They are the specialists in the shadows, the experts whose work you see each Saturday without realising it, the puppeteers of the Premier League and beyond who can brag their Machiavellian manoeuvres guarantee more goals that any striker.
There is more to set-pieces today than a mere front-post dash, as beautifully deadly as that movement was from Didier Drogba at Chelsea‘s one and only corner in their 2012 Champions League conquering of Bayern Munich.
It is ‘draught excluders’ beneath walls. It is ‘love trains’ of players lining up, each darting in a different direction as the cross comes in. It is stealing tactics from other sports, such as ‘screening’ in basketball where one player uses his body to block the path of another. It is That Extra 30 Per Cent, the name of the book by Gianni Vio, the former banker rumoured to have concocted 4,830 routines and who insists that is what set-pieces can add to a team’s goal tally.
Arsenal have Nicolas Jover, who supposedly got a kick out of the speculation that Martin Odegaard adjusting his socks was a signal at corners. Manchester City have Carlos Vicens, who created that cute routine when Kevin De Bruyne bluffed Burnley in setting up Julian Alvarez to score.
West Ham have Dylan Jones, who needs to fulfil the potential of the Premier League’s dead-ball nonpareil James Ward-Prowse. Aston Villa have Austin MacPhee, who dedicates one player to distracting the opposition goalkeeper at free-kicks. Luton have Alan McCormack, who previously took set-pieces as a player under Jover at Brentford, now led by Bernardo Cueva.
Kevin De Bruyne fooled Burnley with his arm signals during Man City’s recent league match against the Clarets
His short pass then allowed Julian Alvarez to race through and score City’s second of the game
Man City’s work with their set-piece specialist Carlos Vicens (speaking to Pep Guardiola) has started to pay off
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Cueva was behind Brentford’s opener against City last weekend in which it took three simple steps for them to score – from their own goal-kick. Step one: Mark Flekken launched a long central ball. Step two: Ivan Toney used his body to block Nathan Ake from getting to it. Step three: Neal Maupay broke behind to make it 1-0.
Eight seconds separated Flekken’s goal-kick and Maupay’s goal. Opta have not counted it as a set-piece, but Brentford have, adding it to their bonus scheme which sees the players rewarded for how many they score each season.
City went on to win 3-1, but Pep Guardiola admitted afterwards he is nervous for the return fixture at the Etihad Stadium in two weeks’ time, saying: ‘I have never seen a better team than this one in the set-pieces.’
Mail Sport asked multiple Premier League clubs if we could speak to their set-piece specialists or analysts. Most refused, one replying: ‘The secrecy is essential for us.’ Those who were allowed to speak would do so only on condition of anonymity to protect their secrets as choreographers of organised chaos.
Arsenal scored from two corners against Crystal Palace immediately after a warm-weather training trip to Dubai in which they worked specifically on set-pieces with Jover. ‘It was three actually,’ one analyst corrected Mail Sport.
Challenged on that, he said: ‘The first two goals were from corners, both the exact same routine where they have someone block the opposition’s main zonal player – in this case Leandro Trossard on Joachim Andersen – then another runner who storms into that area to score. But Arsenal’s third goal was from one was as well.’
Yes, a Crystal Palace corner, came the rebuttal. ‘But notice how Arsenal didn’t leave anyone up top. Fans can get frustrated by that, seeing all 11 players in their own box, but there is a reason. You’ve got a greater chance of scoring a breakaway if your players are starting on the edge of their own box.
Aston Villa also use specific signals, and have a player dedicated to distracting the goalkeeper
Their insistence on crowding the goalkeeper has caused problems for opponents this season
Arsenal have become set-piece specialists, and scored twice from corners against Crystal Palace last month
Arsenal also scored a goal from a Palace corner, just seconds after having all 11 men in their own box
‘That way you’re all sprinting in the same direction rather than having one person who is stood up top, most likely marked by two men and with his back to goal which means his first instinct will be to hold up the ball. Instead, Arsenal scored 10 seconds after defending a corner.’
