Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address: Set Pieces

Mauricio Pochettino has to address the problems we had at set pieces last season if Spurs are to challenge the top four.

There were some real signs of progress during our first season under head coach Mauricio Pochettino, but yet some issues still remain.

I’ve already run the rule over our defence, midfield and use of pressing; so today we’re going to turn our attention to set pieces.

The good

Set pieces were both a gift and a curse for us last season. We got much better at taking them, but on the flip side, we also conceded plenty of goals from them.

Under Mauricio Pochettino, we were third in the Premier League in goals from set pieces, not including penalties, with 13 overall. Although this had much to do with Christian Eriksen’s free kicks, which produced some pearling goals. However, we also scored six times directly from corners. This saw us ranked as the tenth best team in the Premier League in the corner category.

When it comes to corners, Mauricio Pochettino very much likes to go after the near post. He either wants to put the ball in to a vacant area at the corner of the six-yard box for a runner or he wants to hit a player in here for a flick-on.

A good example of the first routine was Eric Dier’s run to the corner of the six-yard box against Leicester in our 4-3 win. The near edge of this zone was left clear for him to run in to and flick the ball goalwards, with Harry Kane tapping in at the far post.


Vacant corner of 6-yard box for Dier to run in to.

Eric Dier also scored off a remarkably similar move in our 4-0 thumping of QPR at the start of the season. Again the corner of the six-yard box was left clear for him to run in to and power his header home.


Dier runs in to the vacant space.

This running of a player, usually a centre back, towards this vacant zone is one way Pochettino likes us to create from corners. Another sees him position a player with a physical presence in this zone at the corner of the six-yard box for a flick-on. The ball still goes in to the same area and Pochettino is looking for the same result, he just uses someone with size already in there to make the routine look different.

Mousa Dembele’s nod on for Harry Kane to score in Spurs 2-1 Arsenal was a prime example of how the coach switches up the routine and still gets the same result. This despite Arsenal having four players around Dembele in order to try and stop this near post flick-on happening.


Arsenal’s 4 defenders can’t stop Dembele.

As a team we’ve been very successful, despite having the fourth worst accuracy at corners in the Premier League last season. The reason being that the taker, often Eriksen, has to deliver a much lower and flatter driven ball to make it work. This has a higher degree of difficulty, but overall a higher reward if executed correctly.

Proof that its working? We scored six goals in the Premier League direct from corners last season, after racking up just seven in the last two campaigns combined.

The bad

Whilst there has to be praise from increasing our output from free kicks and corners, we’ve also been conceding from them too. Last season, we allowed 131 shots from set pieces, the eighth highest in the Premier League.

There have been two problems tactically when we are defending set pieces. The first is the use of both zonal and man-to-man marking. The second has been the lack of players on the posts.

Last season we saw several occasions where the combination of these two tactical issues raised their ugly head, especially at corners.

At Old Trafford we conceded to a Michael Carrick header, as the former Spurs midfielder was left unmarked.

As the corner comes in, we have three men marking zonally across the six-yard box. In addition to this, full back Kyle Walker is picking up Michael Carrick directly. On the edge of the penalty area we are man-to-man and Eric Dier has Marouane Fellaini. There are no players guarding the posts whatsoever and both issues combined to gift Man Utd a goal.


Zonal and man-to-man marking.

As the ball comes in, the problems start to occur, beginning with two of the players who are man-to-man marking, Eric Dier and Kyle Walker.

Marouane Fellaini gets a run on Eric Dier, as he out leaps our centre back and sends the ball goalwards. The ball was then blocked and rebounded up in to the air off Nacer Chadli, who instinctively reacted to Fellaini’s header. Had Chadli been back on the line, then he would have had more time to gauge the flight of the ball, as it would have almost been straight at him. Chadli’s middle of the road zonal positioning actually makes him more of a hindrance than a help here.

With the scoop up in the air by Chadli, Walker letting Carrick drift away then sees the Man Utd man in acres of space to pick a spot with his header. Chadli is not back on the post, which would have stopped it and Harry Kane, who should be towards the other post, is screening Hugo Lloris’ view.


Chadli in no man’s land and Kane screens Lloris’ view.

No men on the posts and the mixture of zonal and man-to-man marking have combined to see us concede.

Not long after in the 4-3 thriller against Leicester City we also allowed a goal from a corner, as the same issues raised their heads once more. Again, we had a split between zonal and man-to-man marking with no men on the posts.

The three defenders playing in zones across the six-yard box were present once more. Again, a full back, Danny Rose this time, was picking up an opponent directly.


Mix of zonal and man marking.

Once more, the problems were two-fold with a screening player and two runners to contend with.

Firstly, the screening player in Robert Huth stopped Nabil Bentaleb tracking the movement of Wes Morgan, as Bentaleb was blocked off.

Secondly, two runners then complimented this. Riyad Mahrez darted towards the near post, taking Kyle Walker just far enough that he got underneath the flight of the ball and couldn’t recover. Wes Morgan then surged in to the acres of space that Mahrez and Huth had created to put his downward header past the diving Michel Vorm. Again, had a man been on the post then he would’ve had a chance of clearing it off the goal line.

Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address

Our defending at corners needs to be looked at by Mauricio Pochettino and his coaching team. The mixture of zonal and man-to-man marking isn’t working and neither is failing to have a man on one or both posts.

There also seems to be confusion about tracking runners. This could well be caused by the mixed nature of the zonal and man-to-man defending within the system. The goals we’ve looked at have seen someone who is man marked getting free – Carrick and Morgan. Whether the player on them believes they will get help from someone playing zone after they’ve let them go is unclear. If this is the case, relying on quick defensive rotations to pick up lost runners at corners is an unwise move.

