In 2016, the New York Red Bulls finished top of the Eastern Conference table, narrowly beating rivals New York City FC by 3 points. On the way to this achievement, they amassed 16 wins and 57 points from their 34 games played, one of which was a 7-0 thumping when the two teams met, which included four goals from set-pieces.

In recent years, a few teams have been able to take advantage of set-pieces to devastating effect. Perhaps the best example being FC Midtjylland in Denmark, who scored almost 50% of their goals in the 2014/2015 campaign on the way to their first league title. Since then, they have gone on to punch above their weight in the Champions League, even coming close to an upset  when taking on Manchester United in a tie which included a set-piece goal.

Covered in our online education courses, evidence suggests that the quality of a team from open play (non set-pieces) has no influence on a team’s effectiveness on from set plays. We’d like to take the time to discuss what implications this may have for a regular coach and his or her players.

We surveyed 600 coaches from age groups 12-18 regarding set pieces and found some interesting results. First and foremost, almost half (297) of the 600 coaches we surveyed, stated that they believed set pieces to be ‘extremely valuable’ for their teams, with an additional 191 rating them as ‘somewhat valuable’. Overall, only 19% of the coaches we surveyed had no opinion or did not value set pieces.

We then asked coaches to review their session plans over a typical 2 month period of their choice, and record how much time they spent on training set-pieces with their teams (not including warm-ups).

Despite 81% of coaches rating set-pieces as valuable, more than half of them (55%) only spent up to 10% of their time training them with their team. Perhaps even more interesting, 123 coaches (20%) didn’t spend a single minute on set-pieces over a two month period.

In order to gain a more subjective view on the matter, we spoke to Stevie Grieve, a UEFA A license coach & owner of online Tactical education course, ‘Tactical Teacher’, who firmly believes that working on set plays can provide an additional weapon to a players’ game.

“Last season, we (Burlington Bayhawks 01 Girls) won the OPDL Cup on the back of being exceptional at set plays. We scored from inswinging corners in comeback wins in both the ¼ final and ½ finals. Without the threat from set plays, I’m not sure we would never have won the trophy.”

When asked about set pieces on an individual level he added the following:

“One player in particular was so impressive with her corner deliveries, she was put into a position unknown to her, so she could take corners from the right side, giving her added game time in her development while playing a year up”.

When asked about training methods:

“The team worked on set plays for 30-45 minutes, once a week. Players would regularly practice their delivery alone during practice while the main attacking would make runs into the target areas to attack the set play.”

“By teaching the attackers how to lose their marker, and how to use blockers in the box, we can create more intelligent players from the set play scenario, which can also be transferred to defensive situations. How can a 2v1 be made? How can I decide if I should mark, play zonally, or be the spare defender, and in which area do we expect the delivery?”

“Learning how to control set plays means developing intelligent players who can avoid being exposed at critical times and be an asset to the team, while providing an attacking thereat with the possibility to be a match winner.”

Given the opportunity to write a short paragraph about their approach to set pieces, here are some of the more interesting responses from the 600 surveyed coaches:

“Players find them boring so it’s not worth it. Need to keep them switched on and focused”

“Set pieces will come later, once they reach 18 or go to college”

“Definitely valuable, but parents complained the last time we did them”

It would be hypocritical of us, (as an organization offering educational courses and consultancy based around critical thinking and an evidence-based approach) to suggest that a survey of 600 coaches represents the whole coaching community. However, some of the evidence collected here suggests there might be a disconnect between the theory and the reality in the coaches we surveyed.

If you’re a coach who aspires to develop college or professional players, whether you like it or not, their games will be heavily influenced by goals scored from set-piece situations.

A forward may lose his or her place to a teammate who has added 3 goals a season through set-pieces, and your star goalkeeper who can’t communicate and set up a wall properly, will eventually pay the price when wins begin to matter to their college coach chasing a title!

In our survey of 600 coaches, 78% even stated that they themselves had picked a player at some point in time, due to their ability on set-pieces as a dead ball specialist or an aerial threat.

We mentioned the MLS 2016 season at the beginning of this article in order to give an insight into one of the tasks from the set piece module on our Evidence-Based Coaching & Match Analysis Course.

Despite winning the regular season title, the New York Red Bulls actually only ranked 7th in the league from open play (set-pieces removed), with a goal difference of +5 (LA Galaxy lead the league with +15).

Throughout the campaign, the Red Bulls became notorious for intelligent routines and an emphasis on corners, which resulted in a set piece goal difference of +14.


In stark contrast, rivals New York City had the second best open play goal difference (+13) and the worst set-piece goal difference (-10) in the league. When looking at these figures, it’s quite clear to see just what ultimately cost them the title in place of their New York rivals.

Flipping the focus back to player development, many youth coaches spend thousands of dollars and countless hours studying the methods of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, and Marcelo Bielsa. There is of course nothing wrong with studying the best practitioners in any industry. On the other hand, it’s not often you see clips of top teams training their set pieces doing the rounds on Twitter, or coaches sharing routines and session plans including them.

Isn’t that a little strange given how many goals come from dead ball situations?

At CoachTech we believe no stone should be left unturned when developing players, and sometimes the biggest improvements to be made can come from something right under our noses.

When looking at this logically, why as coaches do we spend only 10% – 20% of our time (at best) on something which influences 30% of our goals? Are we doing players a disservice by ignoring the development of an important part of their game?

Whether its millions of pounds in Premier League prize money, MLS playoff seeding, or a deep run in the NCAA tournament, the competitiveness of the modern game requires teams to squeeze every last drop out of the resources at their disposal. At the professional level, some teams are now employing specialist set-piece coaches and analysts. In the transfer market, set piece specialists such as Pascal Grob (Brighton) are being lauded as excellent pieces of business for clubs looking to achieve results considered to be beyond their budgets.

Perhaps it raises the question – where might our players be if we spend just a little more time and energy on something unfashionable like set plays? Whether we like it or not, the players we develop are going to be judged on them.

For more information on an evidence-based approach to coaching, or how CoachTech can help teams to tip the odds in their favor, please visit our courses and consultancy page. CoachTech is working with a number of teams in youth soccer and college offering best practices taken from professionals.

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