul Power et.al. That during the 2016-17 season, West Bromwich Albion (a middle-ranked team in the Premier League then) scored around 35% (16 out of 43) goals using the aforementioned ploy. On the other hand, other teams of similar ranking like Sunderland scored only 7% through it.
Hence, this contradicts the fact that the lesser lights of the league invest more time in training on a set-piece or are more effective with it.
However, if we go through the second part of the answer, then yes, they can be equally threatening as normal play possession. If we go back a bit in history (not too back just around 20 years), both of Manchester United’s goals in their dramatic 1999 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich came through corner kicks.
Marco Materazzi’s equalizing goal for Italy in the 2006 World Cup final came through a bullet header from a corner kick. The game ultimately went on the penalties and the Azzurri won the World Cup.
In the 2014 Champions League final, Sergio Ramos’ equalizer for Real Madrid in the very last minute against Atletico Madrid provided the base another silverware and European glory to the Los Blancos.
Talking about the international football, the amount of set pieces usage was on a record high during the FIFA World Cup 2018. The group stage matches had around 53% of goals coming from set pieces, in comparison to 25% in 2014.
But the increase could also be partly attributable to an increase in awareness of the importance of set pieces, as well as the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR).
So, we have talked in the above paragraphs about the increasing emergence of set pieces as part of the strategy of teams both at the club and international levels to score their goals.
There has been an upsurge in tactical and strategic ploy in order to score from a corner and free kicks. Central backs (usually taller) or other taller players play an important role in using their height to be a genuine threat in the box from indirect free-kicks and corners.
With the increase in attacking instinct using set pieces, another important question arises – how can teams detect or defend against these set-piece attacks (do not consider penalty shoot here). Defending this is very tricky and may involve a study of network and graph theory.
However, we will not into mathematical jargon in this article. Paul et.al have pointed two major attributes when it comes to defending the corners. 1) man marking or 2) defenders on the front and back posts.
Compared to the latter one, the former technique is more challenging and owing to lack of adequate, it is very difficult to analyze its efficiency. The use of defenders on the post is easy to understand and adequate data can be obtained if the defenders on posts affect the goal scoring or not.
The recent study as discussed in the study of Paul ET. AL. suggest using a convolutional neural network (CNN) to learn relative predication from the image. CNN based prediction is said to have better data capture efficiency and can give adequate data to the coaches and managers to plot the man marking technique more efficiently.
In the normal terms, man marking has been one of the effective ways to tackle against set pieces. It is important that the defenders understand the importance of marking tightly in the penalty area and not lose their man. It also helps the players to read the game and clear the ball.
In this article, we have given an overview of the set pieces, how effectively they have merged in the modern football and are becoming part of mainstay scoring techniques. The use of modern data acquisition and science can give a manager enough input in order to strengthen his team defence against set pieces goals.
Of course, man marking is one of the important ones, but we have also used reference of the previous study that suggests better data acquisition is always required to increase the effectiveness while using it to defend the corners or free kicks.