Soccer coach

What Is a Set Piece Coach in Football?

For all its minutiae, its talking points and its tactical brinkmanship, football is ultimately a simple sport: score one more goal than your opponent and you will win the match. It’s no surprise that many clubs are going the extra mile in finding that goal by appointing set piece coaches, a thoroughly modern phenomenon in the beautiful game but one that can – ultimately – be the difference between victory and otherwise.

Set piece coaches can also help to organise a team defensively when defending corners and free kicks – again, crucial to that ambition of outscoring an opponent. Manchester City, Arsenal and Aston Villa all have dedicated set piece coaches, while Liverpool raised eyebrows in 2018 when they employed a specialist throw in coach – more on Thomas Gronnemark later. But what is that set piece coaches actually do – and do they help to deliver positive results out on the field?

What Does a Set Piece Coach Do?

Football free kick

The fundamental role of a set piece coach is to improve their team’s efficiency at free kicks and corners – both defensively and in attack. Typically, clubs now adopt one of three methods of defending set pieces – player-to-player marking, zonal marking or a hybrid of the two. Organising the defensive unit in this regard is easy enough, although its success is dictated by each individual player’s ability to do their job.

But with attacking set pieces, there is a clear edge to be found. Yes, their success will always be dictated by the quality of the delivery, but it’s the movement and positioning of players in the penalty area – either to create overloads or free up a specific target – where the advantage can be found.

The set piece coach will devise routines and work on them with the players on the training ground, perhaps coming up with a signalling system – almost like a quarterback in the NFL – so that they know where to run and where to be for each specific set piece.

The set piece coach, perhaps aided by an analyst, will watch back the video of how their team fares at corners and free kicks, identifying areas of improvement. They are also continuously plotting too – dreaming up that next routine that could deliver a vital goal for their club.

Do Set Piece Coaches Work?

The little-known Italian side Catania might be a strange place to look for set piece expertise. But it’s there, during the 2007/08 season, that the role of set piece coach was arguably born. Catania were struggling in Serie A, lacking the resources and the talent to compete on an even keel with Italian football’s giants.

Increasingly edging towards relegation, their head coach – Walter Zenga – started looking far and wide for ways that Catania could gain an edge – a desire that led him to a book titled ‘That Extra 30 Per Cent’. The author, Gianni Vio, did not have a distinguished playing career – he actually worked in the finance sector, but he loves football deeply and spent more than 20 years researching minute competitive advantages that can be gained in the beautiful game; set pieces, he concluded, being one of them.

Zenga appointed Vio as his set piece coach – possibly the first time that such a role was filled – in April 2008, and by the end of the May the seemingly-doomed Catania miraculously survived relegation scoring 17 goals from set pieces.

Vio has since been employed by the Italian national team – helping them to win Euro 2020, before subsequently following Antonio Conte to Tottenham, where they won four points in two games at the start of the 2022/23 from goals scored from set pieces. Vio claims to have nearly 5,000 different set piece routines to call upon, so he has plenty of gas left in the tank.

Of course, he is just one example of the role – but there’s others. Mads Buttgereit was employed by Brentford owner Matthew Benham at one of the other clubs he controlled, FC Midtjylland, as a set piece coach. The Danes scored 65 goals in the league in that 2014/15 season – 25 of them from set pieces – as they won their first Superliga title in the club’s history. Incredibly, one of their goals came from a set piece routine that Benham had seen on a grainy YouTube video from20 years earlier.

In the 2022/23 season, leading the way in the Premier League for set piece goals scored were Liverpool (17), Tottenham (16) and Brentford (16) – each of whom employed a dedicated coach.

Generally speaking, the number of goals being scored from free kicks and corners has diminished in recent years, as teams look to retain possession and create better chances by recycling the ball into open play. You can thank the emergence of xG, and the need to create better goalscoring opportunities, for that. But it’s clear that clubs willing to innovate when it comes to their set pieces are still getting full reward – a dedicated coach will certainly help in that regard.

What Is a Throw in Coach in Football?

Football coach

There are some traditionalists who think that the role of the set piece coach is fluff and unnecessary – wait until they hear that clubs have started appointing specialist throw in coaches too! You could argue that such a position is superfluous and unnecessary, but when you hear that one – Liverpool’s Thomas Gronnemark – had a direct hand in 13 of their goals scored on their way to the Premier League title in 2019/20, you realise you should perhaps keep an open mind.

Jürgen Klopp, the then Reds boss, wanted to tap into ‘long, fast and clever’ throw ins, even allowing Gronnemark to work with his players for 20 minutes a day on specific routines in training. The results speak for themselves.

If you thought being a throw in coach was easy, think again: Chelsea’s former specialist coach, Anthony Barry, estimates he has analysed more than 16,000 different throw ins in his career with many more to come!