The set-piece mindset: not a good idea for soccer

Yikes! Here they come again! The set-piece merchants, the soccer commentators who will keep insisting that our sport is all about "set pieces." They’ve been banging on for decades now, forever telling us that the number -- or the percentage -- of goals scored from set pieces is steadily increasing.

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:

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?

23 comments about "The set-piece mindset: not a good idea for soccer".
  1. Soccer Bloke, July 13, 2018 at 10:05 p.m.

    This Cup featured a good deal of the "pack and counter" playing style. A packed defence makes open play gaols harder to come by - so set play goals are like to be higher % of those scored.

  2. Alan Rubin, July 13, 2018 at 11:06 p.m.

    I am a 83 year old goalkeeper how has seen many changes in the game over the years, most of them for the better.
    However, the obsession with analytics and the need to talk by announcers is not among the improvements. 

    The number of run of play goals would be higher if more “how did they miss that” shots were put in. Every keeper says many prayers of thanks during each game. I understand that things move at breakneck speed and there is considerable pressure, a simple touch rather than a blast from in close should be more productive. 

    Although it it would be a subjective statistic, I would like to see goalkeepers credited with saves without touching the ball. Proper positioning by cutting the angle and directing his defense has forced many shots to either go wide or not be taken at all. 

    Over all it has been a great World Cup, including your comments. 

  3. Gonzalo Munevar, July 13, 2018 at 11:18 p.m.

    Paul hit the nail on the head again.

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, July 19, 2018 at 11:07 p.m.

    No Gonzalo, I do believe that Paul has been hit by the ball on the head, or didn't use proper technique in his haeding regimen!  PLAY ON!!!

  5. uffe gustafsson, July 13, 2018 at 11:22 p.m.

    Paul u must been listening to alexy Alas he been preaching set pieces all WC as the thing.

  6. beautiful game replied, July 15, 2018 at 9:45 a.m.

    Lalas et al has been taliking set pieces since 1990. It looks great in that split moment when well executed, but the run of play has the drama of build up from the beginning somewhere on the field to the end. We should enjoy both and lower the volume to the match commentary which is mostly winded in substance and triviality.

  7. R2 Dad, July 14, 2018 at 2:03 a.m.

    As I remember it, setpieces used to be the purview of teams of lower ability, only able to park and counter due to limited skills. Now we see top teams adopting this as a primary strategy. France seems to have fallen out of italy in the 90's--all that skill and they've made hard work of it. But can we blame them? There are no style points, no matter how much I'd like to give them.

    What happened to Peru, which played beautifully but was punted out of the group stage because of their inability to find the back of the net? Sure there have been lots of good matches, including Belgium/France (dire first half, spectacular 2nd half). But there are no initiatives within the game to address this, and maybe there shouldn't be. I see set pieces as the great equalizer for poor teams, and I suspect that will never change.

    I worry 2026 will produce a multitude of poor teams, many playing this very same style. Attendance could be poor for those less-than-stellar matches, with poor TV ratings to boot. i would love to attend some of those matches, but fear FIFA organizers (of all stripes) will mis-price those matches and be left with empty stands, fully expecting silly fans to pay top dollar just for the priveledge of enriching Sepp Blatter et al.

  8. R2 Dad replied, July 14, 2018 at 2:12 a.m.

    sorry, France/Argentina was the 4-3 match....

  9. s fatschel, July 14, 2018 at 8:53 a.m.

     I don't recall ever seeing a coach spending to much practice time on set pieces. Maybe a few practices in an entire season? Also if there is no threat of a goal then player could foul at will or just give away corners. PG is running out of things to talk about and needs to get out of the house.

  10. frank schoon, July 14, 2018 at 9:26 a.m.

    The inordinate amount of attention and time spend on set pieces came about for two reasons. One, as soccer became more popular more people got involved especially in coaching which as a result, had a detrimental effect on quality of coaching/soccer/players. Two, the quantity and quality of great attacking players ,especially goal scorers along with the technical skills of players have diminished over the past 50 years. The diminution of the latter can also be explained by the former for they are tied in together.  
    Whereas soccer in the 50's had 5 attacking players up front  we have now ,sometimes, only one attacker or rarely none because most of the attack and goal scoring  coming more from midfielders, a position that originally is created to support attackers. This can also be seen by the evolution of the triangle formation with in the old days being with one supporting two in front of him and now it is the reverse.
    Taking the former, the influx of licensed coaches( as if acquiring a license can give the coach a deeper insight into the game, LOL) became the "default' setting for the development of players, from youth on up.
    More coaches with little or non-professional experience  acquired coaching licenses began to fill the coaching ranks of pro-teams. Because they lack the real deep insight( as Cruyff states they miss about 15-20%)they can more understand and influence control over aspects of the game that have little to do with real soccer ,the run of play stuff, therefore emphasizing dead ball situations and other aspects  that has nothing to do with" soccer" as Cruyff so aptly puts it, for instance, throw-ins, corners, penalties, direct kick. These aspects of the game can be easier grasped by these types of coaches and naturally they'll spend an inordinate amount of time on stuff like that.
     You know what ,we can actually have a world cup tournament, where teams don't play each other but just compete against each other on who can score the most goals on corner kicks , direct kicks, penalties. Each team is allowed 10 of each. Now you can understand why Cruyff states, these aspects have little to do with playing real soccer. 

