How Al-Ittihad have massively used set-pieces to their advantage to win the Saudi Pro League – set-piece analysis
Al-Ittihad have just been crowned as the Saudi Professional League champions for the first time since 2009, following Nuno Espirito Santo’s arrival last July. In a close-fought battle with Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad soared to the top, with set plays playing a large and important role in their success.
16 of their 60 league goals have been scored through set plays, whilst an additional 13 were scored from the penalty spot, and only 31 goals were scored in open play. Al-Ittihad relied on their strong defensive set-up, along with their set-piece routines to climb to the top, with their open-play goal tally being in line with teams around the relegation zone.
Karim Benzema’s arrival from Real Madrid, as well as N’Golo Kante’s rumoured move from Premier League side Chelsea, will surely improve their ability to create and score chances from open play, along with any other possible arrivals that come throughout the summer.
In this tactical analysis, we will look into the tactics used by Al-Ittihad, with an in-depth analysis of how they have been able to use different routines to create high-quality chances. This set-piece analysis will look at why the different methods were effective and how their use of floated crosses helped to highlight Ahmed Hegazy’s aerial superiority.
Floated crosses to the back post
One of Al-Ittihad’s most common methods of chance creation through set plays has been the use of floated crosses towards the back of the six-yard area. A floated cross provides attackers with more time to appropriately position themselves, thus increasing the chance of making the first contact, although the slow pace of the ball reduces the likelihood of the immediate header being strong enough to beat the goalkeeper.
Al-Ittihad have utilised floated crosses to force a chaotic second phase. By delivering the ball outside of the posts where there is an absence of defenders, they massively increase the probability of making the first contact from where they can put the ball into the six-yard box with the hope that the remaining attackers can lose their markers during the second phase while defending players watch the ball and lose track of the attackers’ positions.
In the image below, we can see the deep cross arriving at the players’ feet, from where the ball is played across the six-yard box. It is nearly impossible to gamble to block the cross due to the huge number of options a player has when the ball is in the air as they can choose to header it, volley it or bring it down and dribble. As a result, it is easy to put the ball back into the six-yard box, although Al-Ittihad’s remaining players also were caught ball-watching, meaning they remained static near their markers and failed to create separation in this particular example.
Al-Ittihad have utilised this method frequently, where attackers move away from their markers when the ball is floated in so that by the time the ball is crossed the second time, they have space between themselves and the defender, meaning they can attack the ball with added momentum, leading to an aerial advantage.
Below, we can see another example of Al-Ittihad’s use of floated crosses. There are three players inside the opposition’s six-yard box, who are all unmarked and in dangerous goalscoring positions. The player knocking the ball down fails to spot the open players and perhaps is worried about the goalkeeper intercepting the attempt so he opts for the safer option. Although it may not be the optimal option, the great thing about creating chances through flick-ons or knockdowns is that every player has the chance of losing their marker and being in space. The ball is knocked down towards the edge of the box, where Ahmed Hegazy has dropped off and can control the ball with space around him, before unleashing a shot from within 18 yards of the goal.
Another way in which Al-Ittihad have utilised the floated crosses is by making it easier for attackers to time their runs, thus making it easier to create separation from their marker. With most corner kicks, the ball is whipped in and comes towards the box with pace. As a result, attackers have two key issues with timing their runs. Firstly, it is hard to know when to start the movement. Players before taking a corner may stutter or alter the length of their run-up to the corner which makes it difficult for an attacker to perfectly time their run-up to attack the ball perfectly. Secondly, until the ball is hit, it is unclear how quickly and where the ball will go. Attackers have no time to react when the ball is delivered with pace, and so it’s impossible to meet the cross if it is slightly misplaced by the corner taker.
Floated crosses make attacks more predictable for attackers as the two issues become irrelevant. An attacker can start attempting to create separation only whilst the ball is in mid-air, due to the slower pace of the cross, and so they don’t have to time it with the taker’s run up. At that moment, the pace of the ball is apparent and so the risk of the corner taker’s delivery being inconsistent is taken away as they can judge the pace of the ball for themselves before making their move.
