One of the things that sets soccer apart from other major American sports is its relentless pace. Baseball and football move in measured steps while basketball and hockey go end-to-end but still pause play and the clock for resets with regularity. Once the whistle blows to start a half, the clock never stops in soccer, even when the play does. Within those stoppages, there’s plenty of wiggle room, with players trying to speed up the restart when they need a goal or delaying when they’re ahead. The game's unyieldingly kinetic character means that set pieces — plays run off of throw-ins, indirect and direct free kicks, and corner kicks — offer a rare chance to move players in precise ways, and head coaches are beginning to take greater advantage of them.
We’ll start with the simplest and most common dead ball situation, the throw-in. Beyond players arguing over who last touched the ball, throw-ins are generally low stakes situations. The major exception is deep in the opponent’s half, when the threat of a long throw-in into the box by a long throw specialist like Romain Metanire becomes a threat. In that case, it takes on the look of a more organized set piece with players jockeying for position in the box. Of course, the ball can’t be thrown with quite the force it can be kicked with, so overall defenders have more time to adjust and deal with threats.
A fun throw-in fact: You can’t be offside when your team has a throw-in, which can lead to entertaining (or infuriating) plays like this one, where soccer wizard Ronaldinho takes advantage of a stoppage to grab a drink of water before floating out wide to receive the throw and get the assist.
Free kicks following a foul come in two varieties: indirect and direct. Indirect free kicks are awarded for more minor infringements and on such set pieces, the ball must be touched by a player other than the kicker before a goal can be scored. On direct free kicks, the kicker can shoot directly on goal. A lot of fouls in the middle of the field lead to free kicks taken as quick restarts. This also leads to a good deal of gamesmanship as opposing players walk away from the spot with the ball or walk up to an opposing player with the nominal intention of returning the ball before dropping it behind their back. Again, there’s a lot of mind games going on in these rare pauses and it can be fun to watch as players fake restarts or try to get the game going as quickly as possible to catch the other team napping.
Direct free kicks are where things start to get interesting, tactically. Direct free kicks generally involve a wall of defensive players providing the goalkeeper some coverage on one side of the goal and then a lot of sleight of hand by the attacking team. The team taking the kick wants to keep the defending team guessing as long as possible about where the kick is going to go and who’s going to take it. This often means as many as three players lining up in a sort of half asterisk around the ball. One might be better at shooting, one might be better at curling the ball across the face of goal. If the ball is sent on goal, there are more options of how to get it there: over the wall, around the wall on the near post or the far post, or even under the wall. Where the ball is on the field affects all these decisions, and it’s not necessarily the case that closer is always better. For most players, there’s a sweet spot five or 10 yards beyond the 18 yard line where it’s easier to get the ball up over the wall and then curve it down again onto goal.
The set pieces that are really at the forefront of the game when it comes to developing tactics, though, are corner kicks and indirect free kicks in the opposing team’s half. In both cases, the attacking team gets a rare chance to put every player in a specific place and have them execute a specific run. What might at first appear to be chaos with attackers flying around willy-nilly in front of goal often involves very specific movements, with players making runs to pull defenders away for secondary runs in front of goal, or specific players drifting to the near or far post. A ball driven hard into the box with swerve from the corner forces defenders to focus on assignments and adjust in a flash. Not to mention that corners can either be in-swinging (a left-footed player from the right corner) or out-swinging (a right-footed player from the right corner). Some set piece specialists, like Jan Gregus, can even switch it up.
“[An in-swinger] is kind of more dangerous, when for example, the goalkeeper doesn’t like to go out and take the ball,” said Gregus. “An out-swinger, maybe gives more power to the header because when the ball goes against your head, it’s more powerful.”
Add in the wrinkle of short corners — where the player taking the kick lays it off to another player for a different angle into the box, or else just draws another defender away — and these kind of dead ball situations can be enormously difficult to defend.
As soccer slowly increases its reliance on analytics, it’s becoming clearer that the most advantageous situations for an attacking team are when the defense is disorganized (on the counterattack, for example) or when they can control all the elements (on set pieces). Recently, certain teams have been exploring new possibilities. Gareth Southgate’s England team took cues from the NBA — including a scouting trip to see the Minnesota Timberwolves — prior to the World Cup in 2018 and ran several set piece plays that stacked players in boxes and had them more or less setting screens on defenders. England was deadly on set pieces in 2018, scoring nine of their 12 goals (75%) from them.
Although set pieces have long been a part of the game — the corner kick assumed most of its current form in 1873 — their full potential is still being explored. As Southgate and other coaches have showed in recent years, sometimes the best way to be productive in the box is to think outside of it.