Interesting Set Pieces from Pre-season

Match Analysis
Jamie Adams

Jamie Adams


The pre-season of 2017-18 produced a variety of interesting set plays with varying degrees of success. This article focuses specifically on a corner routine from Napoli, and a kick-off routine from Atlético Madrid.

Napoli Corner Routine

Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli side successfully executed a corner routine against Espanyol, exploiting the perils of man-marking when defending set pieces. Raul Albiol managed to make a good connection with the ball as a result of his run being unchallenged due to the space-opening aspect of his teammates’ runs, scoring past López. The unchallenged nature of Albiol’s run meant that he was able to create enough momentum over his direct opponent in order to jump high and head the ball powerfully.

The corner is obviously something Napoli had planned and executed before in training, denoted by the signal of Ghoulam raising his right arm, which dictated the movement of the Napoli players in the box. There are a couple of interesting aspects about the runs made by Napoli’s players inside the box, which had the common goal of creating space for Albiol to attack the ball: the exploitation of man-orientations, and the blocking action by Koulibaly.

Espanyol used a mixed-marking scheme with 2 players covering short options, 1 player covering the edge of the box, 2 players zonally-orientated in the six-yard box, and 5 players man-orientated. Napoli took advantage of the defending team’s man-orientated players by using runs in different directions to open space in a target zone, where Albiol ran into. It was clear that Napoli sought to make Albiol the free player, likely due to his strong physical presence and heading ability.

Callejón & Ghoulam both being stood near the corner flag had two effects. Firstly, an aspect commonly seen on corners, the possibility of a short pass meant that two Espanyol players had to leave the box, meaning they now had to defend with only 8 players versus 5 in the box compared to 10 versus 5 if the only possible delivery option was a cross. Secondly, the positioning of Callejón & Ghoulam near the corner flag insinuated the possibility of either player taking the corner, each with different types of delivery; Callejón with an inswinging delivery, and Ghoulam with an outswinging delivery.

Defending is reactive due to its very nature: defending players never truly know what attacking players are going to do, and can only use perceptual information to predict what will happen, which then informs their subsequent behaviours. Having to consider two types of delivery created more indecision for the Espanyol players, adding more reactivity and thus taking longer for them to adjust to the attacking players’ actions, which gave Napoli’s players a dynamic advantage

Espanyol tried to match Napoli’s five players in the box with five man-orientated defenders, but ultimately failed in their attempts. It is no secret that clever off-ball movement is man-marking’s biggest weakness, and Napoli had no problems exposing this truth. As mentioned earlier, each Napoli players’ movement contributed to creating space in a target zone for Albiol to attack. Three players made runs toward the near post area, the zone which the two zonally-orientated players were protecting, and were followed by their man-markers, which led to a 5v3 overload for Espanyol there. This, therefore, left a 2v2 matchup in the far post area, pitting the duel into a battle of qualitative superiority.

Koulibaly, however, took matters into his own hands, running away from goal to block Albiol’s marker from following him efficiently, simultaneously dragging his own marker away from goal too. The blocking action of Koulibaly created a dynamic advantage for Albiol in that his unchallenged run allowed him to gain momentum over his direct opponent, allowing him to generate a lot of power on the header. If challenged, he would have lacked momentum and subsequently lost power on the header.

This corner provides hints to a successful recipe for creating set plays, in a systematic manner:

  1. Recognise the defensive scheme
    man-orientated, zonally-orientated, or both?
  2. Choose target player(s)
    best header of the ball? Tallest?
    perhaps a less obvious player?
  3. Find the best route of attack
    man-orientated: pinpoint a target zone
    zonally-orientated: choose a zone to overload
    both: exploit the situationally weakest aspect of the scheme
  4. Clear the route for efficient execution
    use decoy/blocking runs to open a target zone
    use a decoy short option / second taker?
  5. Delivery

Atlético Madrid kick-off routine

Atléti faced Napoli in the Audi Cup and tried to gain an advantage from kick-off through executing a set routine. While Napoli’s corner routines vs Espanyol had a clear aim – to create space for Albiol to attack the ball unchallenged – Atléti’s motives were more difficult to figure out (other than score, obviously). Atléti left three players back, with the ball laid off to Gabi to launch a long ball forward.

Atléti appeared to take shape in a horizontally compact 3-3-4 formation, spanning the width of the 18-yard box. Four players looked to compete on the last line or between Napoli’s defence and midfield lines, three players looked to compete under the structure between Napoli’s midfield and forward lines, and three players stayed back behind Napoli’s forward line.

Having 7 players within and around Napoli’s structure had a couple of potential benefits for Atléti. Hypothetically, if Atléti won the first ball they would have a strong chance of either breaking behind Napoli’s defensive line and creating a high-quality chance, or they would be able to establish possession in the opposition half early on. Few teams manage to pin Napoli back in their own half, and this approach may have enabled Atléti to dictate the rhythm of the match straight away.

Even if Atléti lost the second ball, which they did, at least their compactness and positioning between players would enable them to effectively counterpress, which again could have led to a high-quality chance or establishing possession in Napoli’s half. What resulted from the routine was Atléti counterpressing well enough to create a stable defensive structure, before Napoli worked their magic of manipulating pressing triggers.

Perhaps against a less organised side, Atléti may have experienced more success with their approach.

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