Game, set, match

Italy’s success at the Euros was underpinned by the innovations and imagination of their set piece routines. The man primarily responsible was a Venetian banker by trade who spent much of his spare time as an assistant coach in the lower leagues of Italian football before getting the opportunity to work in top flight football. Gianni Vio was deployed by Roberto Mancini as the Azzurris’ set-piece coach after spending much of the last twenty years studying the many variations in set-piece routines, which inspired him to launch a website on the subject. 

That website spawned a book “That Extra 30 Per Cent”, which then drew the attention of former Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga who contacted Vio after becoming coach at Red Star Belgrade. Zenga hired Vio for his set-piece expertise when he became manager of Catania in 2008 as they battled to stay in Serie A. Vio’s impact could have hardly been more dramatic. His first game in charge of set-pieces for the Sicilian side was against Napoli on 6th April 2008, and Catania won the game 3-0 with two goals scored from set-pieces. 

The first came from a free-kick wide on the left where it is noticeable that there was considerable orchestrated movement from the seven attacking players, as three players moved out of the penalty area drawing their markers away, the other four moved in with the ball eventually going in at the near post almost unchallenged. The second goal came from a corner where Catania’s players flood the near post area which draws the attention of defenders and goalkeeper, leaving a player free on the edge of the box who ran unimpeded to the far post where after his first attempt is saved, he scored. 

In the remaining games of that season Vio’s influence led to set-piece goals against Roma and Juventus in a pair of notable 1-1 draws, which went a long way to preserving Catania’s Serie A status as they stayed up by a single point. One of the key aspects of Vio’s routines is creating an element of uncertainty in the defensive ranks, which can be brought about by dynamic fluidity of movement where players exchange positions just before the kick is taken. Additionally, one of his favoured moves is for the attacking side to build their own walls at free-kicks, often taking up an offside position before dispersing, sowing confusion amongst the opposition.

Vio’s set-piece canvas is as broad as it is efficient, with a dizzying 4,830 different variations because each one is adapted to the strengths of individual players. “All I’ll say is you need to analyse the players that you have and find solutions tailor-made to their skill set,” Vio said in an interview with La Nuova di Venetia newspaper. “There are players whose reading of the game is special. At the highest level, Sergio Ramos comes to mind. Wherever you put the ball, you can bet he’ll find a way to get on the end of it. Timing is the most important thing when it comes to finishing off a set-piece.”

Only one of the 142 goals scored at Euro 2020 came from a direct free-kick and it was significant that it was scored by Denmark under the direction of their set-piece coach Mads Buttgereit. The Danes are considered to be one of the leading protagonists in this field as was perfectly illustrated by Mikkel Damsgaard’s opener in the semi-final against England. Damsgaard was assisted by the three Danish centre backs lining up to the left of the defensive wall and then moving in unison to the right just as Damsgaard was about to take the kick. This affected Jordan Pickford’s line of sight and by the time he moved to his right the ball had already flown into the top corner. Apart from the excellence of Damsgaard’s strike Buttergeit emphasises the importance of the involvement of his teammates. “The way of thinking that a set-piece goal is somehow a cheap goal, I can’t understand it. The teamwork involved in it is fantastic.” 

Both Buttergeit and Vio, alongside Nicolas Jover who moved to Arsenal from Manchester City in the summer and the man he replaced Andreas Georgson, all have something in common in that they have worked with Matthew Benham, the owner of FC Midtjylland and Brentford. In Benham’s first season in charge at Midtjylland in 2014/15 they won their first Danish Superliga title, in no small part down to their success with set-pieces. 25 of their total of 65 goals came from set-pieces, the next highest in the league was eleven. There is much talk of marginal gains with specialist coaches, but scoring more than double the next highest in the league is very much more, that is a huge advantage. 

Such a speciality is not just the preserve of continental coaches or teams, with many English clubs now employing set piece coaches, including the world’s oldest professional club National League Notts County who recently hired Alex Clapham as assistant coach to lead their approach to set-pieces. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford was the highest profile of the transfer window but behind the scenes the appointment of Eric Ramsay may be considered just as significant. Manchester United managed to prise Ramsay away from Chelsea where he was the Under-23s coach. In September 2019 Ramsay became the youngest Briton to gain his Uefa Pro licence at the age of 27, and with a couple of stints as academy coach at Swansea and Shrewsbury he has been earmarked as one of the rising stars in the coaching world . 

Ole Gunnar Solksjaer identified set-pieces as a weakness last season, especially defensive ones when they conceded fourteen goals (the second highest in the Premier League behind Leeds) and he was instrumental in United hiring somebody for this specific role. At the other end of the pitch United only scored seven set-piece goals, the same as relegated West Brom, with only five sides scoring fewer – see chart above. Ramsay’s appointment as Individual Development and Set Piece Coach marks a step up in United’s approach. Before Ramsay joined assistant Martyn Pert and goalkeeper coach Richard Hartis had joint responsibility for set-pieces. Ramsay will be assisted by Tom Green who remains the club’s dedicated set-piece analyst. If Ramsay proves to be as effective as Vio or Buttergeit, then he might be as influential to United winning a first title for nine years as Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho or Raphael Varane.  

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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