Is it? And would it be a good thing if it were?
Before I take a look at the goals scored in the first round of the current World Cup, some preliminary comments. I shall not use that term, set pieces, simply because it annoys me. They used to be called set plays, which is shorter and more descriptive. “Set piece” is a term surely borrowed from the theater, it has a pretentious ring to it.
Set plays, then. How to define them? Any play starting with a dead-ball seems acceptable: free kicks, corner kicks, throw-ins. Goal kicks? Well, maybe, at a stretch.
Another definition is needed, to describe goals that are not scored from set plays. I don’t know of one, so I’ve invented -- as a temporary stop gap -- the “run-of-play” (rop) goal.
So far so good. But there is an awkward sort of goal that doesn’t fit into either category -- set-play or rop. The penalty kick. Clearly not a rop. A dead-ball play, but not one that fits comfortably into the notion treasured by the set-play fans, that of a situation that can be exploited with clever play -- by “setting” it, in other words.
As I don’t know what to do with penalty kick goals, I’m leaving them out of this survey.
The first round of the World Cup featured 48 games, in which 121 goals were scored. I’m reducing that total to 102, getting rid of the 19 penalty kick goals that I have counted.
Even so, definition problems remain for corner kick and free-kick goals. A goal scored direct from a free kick obviously counts as a set-play goal (Ronaldo’s beauty near the end of the Spain- Portugal is the example here) as does a goal scored by a player who immediately turns the free kick into an assist as he scores.
But what if a goal follows a free kick -- a few seconds later, after, say, the original kick has been cleared, after maybe two or three further touches of the ball? Is that still a set-play goal? I think so -- but only allowing a small number of touches after the free kick has been repelled -- say a maximum of six touches.
The same reasoning applies to corner kicks. The corner kick itself may sail unaided into the goal, or -- more likely -- it will be immediately headed in. Both clearly set-play goals. If neither of those actions happen, then the set-play scenario starts to break down, and the my six-touch rule (quite generous, I think) should apply.
Using the categories outlined above, and not including penalty kicks, this is my breakdown of the 102 first-round goals:
SET PLAY GOALS
From free kicks: 13
From corner kicks: 17
Meaning 30% of the goals were from set plays. This confirms the figure that the set-play fans are claiming. It is probably on the high side. In my total of 30 set-play goals, 13 were scored in the often incoherent play that followed a free kick or corner kick.
No, that does not really conform to the vision that the set-play advocates like to offer: that of a team working on and spending much time practicing clever, even elaborate routines.
The truth is that such crafty plays are rarely seen. For a very good reason: they’re not likely to work more than once or twice. Word gets around super-quickly, and the surprise value of the plays quickly vanishes. And it is just not possible to keep coming up with new plays.
There may be coaches who feel that it is worthwhile spending time inventing and working on these plays. I doubt they’re getting it right.
Soccer has had set plays for as long as anyone can recall -- I suspect that the incidence of set-play goals hasn’t varied much over time, probably always around 25%. A useful variation on goalscoring. But those who claim to identify set-plays as the key to goalscoring are barking up the wrong tree.
I would say that a team that emphasizes set plays is a team that is not very good at playing soccer. Soccer is a dynamic game, a game of constant movement. Set plays start with a dead ball and a group of static players. Not much movement there.
Also, if you’re relying on set-play goals, you’re also relying on your opponents to obligingly commit fouls within scoring range of their goal.
For my taste, a much bigger objection to the set-play approach is that it evidently has an attraction for the computer nerds and the metrics devotees. Those who want to remove the unpredictable and the illogical from the sport (from any activity, really). Maybe that can be done with soccer, but I can be quite sure that the sport will be distorted beyond recognition in the process.
I happen to believe that soccer -- even in its currently not entirely satisfactory form -- is worth saving. And those fixated on set-pieces ... what do they believe, I wonder?