Set-pieces remain an extremely underrated feature of modern football. Most fans, and even those with a deeper interest in the game, focus a lot more on teams’ tactics and set-ups from open play than on set-pieces. However, it is well established that improving a side’s efficiency, both defensively and offensively, is a quick way to generate a lot of improvement, certainly in terms of results. Set-pieces are a great way to ‘equalize’ talent gaps between teams, and this is the reason why you will often see weaker teams utilising corners and free-kicks, rather than any strategies from open play, to score against perceived stronger opponents.
One of the best teams in the Premier League in this regard has been Southampton. The south coast side have scored three goals from corners, with a further four coming from free-kicks, according to Wyscout, making them one of the most dangerous sides from dead-ball situations in the league this season. Of course, having a player like James Ward-Prowse helps, as the Englishman has been particularly lethal in this campaign with his shooting from free-kicks, as well as his delivery into the box from corners and wide free-kicks. However, it is not just Ward-Prowse who is responsible for the Saints’ set-piece proficiency – there are a number of well-coached and well-thought routines that we have seen on multiple occasions, which have often created dangerous situations, even if they did not end up being scored. Their threat from set-pieces has been one of the ways in which Southampton have managed to bridge the gap, at least in an attacking sense, to some of the top teams, and in this analysis piece, we will look at some of their most frequently-used and successful routines from such situations this season.
Southampton’s threat from set-pieces
The following graphic, taken from InStat, shows the location of all the shots that the Saints have taken from corners and indirect free-kicks this season, including the goals scored as well.
We can immediately see how Southampton have been able to get a lot of shots from dangerous areas in the penalty box this season due to their set-piece prowess. There are two clusters in particular which need a little more investigation. The first is central, just around the six-yard line, and includes a couple of goals, while the second is towards the right-hand side of the box, almost forming a line from around as deep as the penalty spot, to midway inside the six-yard area, and this also includes a number of goals. Both of these are a result of specific set-piece routines seen from Southampton this season, and we will now dive into these in further detail to understand the Saints’ excellent work in these situations.
Ward-Prowse has taken the vast majority of corners and free-kicks for Southampton this season, with Ryan Bertrand providing a left-footed option at times to change the angle of delivery. Regardless of the set-piece taker, Southampton have shown some clear tendencies when attacking set-piece deliveries, especially corners, and the first one we shall look at is their set-up when attacking outswinging corners, either delivered by Ward-Prowse from the right or Bertrand from the left.
One trait that Southampton have shown repeatedly during outswinging corners is to use two lines of attacking players to create space. One would expect that the central area of the penalty box, between the penalty spot and the edge of the six-yard box, would be the space most frequently targeted from these corners, due to the trajectory of the ball as it swings ‘out’. Thus, Southampton try and ensure that they clear space in this area for their players to attack the ball.
In this image, we can see how Aston Villa’s defence is positioned at the edge of their six-yard box, but there are no Southampton players nearby. They are all much deeper, with a group of three players bunched closely together centrally and looking to run into that space when Ward-Prowse delivers the ball.
In this example, Aston Villa were basically sitting on top of their six-yard box, inviting Southampton to run towards them. However, when teams do look to engage the Saints, they use the aforementioned twin waves of attack to create separation and space.
Here, against Arsenal, we can see two Southampton players make runs into the six-yard box as the corner is delivered, thereby dragging two Arsenal players with them. This means that there are now five Arsenal players in their own six-yard box, with the ball going to the space between that area and the penalty spot.
We can see the impact of this movement in this image – the Arsenal defenders are almost in a line, level with the edge of the six-yard box, and are therefore almost running backwards to try and meet the ball, with the two Saints players (highlighted) running forward into the space to attack the delivery. This corner was cleared, but it is a great example to show how these two separate forward waves were timed to try and create the most space in a dangerous area.
Another tendency we have seen from Southampton has been the use of a player arriving late from outside the penalty area to meet the corner.
Late run into the box
This approach yielded a goal a few weeks earlier against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium, where Stuart Armstrong was on hand to sweep home the ball after making an unmarked run into the box.
As Ward-Prowse prepares to take the corner, there are four Arsenal players in the vicinity of their six-yard box, with two Southampton players engaging them. Che Adams has moved into an unmarked position at the far post, while on the edge of the area, three Southampton players are preparing to make runs which will draw the Arsenal defenders away from Armstrong, highlighted lurking outside the area.
Note that this situation also shows Southampton’s tendency to try and create space in central areas in the penalty box to attack such corners – the actual situation that plays out will depend on where Ward-Prowse delivers the ball, but the Saints always have at least a couple of plans active from set-pieces.
As the corner is hit, we can see how Armstrong charges into the box, with the Southampton players ahead of him having run forward to clear that very space for him.
He ends up hitting the ball cleanly, in space, and scores with a well-placed shot into the corner. Note how Adams is still lurking at the back post, alert in case of a spill by Bernd Leno.
