The Significance of Set Pieces

Set pieces are now a huge part of the modern game. From a beautifully struck Payet free kick to a scruffy John Terry tap in, a goal is a goal, and a set piece can be the perfect place to get one. In the premier league and around the world, teams try to prepare tactics to attack and defend set pieces, with differing levels of success. The current debate is man marking vs zonal marking, and which is more effective for defending corners.

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Liverpool’s Marking fails

Liverpool were the only side in the Premier League in 2015/16 to defend corners fully zonally, with fairly poor results. Only Swansea conceded more goals from corners than the reds, with 12 goals conceded. This was not due to a lack of height or heading ability; Liverpool won 50% of their aerial duals last season, and have an average height of 1.81m. They also scored the 5th most goals from corners, the same number as Tony Pulis’ West Brom side. This apparent inability to defend corners must therefore be due to the way Liverpool defend their corners, zonally.

When used effectively, zonal marking can be extremely efficient, with Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid also using the tactic, and they conceded a combined total of one goal from

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Diego Godin heading clear

corners last season. When compared to the 12 that Liverpool conceded, it shows the difference that comes from being a defensive unit from set pieces and a bunch of players who don’t really know what they’re doing.

Corner goals in the Premier League are more common than in La Liga and the Bundesliga, and it will be no surprise to see Crystal Palace top the charts, hitting the back of the net 11 times from corners, with Scott Dann scoring 5, making him Palace’s joint top scorer.

Palace also had a fair amount of free kicks, with Wilfried Zaha suffering the most fouls, being taken down 90 times in 34 appearances, but they failed to

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Wilf Zaha – Most fouled

take advantage, scoring a total of 4 throughout the season. Surprisingly the top scorers from free kicks were Sunderland,  with Khazri, Johnson, Van Aanholt and M’vila scoring one direct free kick each. Add to Sunderland’s tally the Wizardry of Dimitri Payet, Willian and Christian Eriksen, and the total number of goals from free kicks in the Premier League last season adds to 46.

Compared to the rest of Europe and the world, however, this tally is incredibly low, with a percentage conversion of only 1.82%. The Turkish Süper Lig has the highest conversion rate, at 10.38%, with 209 goals from 2014 attempts. Compared even to the other top European leagues, the Premier League has an incredibly low free kick conversion rate. The Bundesliga has the next lowest rate, 6.82%, then up to Serie A on 8.37%. Above that is La Liga (8.84%) and the highest, Ligue 1 (9.30%). This certainly strengthens the argument that Premier League defenses and goalkeepers are better than those on the continent, but also could show that Premier League free kick takers hit the target less often.

Penalty statistics seem to back up the first of those theories, as only 12 percent of premier league penalties are saved, compared to closer to 20% in La Liga and Serie A. Unsurprisingly, the German Bundesliga has the lowest percentage missed, with only 3% missing the target. The Premier League is by far the easiest league to convert from 12 yards, with 81 percent hitting the back of the net.

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Vardy Converts vs Watford

Leicester had the most penalties awarded, more than Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham combined, and they scored 10 from the spot. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez split the 12 penalties Leicester had with them both on the pitch, with Vardy scoring 5 and Mahrez converting 4. Leonardo Ulloa also bagged a penalty, but neither of Leicester’s top scorers were on the pitch to take on their usual penalty duties.

As is to be expected, Barcelona had the most penalties in Europe, with 18 awarded, Leicester the only other team in double figures. The MSN trio split the Catalan giant’s penalty taking duties, Neymar scoring 5 from 7 (2 missed), Messi 3 from 6 (3 saved) and Suarez having 2 saved to leave him on 3 from 5. All in all, the eventual champions were incredibly wasteful with their spot kicks, scoring only 11 from their 18 opportunities (12 if you include Messi and Suarez’s ‘Cruyff’ style penalty to give the Uruguayan his third goal of the game).

Overall in the top 5 European leagues, almost 1350 goals were scored from set pieces, and no matter how beautiful or scruffy they may be, they create goals, and goals mean points. Without their penalties, the Leicester dream title may be not have become a reality, and without Sunderland’s ability from free kicks, they may well have been relegated. Set pieces can determine the outcome of any game, any league and any competition all over the world. (Just ask Sergio Ramos.)

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