How can we develop effective goal scorers from set pieces in youth football?

Although set pieces are widely accepted as crucial in modern football, they are not considered in depth in most youth development programs. How can we change this?

Over the Premier League weekend, a number of goals scored by the title challengers came from set pieces. All three of Liverpool’s goals in their 3-0 win over Crystal Palace were set pieces, while both Manchester United and Chelsea’s opening goals in their victories came from corners. It underscores the relevance of set pieces in the modern game. According to WhoScored statistics, 25 goals this season have been scored from set pieces thus far, accounting for just under 20% of total goals. We also know historically that this percentage typically settles somewhere between 25-35% across a season.

This demonstrates the importance of training for set pieces in elite football. It also validates the development of set piece attributes in young players.

The aim of a development program

It is also important to remember that a general overarching aim of any youth football program will be to try and develop players for the elite level. Some clubs can, of course, offer this pathway into professional football; others will prepare players to be able to progress into this pathway, and others may simply exist to provide players with a positive, holistic development program to support their general development in sport and in life.

Accordingly, while the exact vision of each development program will vary slightly, there is a common theme that an effective youth football program should contribute towards the development of flexible, adaptable players.

Set pieces at the elite level

What is also known is that at the highest level of football, there is a significant amount of detail around set pieces. Routines are specifically designed not only to maximise your own teams strengths, but also, to attack opposition weaknesses. Many routines involve complex runs and movements that are both analysed…

…and coached in intense detail.

While ultimately we want to develop players who have the ability to understand and execute these routines at the elite level, this does not give a justification to teach complex routines to youth players.

This may detract from other, possibly more valuable focuses such as the development of technical skills and tactical understanding. Additionally, teaching players specific routines (and sticking to these routines across a development pathway/time in a club) may not necessarily prepare them to be flexible and adaptable in the future. Finally, expecting players to remember specific routines may create excessive cognitive load during games that can detract from their ability to perform and develop.

Instead, as part of a planned youth program, it is suggested that it may be more beneficial for long-term player development to focus on the staged development of set piece skills by first developing repeatable actions, themes & attributes, before developing a specific understanding of how these integrate into the carefully constructed routines at the elite level.

What are those themes?

If we consider the (admittedly very small) sample size of those scored by the top Premier League teams in the video below…

…and also consider a general knowledge of what makes an effective set piece, we can consider that there are a couple of general themes that emerge.

Firstly, someone has to deliver the ball. There are many different ways of doing this, but generally, most teams, even in youth football, will allocate two or three ‘specialists’ to this role.

Secondly, there is the concept of getting free from a marker. This can be against either zonal or man marking, where the attacker needs to have an ability to recognise when and how to create separation between them and a defender so they can attack the ball as it arrives in a goal scoring position. A good example of this is Thiago Silva arriving from deep to score Chelsea’s first goal.

Thirdly, we also can appreciate that not every player ‘gets free’ on a set piece. Instead, some players have the responsibility of getting others free. This can be a player who blocks/screens a strong defender so that one of their teammates has more opportunity to get free.

Another common theme that emerges from set piece situations is the ‘second ball’ moment, which occurs if the first ball is not scored (because the goalkeeper makes a save/hits the bar/ball is not cleared…and so on). In this second ball moment, attacking players can actively look to score, which is often with a one-touch finish close to goal.

Players who frequently score these ‘easy’ goals are often considered good poachers, which makes it a fitting word to use in this context (and is something many youth clubs use – Sydney FC, for example, make it a key part of the shared vocabulary in their youth development programs).

Sometimes, of course, the second ball is cleared beyond the box. In these moments, the attacking team often has players positioned where they can intercept or receive these clearances. This is especially important as there is the threat that the opponent counter attacks quickly from a defending corner, so the team taking the corners needs to have players positioned to prevent this.

Some clubs call this ‘rest defence’, some call them the ‘balancing’ players, but irrespective of language, the main idea is to have players positioned to ‘stop the opponent scoring’, and also, positioned to ‘keep the ball’ and ‘go to goal again’ if appropriate. 

The second ball, of course, is often a fruitful method of scoring. Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal for United comes from the second ball, as does Antonio Rudiger’s late strike for Chelsea.

Summarising that, we have the following general themes/roles on set pieces:

  • Who delivers the ball and how?
  • Who gets free and how?
  • Who gets others free and how?
  • Who thinks “poacher”?
  • Who thinks “balance” and stops them scoring?

How do we coach it?

This framework is not considered exhaustive: there are elements missing and some clubs will have additional concepts linked to their vision, philosophy and playing style, but it provides a starting point.

From here, consideration needs to be made of how these themes can be learnt by young players. There are many approaches to doing so, including…

  • Using games to practice the different roles, and develop the football actions that link to these. A simple ‘set piece game’ could involve a modified field, where restarts always involve a corner/free kick. You would also have high numbers, such as 8v8, to encourage lots of bodies in and around the box.
This can be more beneficial than the traditional approach to set piece training, which often involves practicing set routines with one group of players attacking and one group of players defending. This is because the modified game proposed can provide more repetition of realistic penalty box moments for both teams, whilst allowing players to experience attacking moments and the different roles described above.
  • Using feedback to identify and describe different football actions linked to each role. In youth development, it is generally accepted that questions can be a powerful tool in the learning process, so some appropriate questions linked to the framework could include:
    • How can you get free when the opponent marks you tightly?
    • How might you get free when the opponent marks space instead?
    • How can you get someone else free – which defender might you target?
    • When would be the right time to move to ‘stop’ this defender and get a teammate free?
    • Where might you position to provide balance and stop them scoring?

This, again, is not a definitive list but merely some suggestions underpinned by research in learning and development that can support players in this process.

Developing an understanding of routines

Of course, ultimately the aim of a youth development program can be to develop players for the elite level, at which we know there is higher complexity around set piece routines and expectations players will know exactly what and how to do in terms of their role in these routines.

One way of achieving this can be through a staged approach. After introducing the players to the framework described above and the themes that underpin set pieces, they can be encouraged to watch and consider world class examples. Naturally, players will start to identify specific routines. From here, the coach can encourage them to share these routines and create a conversation around when/where/why these routines can be effective.

As part of an athlete-centred, player-led environment, coaches may like to give players an opportunity to discuss these routines as a team and potentially identify specific ones they can practice. Giving players ownership over this process can be a powerful way of not only empowering them in the environment, but also, enriching their learning as they will now be actively engaged with the success of the routine.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, a general framework for developing set pieces can be identified through analysis of top level teams. In these elite environments, set moves are the norm; but it is important to build a base of understanding in young players so they have the knowledge, understanding and ability of the various roles and requirements within these set piece roles.

This is where the framework, and building a common understanding, is useful, as it first provides that foundation for players to be able to appreciate and actually do different roles when they progress to this level. Additionally, it means that, rather than being able to execute one or two routines as prescribed by their youth club, they will have the flexibility and adaptability to be effective on set pieces wherever they go in their development journey.

Positively, if they stay within the one environment, then there is a common language that players can use (who gets free/who gets others free/who’s the poacher/who balances?) which can be developed in more detail through specific routines. This is something we have implemented within my current youth environment (North West Sydney Football, in Australia). One particular benefit we have seen is providing players with the ownership to drive these set pieces using the framework, which has additional, holistic benefits for developing leadership and responsibility skills.

It would be interesting to hear of other examples in youth development environments. From personal experience, this is a particularly understated part of coach education and player development, despite the Premier League weekend and wider statistics suggesting it is crucial for success.

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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