Breaking down four defending strategies at indirect free-kicks – set-piece analysis
Set-pieces are an integral part of the higher levels of football, as distinguished teams continually look for any potential way to make some kind of gains and excel. Over time, set-piece analysis has become an important topic, and an essential matter for all teams, so set-pieces are no longer as random as they were in the past.
With the tremendous development in set pieces, and after they became the decisive factor in matches and even championships, fans became more interested in understanding the tactics of set pieces and their basic principles.
In this article, we will write about one of the essential principles of set pieces, which is the defending strategies against free kicks conceded, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each of them.
In this tactical analysis, we will explain the different strategies for defending free kicks conceded: zonal marking in a high line with a late drop, zonal marking in a high line with an early drop, zonal marking in a deep line and a man-marking system.
Zonal marking in a high line with a late drop
In this strategy, teams try to push opponents high to keep the attackers away from the goal using the offside trap, as shown below. Many elite teams, like Arsenal, in this case, prefer to use this strategy by starting to drop late as the taker touches the ball, which is risky, according to some people’s point of view.
It forces the attackers to start to move late, making their headed shots come from a long distance away from the goal, reducing the possibility of converting headed shots into goals, or starting to move early falling in the offside trap.
The opponents have many ideas to overcome this strategy by many ideas which aim to break the offside trap. Two takers manipulation, using offside attackers to block or to be onside later and using the far post attacker as a trap are the most common ideas to overcome this strategy.
In this case below, we will focus on a point where Arsenal showed a shortcoming: defending against two takers’ manipulation, one pretending that he would execute. Thus, the line or part of it moves, and the second one executes when the line or part has become irregular.
This is clear in the picture below in which Gabriel Magalhães and Ben White, in green, drop before the rest of the line after the first executor’s deception, in blue, which is too dangerous because it breaks the offside trap, as we will explain later.
Then, in their match against Liverpool, Arsenal, in the picture below, rectified the matter and was not affected by the deception of the second taker, but a new idea appeared against this strategy.
First of all, we should know that White’s role (green) is different from the rest of the line because his task is to block the opponent’s player who moves after the line to the far post because if this player moves in the blind side of the last player in the line, he will have time and space to reach the ball from a movement with significant momentum and it will be far for the goalkeeper to come out.
Here, Liverpool use White as bait to delay and break the offside. Ibrahima Konaté squeezes White inside and deceives him that he is the target keeping rubbing him inside, so he gets back from the line covering the offside for Van Dijk (yellow) who starts already from an offside position relative to the line; then he gets onside.
Indeed, the ball reaches Van Dijk, but it is stronger with the harassment of Thomas Partey and Gabriel Magalhães.
Here, against Man City, the situation is closer to the goal, which leads to the presence of 3 players in the wall with some different roles, but we focus on the two points that City used based on studying Arsenal. The idea of City is similar to Liverpool’s idea with some differences.
In the first photo, Manuel Akanji (yellow) stands a little further away from Arsenal’s line and thus takes the attention of White with John Stones (green) starting in front of Gabriel, not behind him, to get Gabriel’s attention.
In the second photo, With Bernardo Silva’s movement to deceive, Stones (green) moves behind Gabriel, making sure that Gabriel sees him making him reassured that Stones is offside. Akanji’s role (yellow) is to continue running with White with the help of Stones’ position, pretending that he holds Gabriel to free Akanji behind him, and this is very motivating for White to continue running with Akanji.
In the third photo, the line, like Liverpool’s match, is not affected by Bernardo’s deception, but White’s position, in yellow, makes Stones onside, so when Kevin De Bruyne touches the ball, Stones (green) moves towards the goal without Gabriel’s bothering who is reassured that Stones is offside.
White understands the trap late, then decides to stop before De Bruyne’s execution pushing Akanji with his back. It would have been offside, but his luck is bad that he reveals the offside with his foot comb, but Akanji (yellow) knows his role well and keeps rubbing him and squeezing him as much as possible so that Stones would not be offside.
In the fourth photo, an important detail appears. Rúben Dias and Rodri, who started from an offside position with Erling Haaland, stand in front of Thomas Partey, which attracts Granit Xhaka to help him, making it easier for Haaland to go to the near post.
