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The importance of set pieces

Crystal Palace - Middlesborough 0-1

If you have John Terry on your side, you might be already half celebrating just getting a corner kick. You want free kicks if David Beckham is playing for you. Andrew Johnson equals a goal at a penalty spot. Often you play ninety minutes of football but still only one set piece is a difference between any sides. It is not really even proper football that is why it is also called a dead ball situation. Dead or alive those balls are making a difference these days.

We lost again our game against Middlesborough because of one corner kick. Apart from that, there was nothing in the game, all possession, attacking and defending plays were meaningless compared to that sole situation. That is modern football. This Saturday 7 out of 17 goals in the Premiership came from corners, free-kicks or penalties. That is over 40 percent. Overall this season the percentage is about the same. So even with footballer’s math skills you can count winning or losing from ten to twenty-five points a season from set plays. That could mean a survival or a trophy.

We can talk all we want about great build up plays and skills, but it is coming very hard to score from an open play. Too many things just have to go perfect. Teams are well organised and have many more bodies round the ball than attacking side. As much as Arsenals and Barcelonas are still trying to show the beauty of football we are heading a different direction. Effectiveness of winning the right margins start from set pieces.

There are teams that have built their game for set plays. Bolton and Everton have mastered the delivery and presence, they want to make a situation out from even longer range by dragging their big boys up every time. That also breaks the flow of the game and brings it to their strengths. Even Chelsea has enjoyed a lot of their success from excellent end-product in both boxes. All these teams have couple of things in common. They are big, their delivery is spot on and they take their time to put it right by the plan each time. They are enjoying a good season.

When you look a size of them, you realise that you’ll get murdered if you line up a hobbit team against them. I heard one female supporter laughing when a big striker scored from a corner that size seems to matter also in football. Not everything though. Movement is equally important, you have to get into the right areas. You need to have a nose for it. And be on a move constantly. Sloppiness and not keeping your eye where it should be is too common. That is why not always the biggest score. You get often these big centre halves come up but they never get their balls in. You need to know how to deliver when you get the chance.

Many players are labelled world class just because they have mastered doing something for a non-moving ball. Also some less known players have made a career possessing just one limited talent like being a long thrower or good ball crosser. These are all abilities and talents of increasing importance. Every team have to have a free kick expert. If you don’t possess one, make one or buy one. Not just to achieve couple of bend it like beckham goals but it is even more important delivery is always right on the money. There is no point of making all the plans and right movements if the delivery is like John Smiths “Have it!” Set-pieces, if something, can and should be practised to finest details.

First you see what you got. You might have size, trickiness or other assets. If you don’t have the right skill, you can go for out-muscling the opponent. That would require big and strong enough team, normally you need 4 to 5 beasts to get an edge because every team have at least couple of strong ones to cancel your biggest towers.

You can also plan a trick. There are millions of variations tried to give an advantage of surprise. Often they are too complicated to be executed efficiently. When too many moving parts have to go right it is more likely resulting the whole stadium laughing the misunderstandings and tripping to your own smartness. Simple cleverness is the sweetest when you pull it off.

Whatever you do you have to practise it. Everyone must know their jobs. You need to exploit opponent’s weaknesses. We have scored 18 out of our 33 goals this season from set plays. So we have done our home work but we’ve also lost too many points although we always study opposite set plays before a game. The planning helps but still it is just you against your man.

Before a game you have been given a task to mark a certain player. Normally he is around your size and calibre. Already from the tunnel your fight against him starts, you have to do anything to prevent him scoring. There are all sorts of pushing, holding and blocking to find an advantage. In open play there are always many explanations, but in set pieces there are no excuses, your man is your man. If he scores the hammer falls on you. He has either out-muscled or outsmarted you or your concentration is not been right. And you have to face the hard task to hold your hand up in the locker room to say sorry for your team mates.

It’s been a while but I still feel all the painful times my man has scored. I remember all their names, faces and situations, those bastards! I have counted I’m still on top though. Probably because I don’t seem to possess bigger threat than being always marked by Frodos. One movement for your defender one for yourself, never stand still, always concentrate, expect the best and have desire.

We are heading towards an era of set plays and specialists. They have become so important that we seek them. Unfortunately it encourages not just preferring physical team but also cheating to get them. You have too many players falling more than stock markets at beginning of this Millennium just to get a penalty or a free kick. There are not just specialists to execute them but also to get them. Both are going for the margins. That is how many games are won or lost. Like we did on Saturday.


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