What Is A Set Piece In Soccer

If you’ve just been following the Euros on ESPN, you’ll have heard the term “set piece” being thrown around constantly, leaving the uninitiated a little confused. But don’t worry, soccer fans, I’m going to tell you exactly what a set piece is, give you some video examples, and bring you up to speed. Sound good? Good!th

What Is A Set Piece?

Put simply, a set piece is a choreographed movement that has been planned by a team in training in order to use during a match to outfox their opponents. They’re very much like the sporting equivalent of a dance routine.

Instead of winging it in the moment, players will take orchestrated formations and move in pre-prepared ways in order to manipulate the shape of the opposing team, opening up gaps in their defense that can be exploited.

That said, a set piece doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. It only needs to subvert opponent expectation and catch them off guard.

The reason that soccer teams work on set pieces is no more complicated than they can be incredibly effective, sparking opportunities to score more goals.

When Are Set Pieces Executed?

A set piece can only be performed when the ball is returned to open play after a stoppage, no matter what the stoppage was for.

Why is this? Well, for one thing, the players involved in the set piece need time to communicate and get into the starting positions. Secondly, when the ball is returned to a fixed position to restart open play, the team with possession will be marked by their opponents, which means where they go, their opponents go.

In light of this, the team with possession has control over the movement of the defending side, which is exactly what you need to pull off a set piece. The whole idea of this kind of move is that the attacking players can predict the actions and positions of the opposing side.

Technically speaking, set pieces can be executed whenever the ball is returned to open play, whether it be a goal kick, a throw-in, a corner, a free kick, or a penalty, but they’re most prevalent during free kicks and corners as they provide the biggest chance to get the ball in the back of the net.

If a player has a particularly strong pair of arms on them, a throw-in deep in their opponent’s half can also be the perfect opportunity to attempt a set piece, as the situation closely mirrors a corner kick. As long as they can throw the ball deep enough into the box, their teammates can work some set piece magic and tie the defense in knots.

Which Players Are Involved in a Set Piece?

For the most part, set pieces are performed by strikers and midfielders due to their proximity to the oppositions’ goal during corners and free kicks, but there are no rules that state defenders can’t get in on the strategic fun either. However, with defenders so far up the pitch, if the set piece goes awry, it can leave the attacking team open to an explosive counter-attack.

I’d also like to highlight the fact that set pieces aren’t always entirely performed by players waiting to receive the ball. In fact, a set piece from a free kick may not involve any strategic movement in the box whatsoever.

Sometimes, the set piece is orchestrated by one, two, or three players behind the ball, putting doubts into the defending team’s mind about who will actually be taking the free kick. When an attacking team combines this behind-the-ball deception with an orchestrated routine in the box, it can be particularly effective.

Examples of Set Pieces in Soccer

Now that you’ve got the general gist of what a set piece is, let’s discuss some specific examples to really hit the nature of the set piece home.

I think a great place to start is with this footage of Manchester United defending against a Chelsea set piece from a corner…

This example demonstrates how complex a set piece can be, involving a number of players, strategic blocking, and drawing out defenders.

But remember earlier when I mentioned that, as long as it subverts expectation, a set piece needn’t be complex? Well, skip ahead to 0.51 seconds through the footage below of a Barcelona free kick against fellow Spaniards, Recreativo de Huelva.

This is the perfect example of how a set piece can be simple yet deadly. The free kick is in a very dangerous area of the opposition’s side, just a few yards out from the penalty area, so Barcelona knows that RdH will be expecting an attempt on goal.

RdH set up a wall to narrow the shooting angle of the free kick taker – as is the done thing – and attacking players in the box are marked man-for-man. All the while, Messi has stationed himself on the periphery of the wall in a seemingly benign position, ignored by the defending players.

Barcelona has one player run at the dead ball to dummy a strike, duping the defense to an even further degree, then a second Barca player block passes it straight to Messi who cuts in behind the defense into the penalty area and scores — beautiful!

2.42 in the following footage of Wales taking a corner against Turkey in the recently finalized Euros is another fantastic example of how simple set pieces can be devastatingly effective…

Being that the corner takes place in the last couple of minutes of stoppage time, the Turkish side expects the Welsh to whip it into the box for a fiery attempt on goal; however, Bale accepts a short-range pass, dribbles the ball into the box, then unloads it for Connor Roberts to smash into the back of the net.

It’s rare, but sometimes, teams may even utilize sneaky theatrics to draw the opposing side deeper into the con of a set piece. Take the first move in this video, for example…

The two players feign a disagreement, drawing focus, taking the opposition’s mind off the matter at hand, which, of course, is the free kick. Some might argue that this sort of deception isn’t sporting behavior, but technically, there are no rules against it.

What Does it Take To Pull Off a Set Piece in Soccer?

Practice, practice, practice.

Even simple set pieces need to be practiced time and time again to make sure everything goes to plan come game day.

Players don’t just need to get the movements down, they need to be able to execute the choreography in a believable manner and sell the con to their opponents.

When I was training, our coach would have us practice individual set pieces for the majority of the session if that’s what was on the agenda.

In fact, practicing set pieces is a fantastic way to train, as the attacking players can experiment with and refine their movements, while the defending side of the team gets to practice snuffing out these complicated and surprising routines.

Oftentimes, when a set piece requires a long kick into the penalty area or box, it all comes down to the accuracy of the player striking the ball, so a team will most likely have their dead ball specialist practicing hitting the target for hours on end.

How Can you Defend Against a Set Piece?

If a set piece goes off without a hitch, it can be nigh on impossible to defend against (I say that as a center back). The beauty of the set piece is, as a defender, you can be completely unaware that you’re doing something wrong and playing right into the attacking team’s hand. As far as you know, you’re doing a great job of marking your player.

There are, however, a couple of things a defending side can do…

  1. Zonal Defense – If you play or watch basketball, you’ll be well aware of zonal defense. This is where a defending side covers a zone of the danger area rather than individual players.
  2. Expect the Unexpected – Be on your toes. Never assume that the play is going to follow commonalities.


There you have it, sports fans; a set piece is literally a piece of play that’s been pre-organized in training to subvert expectations when the ball returns to open play in a game. It can involve the whole team or as few as two players. They’re done simply to gain an advantage, and with any luck, score a goal.

Now you’re up to speed just in time for the 2022 World Cup!

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