American football has its own specialists, known as ‘special teams coaches’ who work on kicking, and these imaginative plays are enough to make Coach Klein and his legendary green playbook from Adam Sandler’s film The Waterboy come to mind. The analyst laughed at that comparison: ‘You’re not a million miles off. But it takes an “all in” mentality. It’s more than moving magnets around a tactics board. The players need to believe in it enough to want to make it an identity, a culture.’
The presence of set-piece analysts even extends to the PGMOL, who provide their Premier League referees with pre-match data packs so there are no surprises when overseeing their matches. This weekend, you can bet the West Ham-Arsenal package will include all of the above.
There is the odd club who have shown a reluctance to join the revolution – such as Crystal Palace, who have scored only one set-piece this season, the fewest in the Premier League – but English football is swimming in specialists otherwise and it is not only reserved for the mega-rich.
League Two Accrington Stanley have their own set-piece specialist working with their academy named Ben King, who told Mail Sport how a 2019 job interview at Brentford inspired him.
‘It was when they were in the Championship,’ King said. ‘I didn’t expect to get in the room, to be honest, but I contacted Rasmus Ankersen (Brentford’s then director of football). He invited me down and I sat there with Rasmus, Thomas Frank and the first-team staff. I delivered my work, took a session, and was grilled by them. I didn’t get the role, but I later saw it went to Andreas Georgson.’
Georgson arrived from Swedish side Malmo, where he oversaw set-pieces. ‘I thought that was interesting,’ King continued. ‘So I did the StatsBomb set-piece course and that’s how it all started. You look at Arsenal: fantastic. Then Chelsea: struggling. What’s the difference?’
Set-piece coach Nicolas Jover has made a very positive impact for the title contenders
Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace have not joined the revolution and have only scored one set-piece goal this season
One club has a specialist. The other does not. ‘I created a Premier League table for 2022-23 minus set-piece goals,’ King added. ‘I wanted to show how much of an impact they can have. It showed Arsenal would have won the league instead of Manchester City, Brighton were in the Champions League instead of Manchester United, Tottenham got into Europe with Liverpool missing out and Everton were relegated whilst Leicester were safe.
‘I did one for the EFL, too, which showed how seven of the 11 relegated clubs had a negative goal difference on set-pieces. So can you afford to make it an afterthought? Left to the assistant or goalkeeper coach to do 15 minutes at the end of a Friday training session?
‘It needs working on over the week so you can build those techniques. Arsenal have been doing it for years so it means they can get more and more detailed with what they’re doing.’
Signalling at corners is nothing new. Before England’s 1998 World Cup opener against Tunisia, Glenn Hoddle had his starting team work on the various gestures while the back-up players watched from the side of the pitch. ‘There were so many signals, it felt like we were trying to land a Boeing 747,’ one member of that England squad told Mail Sport this week.
Bounce the ball once: centre of goal. Double bounce: back post. Right arm raised: near post. Left arm: take it short. Both arms: back to the edge of the box. And so on. There was total confusion and Hoddle turned headmaster midway through this mayhem in La Manga. He ordered those on the sidelines to recite his signals in front of everyone else to prove they were paying attention.
Almost all of them failed this surprise test, leading to an almighty rollicking from Hoddle. England went on to beat Tunisia 2-0 regardless – Alan Shearer scoring the opener from a set-piece taken by Graeme Le Saux.
Over time, these signals have evolved, even to the extent that one analyst joked: ‘You might see a player scratching his a*** before a corner. You’re thinking, “Maybe that’s a signal, or maybe his a*** is just itchy.” But you have to see if there’s a pattern. It’s never foolproof, though.’
Alan Shearer scored from a set-piece against Tunisia at the 1998 World Cup after Glenn Hoddle had got his England players practicing signals for different routines
Set-piece routines are becoming more complex than ever, with John McGinn holding the ball behind his back after working with Villa’s dead-ball specialist Austin MacPhee (pictured)
John McGinn at Aston Villa has held the ball behind his back before sending it towards the back post, for example. ‘The trouble is teams like to mix it up,’ the analyst added. ‘We might use someone having a rest on the corner flag one week but not the next.’
