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April 26, 2019

Set Pieces Remain An Underutilised Gamechanger

By Ted Knutson

This week I was lucky enough to present a comprehensive analysis of the Danish Superliga to an audience of 300 coaches, analysts, and administrators in Danish Football. The report was commissioned to not only analyse how the league has changed over the last five seasons, but also to benchmark it against the German Bundesliga and English Premier League. Our analyst Euan Dewar did a great job on the analysis and preparing the report, and it was fun to once again be in a packed room of football people, discussing data analysis. My understanding is that the entire report will be made available to the public at some point in the future.

StatsBomb do this type of analysis for clubs, federations, and governing bodies fairly regularly, and it’s a huge compliment to be trusted to produce honest, insightful analysis about the game.

One thing that was absolutely clear in the report was that Danish teams remain innovators in one specific area: set pieces. Danish teams score consistently more goals from set pieces than pretty much every other league in the world, including ones with considerably more money and more talent. (For more analysis on this, check out my earlier piece I Think We Broke Denmark.)

Let me also make something else clear – more goals are not being scored off set pieces because the defenses are bad at defending this phase of the game. More goals are being scored because a number of Danish teams are simply better at executing them. And they are better at executing because they do things differently.

What are the differences? First of all, they shoot more often off direct free kicks.

This might seem a basic point – OH GEEZ TAEK MORE SHOTS, SCORE MOAR GOALS RAAAAR – but they also score a higher percentage of those shots. Danish teams convert 8% of their DFKs compared to 6% in the Premier League, and 5.7% in the Bundesliga. That’s a significant gap, and one that seems to suggest there is a lot of slack in execution for teams in the bigger leagues.

Alright, what else?

Danish teams also target and succeed at exploiting different spaces off corners. If you know the better positions of maximum opportunity and are able to deliver balls to those areas, you can score more goals off what is traditionally a low-return phase of the game. (Teams score off corners between 2 and 2.5% across the full data set. We have seen certain teams double or treble that for multiple seasons.)

And…?

Well, remember how Andy Gray mocked Liverpool hiring a long throw coach?

Look ma, nearly free goals! (Approximate value in the Premier League, £2.5M each.)

Only possible in Denmark? Nope:

Find the edges, then exploit them. One team in Liverpool is suddenly scoring a bunch of goals from long throws. The other one hired our favourite long throw coach–Thomas Gronnemark.

Set piece execution is one main reasons Liverpool are having their greatest ever Premier League season. We have Liverpool scoring 17 goals so far in the league and conceding 6 for a goal difference of +11 in this phase of the game. Manchester City are +2 (9 scored, 7 conceded). Without that gap, the goal difference between the two contenders would go from a gap of 8 to 19, and there would likely be no title race.

The same is true further down the table as well. Given how tight the Top 4 race is right now, it’s entirely possible a difference of a few goals off this phase of the game could swing Champions League qualification for next season. When qualification is an automatic passport to tens of millions, and the least an English club will receive this season is a minimum of £86m, any edge to traverse the gap or maintain participation is worth every penny of outlay. We’ll take some time to revisit this once the season ends.

A couple of notes before I wrap this up…

Set Piece Program
We are taking applications from professional teams that want to work with us on set pieces for next season. We only work with a couple of teams on this max every season, and are exclusive to one team per league. If you work for a professional team with significant budget (bringing you goals does not come cheap), please send me an email to ted@statsbomb.com. We will choose who we work with by the end of May, so if your team wants to be in the mix, now is the time.

Set Piece Courses
For everyone else, we have tickets available for three set piece courses in June in New York, London, and Los Angeles. The courses will be taught by me, and cover both process and execution of set pieces from a coaching and analysis perspective.

To my knowledge, no one else in the world teaches a course like this, and certainly no one who works with professional teams. I made the decision to teach this information to interested parties quite simply because I feel the game is ready to change, but needed more talented people with education to carry it out. Part of my commitment to StatsBomb and its audience has been to teach people more about the game and how it operates instead of hoarding the info, and this once again falls squarely under that umbrella.

Links to buy tickets can be found here:

New York – June 2nd

London – June 11th

Los Angeles – July 7th

I hope to see a lot of you this summer.

Ted Knutson
CEO, StatsBomb
ted@statsbomb.com

Header Image Courtesy of the Press Association

Article by Ted Knutson