In the latest Talking Reds column, Kate Cohen analyses Liverpool's defending of set-pieces.
The other week, when I was contemplating what my next Talking Reds piece would be about, Brendan Rodgers said something that made my ears prick up. Rodgers spoke of Liverpool's set-pieces, and how they had been working hard in practice after being unhappy with the amount of recent goals they had conceded. Rodgers' comments were as follows:
"I felt coming in last year that we conceded some goals man-to-man so we went to zonal defending. But I prefer giving players responsibility so that everyone knows who they mark. Now it's purely man to man. There are no grey areas with it. Everyone knows their job to do from corners. If you don't do it then ultimately you suffer because you don't play."
Defending set-pieces, and what system you use, is a topic that causes great debate within the football fraternity and the debate brings up many talking points, namely: should you have men on the post or not? And is zonal marking the devil's reincarnation?
But whatever your opinions are on which system is best, it really comes down to suitability and concentration. Barcelona's Luis Adriano recently said they prefer man-to-man marking. Whilst Rodgers followed up his previous comments this week (after Liverpool again conceded from a set-piece), saying:
"It's something that we need to address, for sure. We have to be more aggressive and more switched on. It's concentration... It's something for us to work on, but in football there is always something to improve on. At this moment, that is an area for us to look at."
Set-piece systems are frequently debated in the media, and are a contentious issue, but it is more than just which system a team uses. Even a brilliant system can fail if it isn't executed on game day. Which is why set-pieces are such a major part of today's game.
The importance of set-pieces
Set-pieces are a vital component of modern professional football, and are one of the five main phases in a football match. According to Deloitte's 2013 study on sports analytics, one third of all goals across the top five European leagues in 2012 came from set-pieces. Whilst a FIFA report, looking at trends in modern football, found that 28 per cent of all goals from the 2006 World Cup and UEFA Champions League were set-piece goals.
If set-pieces result for about 30 per cent of all goals (an average of the two studies), then it is clear that they are a big part of football. It's certainly not rocket science: if a team is better at scoring goals and conceding less from set-pieces, they will have a competitive advantage on their opponents.
Breaking down a set-piece
When defending a set-piece, whether using zonal, man to man or a mixture of the two, there are two aspects to consider:
- When the set-piece is taken and defending that - When the ball is won back and counter-attacking
A set-piece is a static moment, which allows the team to set up defensively to prevent the goal. When determining which system a team should use, zonal or man to man or a combination of the two, there are some things to consider - such as how the opposition set up, what the manager prefers and what suits the players best.
The second moment, from when the set-piece has been taken and dealt with, is an opportunity to counter-attack. As the speed of the modern game has quickened, and the tactical structures of the teams have developed and changed, we are seeing more teams punish their opponents by counter-attacking directly after set-pieces. Of course, from a Liverpool perspective, a perfect example of this is Albert Riera's goal against Aston Villia in 2008-09, which Pepe Reina assisted.
This season Liverpool have already scored a fantastic goal in the second phase of a corner. Simon Mignolet's quick distribution and Liverpool's counter-attack showed Liverpool's strengths on the break.
Why the system doesn't always matter
Under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool had a great track record of defending set-pieces - despite the media's criticism of the zonal system. From 2004-05 to 2009-10, six seasons in total, only once were Liverpool not amongst the best set-piece defenders in the league (twice we were the best).
Rafa was a big proponent of zonal marking, and the team's defending of set-pieces was very strong during his time here. So that can be used to show how brilliant zonal marking is; but it doesn't carry the whole truth.
Zonal marking can be done poorly, and Benitez acknowledges that:
"It shows that it should not be the system that is blamed for conceding goals at set-pieces but it will always depend on the determination, concentration and ability in the air of the players at the moment of delivery of the set-piece."
Under Rodgers, Liverpool are now using a different system, but we also have entirely different players. We no longer have a giant at the front post zone, in Peter Crouch, to clear almost anything, and Sami Hyypia's experience is gone. The goalkeepers also may have different preferences. Whereas Reina was comfortable without players on the post (allowing more players to be in the danger area), Mignolet is different.
So whilst Liverpool have conceded five goals from set-pieces this season, 50 per cent of the total goals conceded, it isn't necessarily solely down to the system.
It depends on the preference of the manager, it depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, and, it depends on the players available and what they are comfortable with. But, most importantly, it depends on if it's good or not. Is the concentration and determination to be first to the ball there (as Rodgers alluded to)? Are the players performing the roles they are tasked with?
Let's not forget that Liverpool have also scored that terrific goal against Sunderland directly after successfully defending a corner - something which comes through well-placed players, well-timed runs and practice. The fascinating and important point is that Rodgers and the team are not happy with how things are going and are working hard to rectify and constantly improve every area of the game - which includes set-pieces.