When City scored their set-piece against Burnley, De Bruyne raised both arms in the air. Burnley fell for it. Readying themselves for a deep cross, a pass was played into Alvarez, who scored. Voila: a Vicens special, perfectly planned, exceptionally executed.
Teams like to throw in what they call a ‘joker’ at the start of the match – a signal and a set-piece which they would never normally do, designed to make the opposition doubt all of their homework in the build-up. It is not only present in the Premier League. League Two Walsall are among those to have utilised this tactic.
Everton do not have a specialist and yet, 13 of their 26 Premier League goals this season have come from set-pieces. That is largely down to Sean Dyche, flanked by Ian Woan and Steve Stone.
Just last weekend, they constantly placed a player on Tottenham goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario at corners, with Spurs never having one of their own men create a ‘barrier’ by standing between the two. Everton exploited this naivety to make it 1-1, and then scored another set-piece for 2-2.
‘Everyone can see Vicario panics when someone is within a foot of him,’ one analyst told Mail Sport. ‘It was exactly how Manchester City scored their winner in the FA Cup when Ruben Dias blocked him while Nathan Ake scored. Ederson is fine with that, but Vicario isn’t.
Everton troubled Tottenham goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario from set-pieces during last weekend’s 2-2 draw
‘I’d be amazed if Brighton don’t assign someone like Maupay to become his new best mate this weekend and if they don’t send in-swingers underneath the crossbar, because Vicario has shown his weakness.’
Tottenham used to have Vio, or ‘Mr 30 Per Cent’ as he may as well be known. He was also Italy’s set-piece specialist at Euro 2020, where Leonardo Bonucci equalised from a corner against England in the final at Wembley Stadium.
Vio is now with Championship Watford, meaning it is over to Ange Postecoglou and his assistants to combat Vicario’s vulnerabilities. Good goalkeeper, but exposed easily from corners of late, and Spurs’ opponents know it.
Everton’s prospective new owners 777 Partners have their own set-piece specialist called Alex Clapham. Previously a coach with Manchester City, Sheffield United, Getafe, Notts County, Southampton and more, the detail-orientated Clapham now works with 777’s clubs on a consultancy basis. That includes Vasco da Gama in Brazil.
Brazilian football may favour joga bonito – the beautiful game – but even they are beginning to appreciate the significance of scoring from corners and such. Managed by 1994 World Cup winner Jorginho, Vasco were promoted to Serie A with set-pieces proving the difference in the run-in, including one in their vital 1-0 win over Ituano on the season’s final day.
Similarly, Genoa, another 777 club, were promoted to Italy’s Serie A last season. Led by another 2006 World Cup winner in Alberto Gilardino, the statistics showed they increased goals scored from set-pieces and decreased those conceded to go up.
Another 777 club, Genoa, have started to make the most of set-pieces under Alberto Gilardino
Clapham described the rush of seeing one scored to Mail Sport: ‘Notts was my first time specialising in set-pieces and I remember my first game. We were 1-0 up at Barnet, they were putting pressure on us, and we won a free-kick. But the players had forgotten what we’d worked on the day before! They were going to bang the ball into the box. I jumped up, screaming and shouting to remind them of our routine, and thankfully, it worked to a tee.’
Barnet’s defenders thought a cross was coming but instead, the ball was stroked to the back of the box for Ruben Rodrigues to score. ‘I thought, “Wow, this is easy peasy!” But on the other side, when you concede a set-piece, everybody on the bench looks at you.
‘Monday mornings will see managers, assistants, specialists, analysts, everyone involved sit down to study the data and see where they can hurt their next opponents because, depending on which league you look at, set-pieces can account for around 30 to 35 per cent of goals.
‘I think back to when City were in the title run-in against Liverpool two years ago, facing a tight game against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds. They scored one set-piece, then another, and went on to win the Premier League by a single point. When someone like Pep Guardiola appreciates them as much as he does, you know they’re important.’