An Ecological Approach to Soccer’s Set Pieces

Set-pieces in soccer represent a unique time during a soccer game. A set-piece is essentially a restart of play without all the chaos of being in the middle of a real moving game. Yes, there are players moving about before corner kicks or free kicks, but essentially play is stopped until the ball is kicked. There are no four phases of the game happening until that ball is put back into play. Teams prepare for set-pieces by learning pre-planned plays in training so they can surprise the opponent in the match. There are specialized set-piece coaches who look at a ton of data relating to near post headers, using teammates as blockers or lines of blockers, the best defensive tactics, where to throw the ball in, and so much more. Coaching set-pieces is a bit like a rabbit hole, we tend to do it as it has always been done. I want to see what will happen if I apply the theory of ecological dynamics to set-pieces with my team this season? Let me explain the theory briefly so you can follow my logic. A set piece is a real-time feedback loop between the environment and players. When the opponent lines up to defend a set-play in real-time, it will in effect open up certain options, while other options may be closed down. The overall objective of soccer is to exploit time and space, which often creates superiorities so you can score goals and win. If you don’t score you don’t win. If players can perceive the same affordances (actions that are possible) in real-time, if they can shift their intentions quickly (affordances open and shut quickly), and are ultimately able to exploit space and time or create a superiority, they will have a good chance to score. Let me give you an example of this. Maybe only the kicker notices the keeper is too far to one side of the goal, the kicker on their own decides in real-time to take the kick and scores directly. That is a successful set-piece that was not pre-planned, rather it was done in real-time because of what the situation afforded the kicker. However, it doesn’t need to be just the kicker, it could be a pair of players or the entire team who recognizes the opportunity or superiority, but the idea is to trust the feedback loop and the player’s ability to exploit space and time and create superiorities. My thought is that doing away with pre-planned set-pieces will be more effective than pre-planning them. I can see why the idea would be looked upon as radical, but the theory connected to the idea makes sense to me. By not pre-planning set-pieces it puts the decision-making process into the player’s hands/brains in real-time, instead of the coach controlling the decisions in a previous training session that is not in touch with the current feedback loop.  

I will leave you with this final thought. I was watching Man City versus Leeds today and a foul occurred outside the box. Leeds held a very high defensive line, too far out from goal in my opinion. Man City players saw this and hit the perfect in-swinger into the space for the attacking player to head it in. This was the exploitation of time and space, leading to superiority and a goal. The other part to the set-piece that made the play work even better was a fake kick, the fake forced the defensive wall to run back a step, and then stop and push up again, this really disorganized the effectiveness of the wall, and it was perfect because the wall was too high. My entire point is this, I am willing to bet the Man City players saw the wall was far too high, they all knew where the space was, the one player even figured out how to mess them up with a fake kick, then ‘bam” a goal. Would City have done the same set-play if the wall was 6 yards further back? I am not sure that they would have, they might have, but this leads me to the real-time feedback loop and players being allowed to make decisions in real-time, not ahead of time on the training pitch because the coach wanted it run a certain way.

I will keep you updated on how our set-pieces workout this season in the framework of an ecological approach.