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Tactical theory: Set-pieces

What are set-pieces?

Set-pieces generally refer to instances during a game when the ball is being returned back into play following a short stop in the proceedings. This category can then be further divided into different types of set-pieces, namely corner kicks, free kick, throw-ins and penalty kicks. Over the years, set-pieces were mostly used as a way to quickly get the ball into the box and then use a physical advantage, either in the form of strength, height or both, to head it into the net.

However, as football evolved, so did the teams’ tactics and nowadays, different squads have different set-piece plays. These are planned strategies that teams may use during a set-piece and can involve different types of movement, blocking, creating channels, crowding the goalkeeper and disrupting the opposition.

Some of the more general terms that are closely connected with set-pieces are crosses, aerial duels, different kinds of deliveries and of course, headed goals. The efficiency of these tactics largely depends on the whole structure and the focus of the team, as well as the type of personnel they have at their disposal.

Examples of set-pieces in football

All of the aforementioned subcategories are classified as set-pieces. These include corner kicks, free kicks, penalty kicks and throw-ins. When we talk about big European teams and their set-piece proficiency, we have to mention Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool or even the likes of RB Leipzig and Newcastle United to some extent.

On the other side of the spectrum among the worst performers are Frank Lampard’s Chelsea and Barcelona in general, who were never really proficient at these kinds of tactics. While big and powerful defenders such as Virgil van Dijk are still highly effective when it comes to any kind of set-pieces, nowadays they are more about tactically outplaying the opposition rather than outmuscling them in a physical duel in the air.

Of course, there is also the possibility to use both corner kicks and free kicks as direct threats on goal, albeit as a general rule of thumb, only the latter is more commonly utilised that way. Throw-ins are rarely given much attention but even that type of set-piece is becoming quite a powerful tool only the best teams can take advantage of.

Why use set-pieces?

Set-pieces are a great way of both advancing the play and immediately putting the opposition team under threat. While some teams may struggle to outplay their opponent in open play, set-pieces could offer a whole different approach to their game and they might find more success in it. Generally speaking, this is one of the ways the smaller teams can upset and hurt the bigger ones.