Mohamed Mohamed looks at two teams leveraging set pieces to perform above expectations in the Premier League
We’re just past the halfway point of the 2022–23 Premier League season and things are in flux. Manchester City’s integration of goal scorer extraordinaire Erling Haaland has led to subtle issues both in and out of possession, leaving them more vulnerable than expected. With both Liverpool and Chelsea experiencing lacklustre seasons, it has created an opening at the top which Arsenal’s talented young squad has taken advantage of so far. The seven teams from 14th place Leicester City to 20th place Southampton are separated by only three points. Add all of that up and we could be in for another exciting end-of-season finish.
It’s interesting to review preseason projections and highlight clubs which have so far over-performed relative to earlier expectations. Two of the standouts have been Newcastle and Brentford. The former have made themselves contenders to finish in the top four for the first time since 2003, while the latter are on track to secure upper mid-table status in just their second PL season. Part of what has helped them have very good seasons has been their ability to dictate play during set pieces.
The importance of set pieces has been discussed in the public sphere for years and it has slowly but surely caught on. PL clubs are hiring more set piece coaches and analysts to find an edge. Perhaps the most famous recent example was Liverpool’s hiring of Thomas Grønnemark as their throw-in coach, which helped massively in their title winning season in 2019-20. Gaining an edge in this area is very important given how even a few extra goals can make a massive financial difference whether at the bottom or top of the table. With that in mind, here are some of the ways in which Newcastle and Brentford have taken advantage of set piece situations.
No team has generated more shots and expected goals from their set pieces in the PL this season than Newcastle, with a considerable lead between themselves and second place in both metrics. It’s a massive increase from what they did last season, although the goals haven’t yet matched the volume of chances they’ve generated. When looking at the tape, it’s not hard to see why Eddie Howe’s side has been a handful to deal with.
One of the routines Newcastle use during corners is to have two or three players situated in the six yard box trying to unsettle the opposition goalkeeper. Around the penalty spot, they’ll have three occupying that space who are either marked man-to-man or zonal. Sometimes they can be spread across or in a stack like formation. It’s common to see Joelinton roaming or spinning towards the far post for the second ball. Newcastle had success running this vs Arsenal and created their best chance of the match.
Part of what makes this difficult to contain is that there are multiple options for Kieran Trippier to aim for around the near post, including those who were originally in the six yard box. An interesting example of that occurring came against Manchester United as Newcastle had their three outside the six yard box who were man-marked. Callum Wilson actually starts inside the opposition goal before emerging unaccounted for among the crowd and heads the ball across but Bruno Guimarães can’t turn it in.
Something that’s become customary is Newcastle going short with their corners as an alternative to catch the opponent off guard. In general, they like to unsettle the opposition with quick circulation of the ball before attacking the far post with the actual cross. The delivery could be floated closer in from the flank, or one whipped from the halfspace. An example of the latter was their first goal versus Brentford. Once Trippier whips in the cross, Guimarães jogs into the vacated space and Joshua Dasilva has to stay attached to his marker at the edge of the box for just long enough that he can’t help out. A block is set and the rest is history.
Like with their standard corners, Newcastle have different ways to create opportunities from these situations. You’ll sometimes see them vacate the penalty area and Trippier hits it directly towards the arc. As mentioned earlier, the interplay between the corner taker and a teammate coming to provide the short pass option also makes it easier to end up with a short-range cross.
Newcastle’s creativity with their set pieces also extends to free kick routines. It’s not uncommon for them to take it quickly in these situations while the opponent is still setting up. If the free kick is within shooting range, they’ll occasionally use this routine where Guimarães curls around from the left side to receive and hits a first time pass near the centre-right area of the box while they try to overload the opposite side beforehand.
Unlike Newcastle, Brentford’s success in generating shots and xG has remained largely the same this season compared to last. They were third in both metrics in 2021-22 while this season, they are seventh and third respectively. Whereas Newcastle are more likely to flood the six yard box with players (8th in most players packed into that area from corners), Brentford attempt their corners differently.
Brentford are interesting because it can seem like they’ve got two mini routines within a corner sequence. At the beginning, it’ll be set up in something resembling a stack formation before dispersing once the corner taker signals for the delivery. When it’s done around the penalty spot, opponents will usually try to man-mark so it’s common to then see blocks being used for one of the Brentford players to spring open.
Against teams that defend zonally, it’s hard to keep track of the near post action while also not leaving someone open backdoor. Brentford had two disallowed goals from corners in their 3-1 victory over Liverpool where they added a twist in which everyone was bunched up at the far post beforehand instead of centrally. They scored from the more standard version versus Tottenham. Notice how Ivan Toney sidesteps into open space on the blindside of two Spurs players and is in prime position for a tap-in.
Similar to Newcastle, Brentford will look to choreographed movements with some of their free kicks. From closer range, Mathias Jensen can lob the ball to the right side of the box for a header into the central zone or go quickly with a ground pass. From further out, a sideways pass towards the halfspace will trigger a curling run off the blindside of their marker into the box and attempt a cut-back. The design does rely on perfect timing with the off-ball movement and the delivery, but it’s not hard to envision it coming to fruition for a quality scoring chance.
No analysis of Brentford’s set pieces would be complete without a brief mention of their love of causing chaos via throw-ins. It brought them great success last season and they’ve continued to use it. You’ll see them often go long and have a ton of traffic near the six-yard area so they can take advantage in case the initial flick-on is successful. Brentford scored from one against West Ham in this manner. Before the throw is launched, Ethan Pinnock is outside the byline and comes back into the play to occupy two West Ham players and win the initial header. Because Declan Rice is focused on Toney crashing the six yard box, it allows Christian Nørgaard to sneak forward and attempt a volley before Toney cleans up the rebound.
Having the threat of going long also allows them to disguise the short-range option to operate with more space. They can quickly work it back to the throw-in taker if it’s Jensen or Rico Henry for an attempted cross given there could be up to six Brentford players deep in the penalty box. There’s also the opportunity for 2v2/3v3 quick combinations to get into the box for either a shot or a pass into the middle.
Given all of this, it’s no surprise to see the success both Newcastle and Brentford have had. They’ve got numerous routines to work from, with players who have the technical ability to consistently produce quality deliveries (in the case of Newcastle, Tripper’s one of the best in the game). Seeing as neither team is prolific from open play, set pieces are close to the great equalizer. Both clubs are in the top five for the proportion of a team’s total xG for from set plays (Newcastle are tied for first). When tuning into a match involving one (or both) of Newcastle and Brentford, pay special attention to their set pieces. You’ll likely see some of these patterns and perhaps even new ones drawn up.
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