The only factors left in the resulting corner are the attacker’s ability to create space for themselves, and the defender’s ability to remain close to the attacker which can be difficult in situations like the one below, where the attacker is looming over their back shoulder.
In this example, Ahmed Hegazy uses his teammate as a screen before the corner is taken in order to give himself extra time and space in the lead-up to his aerial duel. When he runs around one side of a player, the marker has to run around the other side which creates a good few yards of space.
With the space created, preventing Hegazy’s marker from being able to stay in contact, the Egyptian defender is able to make his move towards the ball without interruption. Now that the ball has been kicked, Hegazy is able to judge where the ball will land and attack the ball with the right speed and direction. His marker is also focused on the path of the ball, but with Hegazy remaining near the back post, it is difficult to have both the ball and the attacker in his view.
We can see Hegazy attempting the header at the back of the six-yard box in acres of space, whilst his marker is on the floor, although the headed effort is slightly off target.
In a similar method to the above image, Hegazy creates distance between himself and his marker by running around the cluster of teammates next to him. His marker is forced to chase his back, which means that Hegazy can simply header the ball as long as the cross is one that he can run onto. These corner kicks can be effective, although Al-Ittihad have used this method less frequently due to the extra risk of the corner being inaccurate when they know they can rely on Hegazy’s aerial superiority.
Second phase security
On occasion, Al-Ittihad have also cleverly placed decoys by either post whose sole purpose is to drag a marker and bring the offside line back to the goal line. With the offside line by the goal, attackers are able to place themselves beside the goal and remain onside during second-phase attacks, meaning they can camp by the post to score rebounds should the original shot be saved or shot wide. Al-Ittihad’s pre-planned routines mean that they can strategically position themselves in order to increase the chance of making the first contact with any second-phase opportunities.
For example, in the instance below, the attackers know the ball will be crossed towards the near side of the six-yard box. The headed effort is usually attempted towards the far side of the goal, and so the decoy run is made towards the near post, where the offside line is deep and an attacker can position himself on the back post in case the header is placed wide of the goal.
Alternatively, when the cross is aimed towards the back side of the six-yard box, the Al-Ittihad attacker places himself next to the back post where the offside line can remain deep whilst the other attackers drift towards the near post.
Although the aerial duel is lost, we can see that the last defender has played two Al-Ittihad attackers onside who were waiting for the ball to land at their feet. Both attackers had no one blocking the path between them and the goal, meaning the chance would likely end in a goal if the first contact was made.
Al-Ittihad have also used a number of short corner variations to help remain unpredictable yet efficient. In this first routine, Al-Ittihad play a backward pass in order to attract the defensive line to step up. Whilst the defensive line moves up, the attackers move into the space left behind, with the opposite movement being difficult to track due to the momentum of the defenders taking them away from the six-yard box. As a result, the Al-Ittihad attackers are able to arrive in the six-yard box unmarked with a free header from six yards out.
One other routine which Al-Ittihad have utilised is to play a pass to a player on the byline, positioned between the edge of the box and the corner flag. When this player receives the ball, we can see how every defensive player’s vision is fixated on the ball, making it very easy for players at the back post to drift away from their markers. Being so close to the byline and box gives defending teams additional problems, especially when only one player is closing the ball down. The defender must protect the box first and foremost, and as a result, the space around the corner of the 18-yard box is vast.
It is clear to see how much time and space the attacker has after receiving the pass at the edge of the box from where he can place a shot following a good touch. The positioning of the first player coming short and receiving the ball from the corner taker can effect the angle at which you enter the penalty box, and Al-Ittihad have experimented with different penalty box entries throughout the season.
This tactical analysis has detailed the different ways in which Al-Ittihad have utilised set-pieces in order to gain valuable points in the Saudi Pro League. The towering presence of Ahmed Hegazy is a set piece coach’s dream to work with due to the endless possibilities gained by having the comfort of knowing there is a player who will win most aerial duels, and his value to the team was demonstrated throughout the season in both boxes.
The potential new arrivals coming into the league will create an even more competitive season where further games will remain as tight affairs. Al-Ittihad’s ability to unlock doors through dead-ball situations has the potential to be the key difference-maker from game to game, due to their numerous effective methods and supreme aerial quality in the squad.