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May 14, 2019

Breaking Down Set Pieces: Picks, Packs, Stacks and More

By Euan Dewar

Set pieces occupy an uncanny spot in football. They constitute such a sizeable part of the sport, yet most matchgoers and viewers could be forgiven for glazing over them when they come around. Often it can be hard to discern what the attacking team’s plan is, what to be on the look out for or if a plan even exists to begin with. They seem to be underestimated as a tool in the minds of both the supporter and those working within the game. Being armed with an understanding of the base concepts at play can bring a whole lot of clarity to what often seems like a mess of moving players, as well as spark ideas on how set pieces could just be done better.

It all starts with identifying the setup of the defensive team and what can be done to exploit it to the attacking team’s advantage. Fundamental to this in the vast majority of set piece situations is the orientation of the defenders. All defenders in all marking schemes – be they man or zonal – are forced to track two things simultaneously: the delivery of the ball and the movement of the attacking players. Immediately this becomes a clear avenue to go at. Look at the defenders (Hoffenheim, the team in blue) on this example:

You’ve got a whole grab bag of them lined up across the six-yard box. A couple of the attacking team, Freiburg, are positioned either behind them or out of their peripheral vision to the side. The defenders can check over their shoulders all they like but at some point they’re going to have to turn to judge the flight of the ball, at which point they’ll lose track of what’s going on. And one poor sucker in particular is going to suffer because of it:

Yer man at the near post, no.14, has no clue what’s coming. These kinds of lapses are as common as Lonnie Rashid Lynn himself – it seems like an easy header until it isn’t. There’s a predilection amongst many football commentators to be suspicious of zonal marking, questioning it when it goes wrong while rarely doing the same of man-to-man marking. This has lead to a reaction in many people online, countering by pointing out man marking’s many failings when they crop up. The truth is that zonal systems are just as fallible if attacked correctly by making it as hard as possible on the defender’s player-tracking skills.

It’s also fun to see how various coaches do this. Ole Gunnar Solskj√¶r (and/or members of his staff) have taken some rather extreme approaches. Both at home with Molde and in the new job.

This is all partially why we at StatsBomb particularly prefer near post deliveries on corners. They give you a chance to attack in front of the defence, off of their blindside. Far post deliveries are useable too of course, but have more obvious flaws. Attacking behind the defence sounds nice, but the extra time the ball spends in the air gives them (and the goalkeeper) more time to react to its flight and move to block or intercept. They work best in tandem with physical mismatches or distractions, which we’ll come to.

All of these orientation ideas apply equally on free kicks too of course, where deliveries to the far side have more room to work. Check out this nifty one, with three attackers stationed on the far side of the defensive line creating a bit of an overload, putting doubt in the defenders’ minds before one of the attackers makes a delicious last second run to intercept the ball. Vision cones! It’s like Metal Gear Solid all over again.

Oh and they also apply on… whisper it… throw ins.

So that’s a snifter of how we mess with zonal marking schemes… How to screw with man marking then? Well this is where we get to inject a little spice into a set piece routine by using the physical presence of players to disorganise the opposition’s marking. The simplest version of this is a ‘pick‘ (or ‘screen’), a concept that originates from basketball. The idea is that a player stands still in order to create an obstacle that must be navigated around. An obstruction for some poor unsuspecting soul. Like so:

These are used to free up teammates, to create space between them and their defender. The above example is off the cuff as part of regular play. But of course these are used in all sorts of clever and aesthetically pleasing routines. Watch the bottom side of the court (the weakside in basketball parlance, away from the action) on this one:

While everybody’s attention is being diverted towards the player(s) on the ball, a shooter is peeling off to the corner and his teammate is setting a pick on his defender. Boom, open three-point shot. Nice and simple.

Pick plays can offer the exact same utility in football. They’re somewhat more frowned upon by referees in this sport, but so are a thousand other things that don’t get penalised. In open play there isn’t much of an opportunity to use them – the pitch is just too big (although don’t let that stop you creative sorts from trying). On set pieces, within the confined spaces that corners, close free kicks and long throws take place, they can be deadly. Just ask Christian Maggio here.

Or no.22 getting a dose of Czech-on-Czech action.

Or this unfortunate Dutch fellow wearing no.17 and his big friend with the equally sizeable afro. These two were merely trying to ply their trade for a plucky northern English club and this happens to them? Terrible, but word is that they both went on to make appearances in the latter stages of some notable football tournaments, a redemption tale we can all take heart from.

