Football in corner of pitch

What Is a Dead Ball in Football?

Of all football’s occasionally bizarre lexicon, dead ball has to be right up there with the daftest of them all. How can a ball be dead? Well, it’s not dead in the actual living and breathing sense, but more in the way that it isn’t moving – that’s because it isn’t being kicked. Yet. Confused? Well, here’s all you need to know about dead balls in football.

What Is a Set Piece in Football?

You may have heard commentators on TV or radio talking about a ‘dead ball situation’. Really, what they’re referring to is a set piece. What’s a set piece? That’s a situation where a team has possession of the ball that is unchallenged. The ball itself isn’t moving, but is placed in readiness for a free kick or corner. Or, a player has it in their hands to take a throw in.

Goal kicks are also set pieces, technically, although they don’t pose much of a threat to the opposition in an attacking sense, and so they tend to be overlooked in this regard. But free kicks, corners and throw ins, from which dangerous attacks can be launched, are very much in the set piece family.

A corner or a free kick can also be described as a dead ball situation, because the ball is stationary until a player passes it to a teammate, launches it forward or directs a cross into the penalty area. Set pieces have long been an integral part of football. Although it differs from one team to the next, it’s not uncommon for a Premier League team to score between 20% and 25% of their total goal tally from dead ball situations.

When Arsenal beat local rivals Tottenham 3-2 in a crucial game during the Premier League run in, it was the Gunners’ set piece coach – Nicolas Jover – who drew most of the plaudits for his work in creating two of Arsenal’s goals.

What Is a Short Corner?

You’ve probably seen a corner kick taken before: the ball is placed in that corner quadrant of the pitch, before the taker kicks the ball into the opposition’s penalty area – ideally to be headed into the goal by one of their teammates. But there has been a trend in recent times for taking short corners, which does not see the ball delivered into the box – at least not from the first phase of play, anyway.

Instead, the taker passes the ball to a colleague stationed nearby, before the original taker runs around them to get back on-side. It’s a tactic used primarily to create an overload of two attacking players usually against one defender, while taking a short also allows the receiver a wider angle from which to cross the ball into the area.

Studies have found that short corner routines aren’t quite as effective as balls whipped directly into the box, with only a third of short corners leading to a shot at goal and just 3% leading to a goal – compared with 38.5% and 4% from a crossed corner. But research has also shown that creating overloads via a short corner – i.e. two attacking players trying to be stopped by one defender – can lead to better shooting opportunities after a few phases of play.

What Is a Defensive Wall in Football?

Kicking from a corner

We’ve spent much of this article ruminating on corners, but free kicks are another dead ball situation with plenty of merit in football. When a free kick is conceded in a dangerous area of the pitch, it can lead to a direct shooting opportunity for the attacking team – and while the actual number of goals scored directly from shots at free kicks is relatively low, it only takes one to be converted into a goal for the entire complexion of a game to change.

A defending team will do everything in their power to prevent the taker from getting a clear sight of goal when shooting from a free kick – one of the legal ways they do this is to form a ‘wall’ in front of them. By sticking their tallest – and bravest – players in the wall, a team can block the shot from the free kick, or at least provide a visual obstruction that puts off the taker. Even with the precision of the modern day free kick taker, it’s amazing how regularly the defensive wall does not enough to ward off the threat of a goal conceded.

There’s nothing in the rules of football that prevents the defensive team from forming a wall, although all of the defending players must remain at least ten yards from the ball until it is struck, unless it’s an indirect free kick in their own penalty area – in which case, they must be ten yards away or start from a position on their goal-line.

It’s not known who invented the defensive wall in football – the sport has been played since the 19th century after all, so not every development has been documented. But one of the first photos of the beautiful game to feature a wall was from an international game involving Italy and Northern Ireland in 1957 – the Irish setting up a wall that completely befuddled the Italians in Rome – until Sergio Cervatto bashed home the free kick anyway.

Why Does a Defender Lie Down Behind the Wall?

If the defensive wall has been around for centuries, the act of a player lying down behind the wall like a draught excluder is very much a modern quirk. It’s all part of the game theory of football. Traditionally, free kick takers have fired their shot over the defensive wall, which in turn has seen the players in the wall jump to add height and potentially block the shot. It can be tough to get a shot up and over the wall and then down again into the goal, so some free kick takers took to shooting below the jumping wall – a canny bit of set piece savvy.

That evolution has seen the defending player now lying down behind the wall to prevent the low shot – who volunteers for such a duty really does make the mind boggle.