As we mentioned, the headed shot from this distance by this body position is difficult, so John Stones may miss the goal or be saved by Aaron Ramsdale. Rodri and Erling Haalandare are ready by the near post, but Stones scores a goal directly.
Zonal marking in a high line with an early drop
It looks like the previous system, but the line drops early, which makes the defenders’ position better to receive the cross before the attackers, but it has weaknesses, as we will show.
In the first photo, A.S. Roma’s line is high, in yellow, but in the second photo, the line drops early before the taker, in green, touches the ball, which makes the player, in blue, can run a longer distance without fearing the offside; it doesn’t need a complicated tactic as the previous scheme because it just becomes a race between defenders and attackers.
It should be mentioned that the player in blue is free because of the player in yellow’s movement in front of the last defender in the line, which is something in the routine away from the strategy.
In the third photo, he gets the ball near the goal, which is difficult to happen in the previous strategy to be near the goal without a defender annoying you in a good position, too, with the help of the yellow player who blocks the last defender in the line. The result is a goal, as shown in the fourth photo.
Zonal marking in a deep line
In this system, teams defend zonally with a deep line with man markers or a second zone line in front of the main line.
Here, A.C. Milan defended by four players in the deep line in green, two man-markers in blue, a player in black to track any attacker cutting in front of the line on the near post, a player for the rebound in red and a player in yellow for the short option.
The main advantage of this system is that defenders face the ball with their faces which is a positional superiority, so they can watch the ball, watch all movements and select when to jump, making it difficult for attackers to get the ball in the line area, as shown below.
The main disadvantage of this system is that losing the first touch means a goal because the line is near the goal. The case below shows that if the routine succeeds, you will be dead.
In the first photo, the targeted man, with the yellow arrow, targets the space between the two zonal players, in green, with the help of the blue and red players who drag their man markers with them to the near post taking the attention of the zonal defender, as shown in the second picture.
In the third picture, the plan works, but the goalkeeper saves the ball, but the fight is close to the goal, so losing the first touch is a problem. Then the green player gets the ball scoring a goal, as shown in the fourth picture.
One of the most common routines against this system is targeting the area before the deep line.
In the first photo, the targeted area is in black, with the three green players dragging their man markers away from it.
In the second photo, Edin Džeko, in green, blocks the zonal defender to make it easy for the three yellow players to target the black area, while Denzel Dumfries, in blue, moves away to the far post with his man.
In the third photo, the yellow player drags his marker to empty the space for the two red players while Džeko blocks the zonal defender in green, but they can get the ball which reaches Džeko, who flicks it toward the goal.
It is saved while Dumfries tries to follow it, but the defender gets it first.
Here, Gianni Vio’s side uses the same idea but uses a green stack of two players who cut inside, dragging their markers to leave Harry Kane, in yellow, alone in the targeted area, as shown in the first and second photos. The plan works, but the goalkeeper saves the ball, as shown in the third and fourth photos.
The problem in this system is that it is tough for the defender to track the attacker in this significant area far from the goal, which is more difficult than the man-marking defending system in corners.
One of the ideas against this system is using screens, as in the case below. In the first photo, it is clear that it is easy to drag man markers wherever you want, so they are on the side of the near post except for the red player, who moves to the far post to create the gap.
The green player targets the black area with the help of the yellow player, who acts as a screen for him, as shown in the first photo. In the second photo, the screen is clear, so the targeted player receives the ball, but the green player, in the fourth picture gets the trick at the last moment.
The mismatch is also used against this system because it is so difficult to keep marking strong players at this considerable distance.
In the first photo, Virgil van Dijk is the targeted man on the far post, while the blue player blocks anyone who gets close to him.
In the second photo, the mismatch is apparent, knowing that the defender’s orientation is difficult to see the opponent and the player at the same time, the plan works, but the cross is inaccurate, so the cross gets Diogo Jota, not VVD, who hits the ball near the post.
This analysis has explained the different strategies for defending free kicks conceded, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each system.
We should know that football does not have right and wrong in an absolute way, but rather points of view that can change, and we should also know that a coach may prefer a certain strategy in general but can’t try it with their team because of the unsuitability of his players’ abilities with that method.