If you allow yourself a dalliance with the inventive bits of your brain, then you can surely imagine all the ways that a pick can be used. It’s generally advised to keep routines simple. The more actions of a high degree of difficulty that you ask a player to complete as part of the sequence of events, the more opportunities for the whole affair to break down at some point.

These sorts of plays are ripe for causing misdirection. On this corner, Thun (in red and white) initially play it short and it isn’t clear what their plan is. All the defenders are orientated towards the action. The real target is positioned all the way behind them on the other side of the box, in their blindside. The only defender who sees what’s coming is his marker, and he is the victim of a great pick that stops him from intervening (it’s also worth noting that this possibly illegal pick is slyly done out of sight of the referee as well). A secondary defender at the top of the six-yard box is also blocked off to prevent him getting involved.

While picks are still effective in football, the box is of course larger than half of a basketball court. Thus finding ways to shrink the space and make it harder for defenders to get around is of great help.

Dealing with picks presents real problems for defenders. Do you go over the obstacle? Under? Or is there a different option? In Basketball there’s a defensive scheme called ‘switching‘. This is something you’ll have seen in football – even in open play – but likely not under these terms. It’s essentially when one defender passes off the man they’re marking to another. They are ‘switching’ their defensive responsibilities with one another. If you’d like to read more there’s an excellent ol’ article on the subject on Cleaning the Glass.

Here’s an example in football, as Sparta Prague (the team in the burgundy kit) execute a switch in the bottom corner of the box.

This has its upsides, but also its obvious downsides. The first of which is mismatches. If a larger player who is being defended by a similarly big fella sets the pick for a smaller (and usually quicker) teammate, and the defenders execute a switch, then you have a slow lumbering person matched up a smaller one who can zoom past them. (And of course the smaller player’s likely small defender will also now be matched up against someone who is taller and/stronger more imposing than them). Voila, now you have a mismatch. Applying the same principles, this can be achieved in football too.

In the first clip of this example, a variety of screens and movement forces a smaller defender with shorter arms onto a player who is able to grab the ball from out of his reach and get a relatively simple layup. In the Ajax case, a smaller defender switches onto Matthijs de Ligt (no.4), who outmuscles his new marker with ease.

The other defensive quandary this causes is miscommunication. Defenders have to be on their tippy-toes both physically and mentally to deal with picks in this manner. If they slack for one second, or don’t communicate well enough one with each other, then breakdowns occur. You don’t even strictly need picks to accomplish this. Any contrasting movement of attacking players in close spaces puts the same sort of pressure on the defence. Here are a couple new examples, with little annotations this time, as it can be tricky to take in everything going on in real time.

One quirk of football relative to basketball is that we can bunch a lot of players together in one space, and then instruct them to make their runs from there. In this situation the defenders again have to communicate as they cant get handsy with or even close to this swarm of attackers before they shoot off like buzzing bees in every which direction. Liverpool showed a great use of this in their recent match against Newcastle, completely discombobulating the home team’s defence freeing up van Dijk. At StatsBomb, we call these ‘packs‘. You can also think of them as phalanxes from military history, as the concepts are fairly similar, though more peaceful than gladiatorial times.

The cousin to the pack is the ‘stack‘. Instead of bunching together in one set piece wrecking ball, the attackers form into a straight line. This has similar disruptive effects.

The ideal marking setup is some hybrid of zonal and man. That way the man marking side can slow the attackers down before they reach the zonal markers. But packs and stacks, and a combination of all the concepts we’ve discussed here can wreak havoc on most defensive schemes when done correctly.


That’s enough ground to cover for now. There’s all sorts of other areas to explore of course – more on throw-ins, free kicks (direct and indirect) and so on. Hopefully, this overview has provided some food for thought. It’s enjoyable to watch matches and be on the look out for these quirks. Or to be mildly miffed when your favourite team isn’t employing them.

We will be debuting our set pieces course in New York on June 2nd, London on June 11th, and Los Angeles on July 7th. The day will be packed with more detailed explanations on when and where to employ the concepts above, plus so many more ways to create different looks and schemes to help your team score more goals from set pieces.

If you’re interested and would like to get tickets than please go to our resource centre for more information.

Thanks for reading.

Article by Euan Dewar