47 goals out of 169. That was the number of goals scored on free kicks during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. A ratio of 28%, which was the highest in the history of world cups. In reality, set pieces have always played a major role in football. You only have to look at the number of finals that have tossed over set kicks to understand this. We can randomly call out the 1999 Champions League final, with the two goals scored by Manchester United in stoppage time on corners; the 1998 World Cup final, with two goals from Zidane’s header on a corner or the final of the 2014 Champions League, with the equalization of Sergio Ramos, still on a corner in stoppage time.
Now back to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 16 out of 32 teams scored at least half of their goals during those phases of the game while England, fourth in the competition, even squarely scored 75% of their 12 goals on set pieces, which were also meticulously worked before and during the competition by Allan Russell, assistant to coach Gareth Southgate and who was notably inspired by combinations of American football and basketball.
The rise of free-kick technicians
Like Allan Russell, many coaches specialize in set shots and are now in the coaching staff of large European teams such as Jover, assistant to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, who had previously done its classes in Montpellier, Brentford but also with the national team of Croatia. :
Watching the first Inter Miami CF games, we noticed that there was a lot of waste on the set pieces. We saw too many corners with a ball not raised enough, free kicks directly into the wall, or corners at the “third post”. In short, there were no strategies in place and no special preparation for these phases of the game. It was glaring since normally, a professional player is supposed to be able to lift his ball when he takes a corner. We have observed other sports where players prepare individually and collectively such as tennis or basketball.
To be successful on a set kick, there are no miracles: you have to work. The coach in charge of these stopped phases must put in place simple combinations, so as not to lose the players, with several variants if possible to always surprise the opponent. Gareth Southgate and his assistants Steve Holland and Allen Russell were inspired by the NFL and the NBA to free the best leading players on the team. Small jigs like Raheem Sterling were mainly used to make “screens”, like in basketball, to block the race of defenders to mark the best English top players or to serve as false tracks. Since it is normally forbidden to make screens, you have to be careful about how to do them. You also have to know how to play on the referee’s blind spots, how to play with the rules, and not to be seen. There are gestures to avoid such as shirt prints or overly obvious screens. You have to be subtle, get intoxicated, give false leads. It’s a game in the game.
Trained in mental preparation and motor preferences, those specialists particularly insists on the implementation of personalized routines to put the shooters in the best position before each set kick. We dissects the method: Each routine must be personalized because everyone has their own way of entering their bubble. During a season and even during a match, the player may experience a deadlock due to fatigue, stress, etc. This is why the creation of a routine is essential to bring the player into another state of mind, in a bubble where he feels comfortable, relaxed and in full possession of his means before kicking the ball. . It is a question of making it make anchorages which can be auditory, repeating key words in the head, kinesthetic,a gesture which will remobilize the body and the mind towards a desired state, and visual, ironing an image in the head of a previous successful kick. You also have to repeat the technical gesture in training to gain confidence. They examine their players and all the parasitic gestures which can disturb their execution. It is also necessary to carry out a work of preparation, to analyze the preferences of the adversaries. They have to find a way to align the brain, the heart, the body.
Even if football has been played for more than a hundred years and the technology is more and more advanced, certain fields such as set pieces still have huge room for improvement. Can we, therefore, believe or hope that Diego Alonso will work in these phases and it will be legion in a few years? “The fact that big teams like Liverpool or Manchester City are leading the way is a good thing. Either way, head coaches can’t do it all, which is why more and more clubs are using coaches who specialize in very specific areas. Today, almost all professional clubs have integrated goalkeeper coaches into their staff. It wasn’t the case a few years ago so I think it will be the same with free-kick coaches.