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Are There Set Plays in Soccer?

Was the goal for Manchester United's Carlos Tevez goal against Porto a set play? How common are set plays or set pieces in soccer? Should soccer teams have plays that they run that are planned out in advance before the start of the game?

Soccer is such a fluid game, no time outs or stops and starts except at kickoff and halftime, so you’d think there aren't any set plays. Sure, there are the usually injuries that are milked to kill the soccer game when a team's ahead or fake injuries to stop a team's momentum, but overall, soccer is 90 minutes of none stop action. There's no time to run a play.

However, there are dead ball situations that are ideal for pure set plays. Manchester United has made a habit these days of making use of these situations, the trick corner kick, a slow roll of the ball by Giggs with the top of his foot and Cristiano nails the ball into the back of the net against Aston Villa. Free kicks and corners are easy times for set plays, there are others too.

There are really only five times when the ball is dead and a set play can be enacted:

  • Kick offs - beginning of the game and halftime
  • Free kicks - indirect and direct
  • Corner kicks
  • Throw ins - long and short
  • Goal kicks

Here's the definition of a set play or set piece in soccer from Wikipedia:

The term set piece or set play is used in soccer (football) to refer to a situation when the soccer ball is returned to open play following a stoppage, particularly in a forward area of the pitch. Most often, the term is used to refer to free kicks and corners, but sometimes throw-ins. Many goals result from such positions, whether scored directly or indirectly. Thus defending set pieces is an important skill for defenders,[1] and attacking players spend much time rehearsing them; set pieces are one area where tactics and routines can be worked out in training in advance of matches. Some players specialise in set pieces.

Let's take Manchester United's game against Porto and the Tevez goal, which comes close to the 2 minute mark in the video below - was this a set play?

Update: The video versus Porto was removed, so let's look at this give and go between Rooney and Tevez. This too can be looked at as a set play - the two players know what the other is going to do beforehand. There's an understanding that's developed on the training pitch.


It's not clear that this was a set play, but the long throw by Gary Neville and the flick by Rooney met by a well timed run by Tevez seem to point to some run throughs in training and some foresight. Yes, it's like this was planned in training as a set play for Mancehster United.

The long throw is in some ways frowned upon and maligned, as though it takes away from a game that's all about the feet. Yet, when a player can chuck the ball in like a corner, I wouldn't be surprised if you see it more and more in the world's game. The flip through is something you rarely if ever see in the world soccer, not really necessary, especially when you have someone like Oguchi Onyewu who can throw the ball from the sideline corner kick.

Other concrete set like plays come through the course of the soccer game, though these aren’t dead ball situations but plays nonetheless – more patterns let’s say.

There’s the spread the ball wide and have the winger whip in the cross. There’s the short short long play to get out of trouble and switch the ball to the other side. There’s the drive the ball into the head, chest or feet of the forward by a defender from the back, and have the midfielder collect the layoff and play the ball down the line to the outside midfielder. There’s the give and go or wall pass. There’s the overlap. There's the dribble exchange. And so on.

These are all "set plays" that are engrained in players and teams throughout the years of playing the game of soccer. It's just that these set plays take different forms througout a game. Adjustments are made.

Then there's the counter attack and the quick punt by the keeper. And the long ball, which seems an act of desperation, can surprise a team, remember when David Villa latched on to a long ball in Euro 2008?

The game of soccer is full of set plays. The beauty is these set plays are some what hidden and hard to see unless you really know the game. These set plays aren't chalked out on a board before the game as rules to follow. These set plays are ingrained in soccer players in practice. These set plays and patterns are those genius moments where it all comes together and that's what makes the game so much fun to watch. It's a set play with a variation that surprises the other team and results in a goal.

Read more over at defending set pieces.

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