Kick-off Strategies tactical analysis training statistics
Artwork by @chapulana

Set piece situations play a vital role in modern football. That is the reason why practicing corner-kicks and free-kicks has become common. However, there is one set piece situation which often gets overlooked: the kick-off.

More and more sides utilise this set piece as an opportunity to execute their match plan from the first minute. The following tactical analysis will explain the importance of the kick-off as well as examine different kick-off strategies.

Rules of the kick-off

There do exist some myths about the rules concerning a kick-off. To understand all options when kicking off, one needs to take a look at the laws first. Different to throw-ins and indirect free-kicks, “a goal may be scored directly from the kick-off” according to FIFA. This allows teams to shoot with the first touch and thereby surprise the opposition goalkeeper.

But there are other vital rules which define the way a side can kick off.

“The kicker must not touch the ball again until it has touched another player.“ (FIFA)

Therefore, dribbling with the ball is not allowed and an interplay between at least two players is necessary when kicking off.

“All players must be in their own half of the field of play.“ (FIFA)

This rule affects the starting position of each player. Due to this law, one cannot position further up the pitch before the whistle. That differs the kick-off from free-kicks in midfield.

The psychological aspect of the kick-off

The point of time of a kick-off sets the kick-off apart from all other set piece situations. As a team only get a kick-off at the beginning of a match or the second half, or after conceding a goal, kick-offs are executed in psychologically important moments of the game.

Therefore, teams can use the kick-off to demonstrate dominance and self-confidence. It is also possible to unsettle the opposition with a promising attack.

Last but not least, concentration plays a key role when kicking off. Many sides lack concentration within the first minute of a match. One can penalise this by attacking right away. On the other hand, one can avoid missing concentration by allocating clear roles for every player during the own kick-off routine. This forces every player to focus on their task right from the beginning.

Controlling the match right from the start

The most common concept when kicking off is to secure possession. Most teams therefore play back passes to their defenders who have full sight of the pitch. Especially for sides which like to dominate the game in possession, this is a sensible approach. Manchester City for example keep possession in the picture below.

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Manchester City play a back-pass and keep possession in this example.

By keeping possession, Pep Guardiola’s side take in their attacking organisation.

Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
Manchester City circulate the ball within the defensive department and thereby allow the attacking department to take in their positions.

However, this strategy also holds a disadvantage. The opposition can move up the pitch and press the team in possession in their half if they aim at pressing high up the pitch.

The common strategy to keep possession from the start may be a sensible concept for teams who prefer to be in possession. If your side prefer an attacking-minded style of play though, it might be more promising to adapt the kick-off routine to this philosophy.

Attacking from the first second

A more direct strategy when kicking off is to progress up the pitch straight away in order to threaten the opposition goal or to shift into the opposition half with the whole team.

There are different ways of attacking from a kick-off. Firstly, one can overplay the opposition with a long ball. This decreases the risk of losing the ball to opposition attackers or midfielders and being caught in a counter-attack. However, it requires the defensive department to quickly progress up the pitch to win second balls in the middle third.

In Serie A, Sampdoria used a 0-0-10 setup when kicking off.

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All Sampdoria’s players position themselves at the halfway line for this kick-off.

However, some of their players dropped into defensive positions while others moved forward to receive a long ball when the referee blew the whistle. The high positioning of all players was supposed to confuse the opposition.

Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
While a few players move up the pitch, others drop into their own half.
Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
After all players moved into their position, Sampdoria then play a long ball towards two attacking players. With a compact shape, Sampdoria are able to win second balls and do not offer much space.

RB Leipzig showed how to successfully score after a long ball kick-off routine.

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RB Leipzig already position eight players at the halfway line during this kick off.
Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
After a long ball, Leipzig head the ball behind the opposition last line of defence. With several players running into depth, Leipzig attempt to create a scoring opportunity within the penalty area.
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Leipzig’s players are faster than the opposition defenders. Utilising this advantage, they score a fast goal after one further cross within the penalty area.

Secondly, it is also possible to use quick combinations on the ground to progress up into the opposition half. This approach entails more risk of being caught by counter-attacks as a pass might get intercepted in the middle third of the pitch. Nevertheless, Bayer Leverkusen once presented a perfectly executed short-pass attacking kick-off resulting in a goal.

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Leverkusen’s left-back is already positioned very high before the opening whistle to be capable of quickly moving up the pitch.
Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
Leverkusen turn towards the opposition goal straight away and use short passes to play out wide.
Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
Leverkusen are able to penalise Dortmund’s poor defensive organisation and create a 2v1 situation in the centre.
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After just eight seconds and four passes, Leverkusen score against Dortmund.

A rather risk-free option is to attack down the wings. Napoli under Sarri, for instance, used to take long balls towards one side of the pitch. Even if Napoli’s attackers cannot control the ball, the distance towards their own goal is very long which decreases the probability of being caught on the break.

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Napoli play a long ball towards the wing. Two players start towards the target zone.
Kick-off strategies Tactical Analysis Coaching Analysis Statistics
While one player heads the ball behind the opposition backline, the other one runs in behind to receive.
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Several players move up the pitch and occupy the penalty area. Napoli then attempt to threaten the opposition goal with a cross.

The risk of attacking kick-offs

However, there is also a risk off being defensively disorganised or having numerical inferiority at the back when attacking right away after the kick-off. The disorganisation can be avoided by allocating enough players to cover the attack in the centre as well as in wide areas. Numerical inferiority on the other hand might result from the opposition attackers staying up front.

As a result, the opposition defend with fewer players which creates a numerical superiority in the attack. One might assume that the chance outweighs the risk in this case. One has to utilise the numerical advantage in order to prevent a dangerous counter-attack.

A recent example of how dangerous attacking kick-offs without enough defensive cover can be is West Brom’s kick-off in an EFL match against Leeds United. West Brom started with a chipped ball. As their attacking player lost the aerial duel, Leeds could counter-attack.

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West Brom take a long ball right after the kick-off and their midfielders progress up the pitch. However, Leeds win the aerial duel.

Since West Brom’s midfielders had moved forward but their defenders had not, a gap between midfield and the last line of defence emerged. Leeds used this space for their following counter-attack.

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Leeds outnumber West Brom during the counter-attack with five attackers against four defenders.

As West Brom only covered their attack with four defenders, Leeds were capable of outplaying their defence and scoring the opening goal.

Unorthodox kick-off varieties 

As already explained earlier, players are allowed to score directly from a kick-off. Depending on the position of the opposition goalkeeper, this strategy can be a promising one.

Another innovative variety that Olympique Marseille showed in 2018 resembles rugby. The Ligue 1 team used to hit a long ball leaving the pitch at the sideline and causing a throw-in for the opposition. Marseille immediately shifted forward into the opposition half.

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Marseille hit the ball off the pitch in the opposition half.

The main aim of this strategy is to keep the ball away from the own goal and to start pressing the opposition within their half. This strategy gives the location of the ball a higher priority than the team being in possession.

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Olympique Marseille attempt to win back the ball in the opposition half with a man-marking approach when Atlético Madrid take a throw-in.

Conclusion

The kick-off is one of the most underestimated set-piece situations in football. Due to the specific moments a kick-off is executed, the psychological effect plays a key role.

There are endless kick-off strategies. Every team has to find their own kick-off strategy which fits their style of play. Nevertheless, especially in youth football, the kick-off should support an active style of play rather than just kicking the ball out to defend the following throw-in.


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