  11. frank schoon replied, July 15, 2018 at 9:09 a.m.

    Ships, you could have a point there.I personally noticed in the 90's more attention was biginning to be paid to dead ball plays, especially on corners for that is easier to practice than direct kicks for there the kicker needed to have good kicking skills to bend around or go over walls. Let's face it in the days of Pele it wasn't really a big deal. In the 80's more attention ws beginning to be paid to it with Plaitini when he played with Juventus, there he showed how he would practice direct kicks around dummies placed on the field. 
    But with the English making dead ball plays a part of their game...I don't know ,certainly not on direct kicks ,a la Platini style,for they just didn't the players good ,technically to carry it out. But on corners, yes, but that has always been their liveblood, heading...but who knows. But my overal assertion is like what R2 stated about the quality of the coaching, the lesser the more they spend on dead ball plays for that is easier and also coaches who are defensive minded tend to go that route.
     I'm going to Holland for a couple of weeks, hopefully I'll come with the latest new "poop" there.  OH, BTW,  Roma has bought Kluivert's son from Ajax...who knows could be interesting...
    I hope Croatia wins today... pulling for them...Apparently Yugoslavia from the old days was so good because it was made up of stars from the Croats.... 

  12. Wooden Ships replied, July 15, 2018 at 7:24 p.m.

    Have fun back in the homeland Frank. I was asked before the Cup, who I wanted to win it, Argentina was my answer. Then, who do you think will win it, I answered France. Then, who might be the Dark Horse, I picked  Croatia. At the end I was really pulling for Croatia. After all the matches I’m ready to clear my head. 
    There are many nuances involved with restarts, least of which is a few corner kick designs. Much of it is instinctive, depending on the environment you grew up in. And, the restarts are every bit as much about defending/reclaiming as attacking/possessing. 
    One of my years coaching at the university level demonstrated a generation gap in futbal verbiage. During a direct restart from about 26 yards, I hollored for one of my players to get over the ball. That was the individual I wanted to strike it. Close to full time, it was tense. The player face had a questioning look directed at me. So, I hollored much louder to get over the ball. It was the first time I ever saw a player straddle the ball and shrug. Memories. 

  13. frank schoon replied, July 16, 2018 at 10:55 a.m.

    Ships, LOL, that’s a funny story.  The Croats didn’t have it easy, after all the first two goals they gave to the French. That penalty, I question, for another one was called during another game that was similar. I question if it’s a penalty when the ball hits the hand as the arm came outwards ,away from the body during a certain maneuver of your body in order to keep body balance.  For example when you slide tackle, your arms come out as a natural motion , for not only to keep body but also protection. Nobody slide tackles with arms close to the side of the body. 
    Or when going up for a head ball, your arms are not placed next to your body, it simply unnatural. The ref needs to give a certain allowance for that.   

  14. Wooden Ships, July 14, 2018 at 9:31 a.m.

    I could be wrong, but I’m guessing set pieces/plays has an English origin. I’ve always referred to them as re-starts. Done as quickly as possible or more deliberative. It’s not possible to have an entire match of oohs and awes run of play artistry. A different level of awareness (training too) is a requirement, both attacking-regaining control and defending. 

  15. frank schoon, July 14, 2018 at 9:49 a.m.

    As a coach I've never spend time on these aspects other than acquainting the players with them, more specifically only the technical quantification or rather executing but not practicing plays. For example, I believe practicing penalties is more mental than technical once you have acqiured the technical execution of placing a ball.
    When dealing with youth, coaches spend time on teaching, coaching about the run of play not on dead ball plays, other than acquainting them with it. Two reasons, the youth need to FIRST learn to play the game, for that,in itself, has so many important elements that takes so much time and repetition. Second, these dead ball plays all require GOOD technical finesse in the PASSING/KICKING department, which youth why waste time on it.Similarly, you practice go and go's when they have passing skills, or teach tactics when they are not ready for it for most of it goes in one ear and out the other....
    Instead it is more important to teach the run of play stuff ,for example, question the player on the lousy pass he made, tactically, to a teammate with an opponent in his back and instead of passing to the other side of the field where 2 teammates are wide open, time enough to eat a pizza...this happens all the time. Or why does a back pass a ball up to midfield to his teammate who is outnumbered 1v2 instead of taking the 3v1 advantage he has in his immediate area...I see these situations repeat itself all of the time. There is so much more to be emphasizing on in the 'run of play" aspects as compared to dead ball situations.