There are good arguments for playing zone at corners, just as there are man-to-man. Mauricio Pochettino should go for one type of system rather than trying to operate a hybrid of both. On top of that, at least one post should be covered, if not both. Having answers for these two questions is imperative given the goals that we conceded from corners last season.

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8 Responses to Tactical issues Mauricio Pochettino must address: Set Pieces

  1. Stan 3rd August 2015 at 6:00 pm #

    Spurs all too often give away soft goals at set pieces. they need a warrior at the back prepared to get hurt heading away danger…..Eric and Verts shy away from this. Only Fazio is prepared to do this! Worth noting how many times he is first to ball at set pieces. He was a colossus against Chelsea in 5-3 win, they are fantastic at set pieces…we need a John Terry and Fazio is that player, similar lack of pace but a warrior! Other defenders are too nice, we need some steel….

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 3rd August 2015 at 7:07 pm #

      Some interesting points Stan. Fazio is good at set pieces because of his aerial prowess, it’s just his foot speed in open play that lets him down.

  2. Reinert 3rd August 2015 at 11:01 pm #

    I agree on your points, I seem to remember a similar article earlier, last season. Fazio, does he have a future with us? Is he now more in a coaching and auxiliary role, a role-model? We have a very young team, they can’t always be relied upon in the most stressful situations, were seasoned professionals would make the right call. I don’t know, what do you think, will we sign someone with experience, Mark, or do you see our coaching team as confident enough? I just can’t wait until tomorrow (Real Madrid), and saturday!

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 4th August 2015 at 2:49 pm #

      Hi Reinert, yes I posted about this last season, but since then it’s continued and something Pochettino needs to address. All teams will concede from set pieces, but it’s our hybrid of zone and man marking that is causing us problems and we would concede fewer if we went with either one or the other setup.

      Does Fazio have a future? Not for me, he is big tall and strong, but his positioing is often bad, his feet aren’t quick enough and he can be sloppy in giving the ball away. I don’t know if he was Pochettino’s choice or not and maybe Pochettino was hoping to turn him to what Dejan Lovren became at Southampton, but it’s not going to work out for Fazio here.

  3. Zaph 3rd August 2015 at 11:54 pm #

    I remember you highlighted this issue last season, and we noted that teams like Chelsea have no men on the posts and often a near vacant six-yard box which Coutouis commands. I think you ut this down to personnel, which could be correct. It would be interesting to analyse the say top 3 teams at denying opportunities from corners (proportionately to corners conceded) – to see which methods they use and how it compares.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 4th August 2015 at 2:59 pm #

      Hi Zaph, this was something I highlighted last season and it continued on to the finish, hence the reason for bringing it up again in this series of posts.

      Chelsea do have big, strong centre backs who are good in the air – Terry, Cahill, Zouma – but they also have a full back who is effectively another centre back at set pieces (Ivanovic) and the added bonus of Matic’s aerial ability too, so they are tough to score on at set pieces. They do try and keep the space around Courtois clear. He is tall and has a huge wingspan, so naturally giving him room means he can come and gather or punch. Teams do force Chelsea back in to their six yard box though. West Ham, Stoke and particularly West Brom are very good at this.

      Chelsea (man-to-man), Arsenal (zone) and Southampton (man-to-man) were the top three teams at denying opportunities from corners proportionally to those conceded. Different systems, proving that both zone and man-to-man can work, but teams that don’t mix them.

  4. Zaph 4th August 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    Thanks for that, defending corners was a weakness for me when I was a coach, I went with two short players on the posts, one near post on 6 yard box and the rest man-to-man – but it always seemed to come down to personel.

    When I see Morinho – who is perhaps the best – w/o men on th posts it makes me wonder – I’ll watch out for when Chelsea play those teams to see what happens.

    ***Off topic – but wondering if you’re going to cover it – that slightly-hard-to-watch friendly against Real Madrid highlighted a tactical or player implementation issue that bugs me about Spurs current style: more than a dozen times either in midfield or wide on the flanks players (Alli, Walker, Rose etc) got momentarily clearof the first rank of defence, but instead of playing a low percentage – but potentially high reward – ball into the box, thet’d clip it someone like Bentaleb who would take ALL the momentum away, turn and dribble back and pass to a central defender, to start again.

    Considering that many of those errant passes at the back cost us goals the sheer number of times we ferry it back must lead to a mistake every now and then.

    I’d rather we hit hopeful crosses and through-balls than this, who knows the opposition might miss a ball, slip up etc and if they do it’s in their danger area not ours.

    Will you be doing one of your expert analysis of this possession verses penetration issue?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 5th August 2015 at 11:05 am #

      THe Real Madrid friendly was really interesting until all the changes started to happen and then the game degenerated, as most friendlies do once when this number of swaps in personnel happen and the game loses fluidity. I did notice the constant ball recycling from when we were in aggressive positions. I made a note at how well we built from the back and got to the entry to the final third but then lacked decisiveness or cutting egdge – the first minute apart when Lamela blazed over the bar from Walker getting forward. I was quite excited about the movement there and hoped it would set a pattern for the game, but alas it didn’t. Real’s shape was typically Benitez and they were very quickly back in to shape and difficult to break down. For the rest of these situations where we got forward, we really only had Kane in the box. I’d like to believe that we were turning down these opportunities to deliver a cross based on the lack of numbers in the area and we were playing a very good side in Real Madrid where we’d want to limit their time on the ball. We did however gift the ball away through errant passes, Bentaleb did play one shocker, and we overhit a number of switches in play that went straight over Walker or Rose’s head and out for a throw. For a team that has a game on Saturday vs one with their first game in La Liga 10 days, i thought we looked like the side that still has over a week to prepare.