This is a move that has been attempted by Southampton on a few occasions this season, although it has not always been as successful as it was against Arsenal.
A similar set-up, this time against Sheffield United – two Southampton players preparing to run into the box from the edge of the area, a couple of players at the far post, and one in the middle of the box, with Armstrong outside the penalty area, being tracked by John Fleck.
When the ball is delivered, Armstrong is able to run into space, with the Sheffield United defenders having been dragged deep by the preceding runs of the two Southampton centre-backs. There are a couple of other interesting runs and movements taking place as well – Oriol Romeu and Danny Ings are looking to peel away towards the central space, while Che Adams has made the opposite movement towards the far post from his central position, to take advantage of Romeu’s and Ings’ runs. Armstrong scuffs his shot, however, and the chance goes begging – but this again highlights Southampton’s ingenuity from corners, as well as the variety of movement we see in the box, which we shall also analyse in more detail later in this piece.
Crowding the near post
This is a trait that has usually been deployed on inswinging corners i.e. if Bertrand is taking a corner from the right, or Ward-Prowse is delivering from the left. While the aim on outswinging corners has been to clear the central space on account of the ball’s trajectory, the near post area has been targeted on inswinging deliveries, again based on the fact that this is an area that is easy to hit from an inswinging delivery.
Here, against Manchester City, we can see how there is a literal crowd of players at the near post, blocking the goalkeeper’s access to the ball, as well as forcing the City defenders deep into the six-yard box as well. This also allows for a player, in this case, Romeu, to make a run into the space in the box to pick up any flick-ons or ricochets that land in that area.
Another example of this tactic, this time used against Arsenal, where it is Jannik Vestergaard, the Danish centre-back who is over 6’6”, looking to make that run into the centre of the six-yard box.
This tactic has already earned Southampton a goal this season, with Jan Bednarek scoring against Manchester United with a near-post flick, and it is an extremely effective tactic, especially since it prevents the goalkeeper from coming out to punch or claim the ball.
There is no doubt that having players who are good in the air will be of huge benefit to any side that is looking to be a threat from set-pieces, and therefore it is no surprise that Southampton have often made Vestergaard the target of their set-pieces. The Dane has already scored thrice from set-piece situations this season, and given the obvious height advantage he has over the majority of players in the league, it makes sense for Southampton to try and get him on the end of their set-piece deliveries as often as possible.
We can see this in this example from the recent game against Newcastle United. Bednarek makes a run outside the near post, to drag a defender away from the Dane, while the runs of the other Southampton players are also similarly geared towards creating space for the centre-back.
This means that there is a cluster of Southampton players around the near post area, leaving the area behind them relatively free for Vestergaard to attack the ball.
The centre-back has not only been used as a primary target; he is also targeted as the player to flick balls on or provide a second ball into the danger area, especially from free-kicks.
Here, the Saints have a free-kick in a relatively deep and slightly wide position. The Wolves defensive line is on the edge of their box, with Vestergaard looking to peel off the front and behind them into space.
Ward-Prowse floats the ball towards him, with Vestergaard then aiming to head the ball into the centre of the box, towards the three Southampton players.
This time, it’s a free-kick on the left, but with a similar setup – the Wolves line is on the edge of the box, while Vestergaard is again trying to make a run to the far post area.
Again, the purpose is similar – the Dane wins the initial header to loop a ball into the box and towards three Southampton attackers.
Vestergaard will often take up different positions in the box during Southampton set-pieces – he is not always looking to attack the centre of the area.
The usual staples of Southampton corners can be seen here – two players outside the box, with a tendency to overload the near post area since this is an inswinging corner, and a player looking to make a run from a central position towards the far post. Note, however, that Vestergaard is the player at the far post, rather than being at the near post or even looking to attack the ball from deep.
We have already spoken about Vestergaard’s obvious physical advantages in aerial duels, so it would be negligent of Southampton to not try and take advantage of this during set-pieces.
Other traits and tendencies
Southampton’s set-pieces are marked by another interesting trait – a player making a late run towards the far post area, with the movement of the other players often allowing him to be in space, either to attack the ball directly, or pick up rebounds and ricochets.
We can see this here in this example from the game against Leicester City. Most of the Southampton and Leicester players are ahead of the penalty spot, which allows Theo Walcott to make a run towards the far post, behind Wesley Fofana.
This corner against Liverpool has a lot of the moves we have discussed previously. There are two players on the edge of the area who can run into space in the box, with one player making the run towards the far post we have just discussed, while the two central players (#5 and #35) try to make runs towards the near post. Thus, we have seen how Southampton usually put multiple runs, movements and strategies in place during corners, with the final result depending on Ward-Prowse and Bertrand’s deliveries.
Southampton have one of the Premier League’s best set-piece takers in James Ward-Prowse, so there is an obvious benefit to putting together well-drilled set-piece routines on the training ground to take advantage of his accuracy from such situations. The Saints have already scored a few goals from these situations this season, and we can expect to see them continue this trend as the campaign progresses.