  16. beautiful game replied, July 16, 2018 at 10:09 p.m.

    Set pieces are for the talented players. They spend individual time to hone the technique. From Puskas et al to RC7/Messi et al; they work on perfecting the set piece technique and for that reason alone we see more goals. 

  17. Wooden Ships replied, July 16, 2018 at 10:39 p.m.

    True, b g.

  18. frank schoon replied, July 17, 2018 at 4:21 a.m.

    BG, I likewise agree, but that was when the game was played beautifully and had over abundance of great players. But today or rather the last 20 years or so the game has been sacrificed to play very defensively, Park the bus or employ all kinds of soccer tactics that have ruined the beautiful game and rely on the lowest common denominator to win by playing the least bit of soccer as possible.  And yes from time to time we see a great shot like Ronaldo’s in the WC, but that is one little aspect that is positive as compared to all that negative that is happening of what is negative. That aspect i’m not criticizing for that type of shooting has always been part of the game. But a lot of dead bal plays has nothing to do with great shooting, or doesn’t employ the need of great shooting

  19. Bill Riviere, July 14, 2018 at 10:07 a.m.

    Paul, I concur with much of your article on the inanely named "set-piece".  A piece of what?

    It's also time that soccer broadcasters wake up to the fact that their comments can have a significant impact on the perceptions of the game by U. S. fans--particularly those just learning the game.  And those of us that know it well are turned off by inaccurate comments about a play and commentators feeling that they have to express their own opinion about whether a call or non-call is right or wrong.  Who cares what they think? I personally am sick of it.

    Name another sport where that is done so much.  Football? Yes, some.  Basketball?  Very little.  Major league baseball? At most 2-4 times a game on close plays on the bases.

    The problem is most of the soccer announcers need to take a referee course and learn the Laws of the Game.  Many comments are misleading and inaccurate.  Even from former high level players now announcing.

    Paul, what do you think about this?  I think it would be a good article subject for SA.

    On another subject, did anyone have trouble understanding what Kelly Smith had to say?  I did.  Her English accent is so thick and she spoke so fast that it was nearly impossible to understand.  She was a great player, but shouldn't be broadcasting in the U. S.

  20. s fatschel, July 14, 2018 at 11:06 a.m.

    But hopefully some interviews with the announcers asking tough questions.  Since SA is charging enough of the old timer opinion, its time to raise the bar with more in depth reporting. 

  21. Kenneth Barr, July 14, 2018 at 10:54 p.m.

    I take your point about the term "set piece," which also has militray connotations.  Set plays are a more accurate description for restarts like free and corner kicks.  There are also "set" plays that are used during so-called open plays much the same way as basketball.

    I feel that set plays from restarts should be exploited for goal scoring opportunities.  As I was coached in high school, any way a goal is scored is valid and they all count the same.  You don't get style points for artistry or beauty.  Having said that, there is great value attached to the artistic goal from open play.  Watch the first two goals scored by Crystal Palace against last season.  Intricate passing from an attacking position featured in both.  Now take the Palace equalizer at Stoke City one match later.  Again, a counter attack with intelligent passing results in a goal.  That Palace play a more direct form of attack than, say Chelsea or Man City doesn't take away from the skill involved.  Palace's main strength is pace in the attack.  These three goals show pace being used to great effect.

    The clubsand countries who are the most successful are versatile.  They can score gols in many ways, playing out of the back through the midfield, direct attack, counter attack, creating turnovers in dangerous places and set plays.  Less successful clubs and countries are more limited.

  22. Wooden Ships replied, July 18, 2018 at 7:35 a.m.

    Kenneth, I’m familiar with the term base piece in (artillery), which then the remaining guns adjust off of. 

  23. Bob Ashpole, July 15, 2018 at 3:33 p.m.

    I listened to a commentator yesterday praising England for scoring 75% of their goals from restarts, as if that were an indication of attacking prowness instead of a warning sign of a broken attack. Yes, every goal counts the same, but that is not the point. A team that rarely scores during the run of play has failed both in terms of athletic competition and of entertainment. Only hardcore fans could enjoy watching that team play.

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