Set piece specialisation: Methods, variables to control and a new way to analyse

By Rohit Rajeev -

One of the most important elements of football are set pieces or dead ball situations, and this is something that AC Milan fans in particular know very well.

It does not matter what level the team or opponent are, set pieces can be a way to add value to any side, both in terms of adding attacking threat and increasing defensive resilience too.

The aim is simple: score goals through dead balls and keep them  out when you have to defend them. In recent seasons it has felt like Milan do not do either of those things particularly well.

While there is a degree of randomness to set pieces – just like anything in sport – there is also an art to them as well which has even given some teams a reputation for being proficient in that area.

What is this art form, and how can Milan utilise set pieces better? Our writer Rohit Rajeev explains.


It was the 92nd minute of the 1999 UEFA Champions League final. Bayern Munich led the game for almost 90 minutes but United clawed back in the 91st minute from a Teddy Sheringham goal.

Then, with the wind in their sails, the Red Devils went on the charge and got a corner. Beckham swung it in and after a flick-on, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pounced to send a shot into the roof of the net, winning the game for United and sealing a treble.

Set pieces carry more significance than we think. For a team not blessed with top forwards, a set piece can make a difference as it helps the team to get the ball as close to the opposition box.

In particular if this dead ball situation is towards the end of the game, then a lapse of concentration from the opposition can help the team to score when they otherwise might have failed to break them down.

Back in the day set pieces were all about having a gifted free-kick taker like Beckham, Roberto Carlos or Juninho, or having tall defenders to help you score corners.

With data analysis coming in, coaches and analysts are trying to use set pieces to further a teams advantage or to reduce any potential disadvantages, rather than leaving them down to chance.

An analysis conducted by data experts found that 30% of all goals scored after 2018 World Cup have come from set pieces. It was a strategy used widely by FC Midtjylland when they were taken over by current owner of Brentford, Mathew Benham.

With set-piece coach Brian Priske, Midtjylland analysed their method of set pieces and different ways of attacking it. As a result they scored 24 goals from set pieces.

Even Italy Euro 2020 squad had a set piece specialist who in the end was recruited by Brentford. Thus, it is worth exploring:

➤ What is Set Piece Analysis and different types of set pieces
➤ Uses and methods of set piece analysis
➤ A brand new method of analysis by Statsbomb using a new model


Any action that occurs to restart play after it is stopped is called as a set-piece. Direct free kicks, corners, penalties, goal kicks, throw-ins are all set pieces.

Coaches therefore profile players in their team and develop strategies to defend or attack set pieces according to the situation.


Methods and benefits

1. Identifying zones to deliver the ball (or defend):

An important part of set pieces is to understand which part of the box is the right place to deliver the ball. For example in Noah Okafor’s goal against Cagliari, Christian Pulisic’s cross was into the corridor of uncertainty, a zone where defenders and goalkeepers are unsure of who will come to collect the ball.

This can be analysed through historic data for factors such as angle of delivery, distance from the goal and goalkeeper position. It helps teams to optimise their ball delivery into the box to improve chances of scoring.

During a set-piece there are particular zones that will be targeted (whether attacking or defending). 5 of the most targeted zones are

➤ The near post zone
➤ The far post zone
➤ The central zone or penalty spot
➤ The short zone
➤ The rebound zone

These names or position may vary depending on coaching staff.




2. Player Positioning and Movement

In terms of player movements, coaches and analysts tend to study positions occupied by players and the movements. During set pieces analysts observe the trajectories, runs and positioning used and this is then utilised for observing patterns in their own team as well as the opposition team.

There are several movements that can be observed during a set piece

➤ Losing a marker
➤ Blocks
➤ Clearances
➤ Screens
➤ Attractions and distraction
➤ Surveillance
➤ Movement and behaviour of the goalkeeper

In terms of marking, coaches use a variety of methods. They are

➤ Zonal marking: Players are assigned a particular zone to defend;
➤ Man-to-man: Players are assigned a certain opposition player to mark;
➤ Mixed: A player is given a certain zone to mark. If an opposition player invades this space then the team player will have to mark him;
➤ Combination: A system where all three are used while defending a set piece.



4. Success Rate, Variations and Real Time Decision Making

Once a set piece routine is successful, then coaches can find which routines bear the maximum fruit and then use data to come up with variations to those particular routines to make their team unpredictable.

This analysis can be done during live matches as well. Modern analysts work with their laptops collecting data points while the match is happening to help coaches to find gaps either in their own team or in the opposition.

This is also applicable during set pieces where analysts can understand where a particular routine is not being executed properly and then pass the message across to the coach who can relay to his players at any point.

Teams can take inspiration from other clubs’ routine and use them as a benchmarking with data analysis.

These methods are used to analyse the oppositions styles of play while different set pieces are being employed and come up with counter measures.

A new method

To measure aerial ability, analysts used Aerial Duel Wins per 90 against Aerial Win %, but this method had a huge flaw. If X player won an aerial duel against a Van Djik or against a Sebastian Giovinco it carried the same score in terms of numbers.

This meant that there needs to be a change in how data is taken. To counter this, Statsbomb developed a method called HOPS. HOPS was an acronym for Header Oriented Performance System. It was a model that measures a players ability to win aerial duels.

This model was based on something called as Glicko ratings system. It was a ratings system used by Mark Glickman to evaluate performance of Chess players. The scores are given on a basis of 0 to 1.


What HOPS did is that it helped set piece coaches to change position of players based on the scores. It helps the coach to decide which player to place in which position (in case of zonal system) or which player to mark whom (in terms of man-marking).



The discourse on set piece analysis is lengthy and more detailed, but this article has tried to explain analysis of this particular section of play in a very simplified manner.

With coaches trying to leave less aspects to luck and more aspects to be controlled, data and video analysis has got them a step closer to their goal.

Tags AC Milan


  1. As much as I like the breakdown, it exposes our game, the media is not helping the team, your guys wrote articles of Milan training for other teams to read,I don’t think in my opinion that it’s a good idea

    1. You think opposition teams are coming to scout Milan through SempreMilan articles and not using the data/analytics team they pay specifically for that? 😂

  2. I think the HOPS system (as described here, unless it not clear) still has a huge flaw. It’s better than not assuming anything of the opposing player. But it also assumes all CBs are good in the air and all wingers are less so, when the whole idea is to find differences in ability on set pieces between the player and the ops. For instance, if you put Okafor (a striker) against a CAM like Havertz this model in is going to say Okafor has an advantage when in reality Havertz is very good in the air. Or a more recent actual example of when Dzeko (striker) scored vs Calabria (defender) but Dzeko was taller and got the ball faster.

    The system also doesn’t distinguish between attacking headers and defensive headers. A better system might be to score each individual player on their capabilities if there’s info on them and if not then use HOPS. This makes it tailored to specific teams and outcomes and you’d have specialized data

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