Arsenal have not cornered the market: set-pieces can and soon will be embraced by every team

Ryan Baldi
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Arsenal have become dead-ball masters thanks to Mikel Arteta and Nicolas Jover, but soon every team will embrace set-pieces. Liverpool started the trend.


An art once viewed as the reserve of lower-ranked clubs, a great leveller where ostensibly less talented sides could exert their superior physicality to flatten the playing field against more expensively assembled opponents, set-pieces have now become a clear point of focus even for the game’s elite.

Title challengers Arsenal lead the Premier League in total set-piece goals this season with 22. Their 16 goals from corner kicks equals a record set – much more predictably – by Tony Pulis’ West Brom.

Defensively, the Gunners are dead-ball doyens, too, with their record of six goals conceded from set-pieces bettered only by champions Manchester City, who have allowed only two.

“I think it shifted after the 2019-20 season when Liverpool won the league,” says Stuart Reid, a freelance set-piece analyst who has worked with several professional clubs. “They had the most set-piece goals in the league. That’s when the big clubs started to focus on those marginal gains set-pieces provide.

Set pieces were regarded as something for the weaker teams in the league, the more physical teams, to give them more of a chance to stay up. But Liverpool took that and thought, ‘If they can use it to get points, why can’t we?’ Obviously they had great set-piece delivery from the full-backs and good aerial ability from [Virgil] Van Dijk and everyone else. It gave them an edge.

The season after that, City appointed a set-piece analyst. The bigger teams all started to copy.

Yannick Euvrard, the set-piece coach at Belgian giants Anderlecht, believes a keener focus on set-piece mastery goes hand in hand with the game’s thirst for improvement across the board.

“I think the importance grew together with football becoming a bit more data-driven,” he says. “It allows teams to go into detail much more and identify weaknesses in defensive the set-up of the opposition.

You see that football is starting to lean towards having specialists in a coaching staff. This means that you dedicate time to small gains that makes a difference in the bigger picture. That is, in my opinion, also the value of a set-piece specialist. He dedicates time to one aspect of the game and makes sure the right detail is there.

Nicolas Jover, Arsenal’s set-piece coach, is a prominent figure on match days, shuffling to the touchline and directing traffic before any free-kick or corner – much to the chagrin of Graeme Souness. And the eagle-eyed fan would be able to pick out the set-piece savant at their own club as they saunter to the edge of the technical area before a dead ball. But the work these coaches do throughout the week is more mysterious and malleable, differing from club to club and dependent on the upcoming opponent.

“There’d be stuff that you’d try most weeks that focuses around the strengths of your team in delivery and aerial ability,” Reid says. “And you’d have more opposition-specific stuff to take advantage of certain weaknesses or spots you’d like to target in the opposition. A set-piece analyst in a dedicated club role will clip together videos and provide data for the set-piece coach to come up with the plan of attack and the plan of defence.”

“We have a couple of set principles that we use,” Euvrard adds. “These are used as a base layer, let’s say a go-to. During the weak, we finetune that based off the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses.”

When it comes to the factors that determine how successful a team can become at set-pieces, having players capable of high-quality deliveries and others with strong aerial abilities are obvious assets. But a lack of technical skill needn’t be a barrier to proficiency.

“There are ways of adjusting to weaknesses,” Reid says. “Say, if you’re working with a team that doesn’t have great crossing ability, going for the Arsenal approach of an in-swinger that relies on good delivery probably isn’t the best option.

But there are ways you can counteract that. You could focus on clever short-corner routines. You could focus on the more driven, chipped style of deliveries, which tend to be more accurate than trying to get the perfect in- or out-swinger. If you use other dark arts and principles around that, you can balance out the fact that those sorts of deliveries are slower and easier to defend. It’s just about building belief in the players.

And Euvrard believes how quickly improvements in set-piece play can be seen is often a matter of how readily players embrace the idea of mastering the craft.

“It depends a little bit on the profiles that you have in the team and also on the team profile,” he says. “If you have a solid footballing team that scores a lot of goals, the mindset of becoming a ‘set-piece team’ might be a bit harder to ingrain. If you have a team that is in the lower end, they might be a bit quicker in identifying that they will need these situations to not get relegated.”

It seems Arsenal have had no such reservations. Arteta, who’d worked alongside the coach at the Etihad, poached Jover from Manchester City in 2021. In the season prior to the set-piece guru’s arrival, the Gunners had scored just six Premier League goals from set plays.

“They use what I call the dark arts really well,” Reid says, analysing Arsenal’s recent set-piece success. “Obviously, Ben White and his shenanigans have been widely publicised. They focus on blocking really well, blocking zonal markers and man markers from being able to attack the ball. And they have superb set-piece delivery, which is hugely important. They’ve got good aerial ability, as well. They tick all the boxes.

The fact they’ve got players who win the ball well in the air and players with the delivery to match it, plus they’ve got Nicolas Jover providing the ideas and the execution behind it, it ticks all the boxes you need for success from set-pieces.

From England’s “love train” at the 2018 World Cup to blocking principles borrowed from basketball, the search for marginal gains in dead-ball situations has led to some of football’s most innovative ideas and experiments, a quest that continues.

“I’m still not seeing set-pieces as rocket science,” Euvrard says. “In terms of innovation, I think we’ll get more into the details. Kicking technique is a big aspect of that, so I’m sure that the growth in terms of data and video will continue.”

“I think there is going to be increased focus around any stoppage,” Reid suggests. “We’ve seen a rise in throw-ins with Thomas Gronnemark at Liverpool. I think in the future we’re going to see rehearsed goal kicks. We’re already seeing some teams building up in certain ways when taking goal kicks, that kind of short build-up that has gained prominence in the last few years. But I think we’ll see clear routines from goal kicks. The same with kick-offs, as well. Any time where there’s a stoppage will gain focus in the future.”

Whether it’s delving deeper into the darks arts or getting creative with the game’s quotidian fare such as goal kicks and kick-offs, it seems the surface has only been scratched in football’s renewed obsession with set-piece innovation.