This is an excerpt from Attacking Soccer.
Set pieces are a critical part of the modern game of soccer. Interestingly, they occur more frequently in the biggest matches, where emotions run high and there's a tremendous amount of energy within the players on the field. For this reason, organization in both attack and defense in set pieces is important.
I sat in a stadium during a prestigious youth soccer tournament watching an American team play in the featured match against an international side. Around me were a number of college head coaches and assistants. A free-kick situation unfolded, during which the American team produced an excellent opportunity to score. A young assistant next to me said, "Hey, they just ran our SMU play - that's unbelievable." That was interesting to me, because this young man only knew part of the story. The head coach of the club team who had initiated the free kick had sent a player to the University of South Carolina (USC), where he played for us for 4 years. This player introduced the same set piece to us, and we adopted it. The young assistant's head coach was my assistant at the time, and he took the same set piece to his college.
The young assistant had not just witnessed a team copying his set piece but rather had seen the original play in action. In such a way, set pieces are witnessed by coaches, embedded in their memory, and then reshaped and retooled in order to meet the demands of each particular team.
Attacking Free Kicks
The first order of business for the coach is to identify players within the team who may have special qualities enabling them to strike a ball accurately in a set-piece situation. One important quality to identify is the ability to bend a ball around or over a wall. Ideally, your team would feature a left-footed and a right-footed player with the same type of capabilities. Every effort should be made to identify these players and encourage them to further develop this set of skills. Repetition is critical here, and much of it will have to be carried out in individual work away from team training. Players should be encouraged to stay after training or come out on their own and work with the aid of an artificial wall and some goalkeepers in order to get the number of repetitions and quality of practice necessary to become proficient.
It is ideal to have a good right-footed and a good left-footed player involved in each free-kick situation over the ball. This creates an unsettled picture for the goalkeeper, who might expect a bending or dipping ball from either player, freezing him in position and preventing him from anticipating the flight of the ball.
Other specialists might include skilled headers of the ball, in many cases the center backs. They also need to spend extra time outside of team practice developing their timing and confidence in finishing chances that come to them.
Taking these concepts into consideration, we have developed a set-piece alignment at USC and used it successfully for many years, creating many variations of it. The setup allows for a balanced approach with many options. See figure 11.1 for an example of this alignment.
USC set-piece alignment.
In this alignment, the space represented by the shaded area in the diagram is critical to the selection of the proper set piece. The closer the ball is positioned to the goal, the more important it is to get a shot or a one-touch-and-hit shot off. These options include the following.
The first option is a direct shot by player 1 (right footed) or player 2 (left footed). See figure 11.2.
Direct shot by players 1 and 2.
Touch and Hit
The second option is a touch and hit by player 1 and player 2 working together. See figure 11.3.
Touch and hit by players 1 and 2.