One of the great joys of this job is being able to take a deep dive into the work being done elsewhere.
I spend as much of my time during the day reading as I do writing, and one of the best pieces I’ve read in ages popped up on my feed today, by a publication called Total Football Analysis.
Their writer, Marcel Seifeddine, has produced a piece on a subject which has been nagging at my brain for a while; our effectiveness from corner kicks and set-plays.
I bet some of you are reading this and scoffing “What effectiveness?”
Because me and my old man have similarly griped that we don’t get much change out of corners and free kicks anymore.
Except that maybe we do … and we’re just looking at it wrong.
Seifeddine’s article suggests that we might be.
Let me give you the two headline figures. Set plays this season have accounted for 19 of our goals. Corner kick goals alone have contributed to the winning of ten points … a point more, of course, than the margin of our lead in the league.
I saw those numbers and didn’t believe them.
So I was very curious as to how this would all break down, and if this is true, why haven’t we noticed it before?
And the upshot of it is that it’s true alright and the reason we haven’t noticed it is that many of us – myself included, and I write that to my surprise – still think too much like fans and not as coaches in the way we actually look at the way we play, where goals come from and how they are scored.
When you think of a set-piece goal, what do you replay in your head?
Say a goal from a corner?
The long bomb into the penalty box, met with that perfect header, right?
Or from a free kick?
That lashed shot into the back of the net from distance.
There are players who can give you that. We had, for a time, the guy who in my estimation was the best free kick taker in the world in our squad at one point. At Ibrox they have a guy who’s pretty decent at that and the taking of penalties; he’s not a world class talent, but he gets a lot of them on target.
But the modern game and modern coaching are much more sophisticated than that, which is why the growth of sites and the emergence of writers who do understand this stuff – and we have a good one, Alan Morrison, of Celtic By Numbers in our own support – is crucial if we’re to improve in our understanding of the game, even as laypersons.
That, by the way, is more important than you think.
I still see people who practically lose their minds every time Celtic players take a moment to pass the ball, or hold onto it a while in an effort to draw out a defender, or who pass it backwards in the absence of an obvious forward ball, again with the intent of drawing the opposition out of their shape.
At the weekend, I wrote a piece about how the game was turned by the half-time changes Ange made and not by St Mirren going down to ten men. A lot of people couldn’t believe I was trying to make a case which, to them, was obviously nonsensical. Their loss of a man made no difference to the outcome? Sounds daft, doesn’t it?
And yet I’m right, and I know I’m right.
St Mirren didn’t change their basic defensive shape. They sacrificed their out-ball.
They sat in deep for the second half just as they had done in the first, with the same system and the same number of players in the defensive zone. So what changed? We did.
Our approach to the game changed. We brought on a guy who better than anyone moves with the ball at his feet. We started to pass and move on the deck, and their defence couldn’t cope.
A proper understanding of the mechanics of football is one of my developing passions and I think every fan should take more than a passing interest in it because it’s dead easy to get frustrated at individual players who you don’t think are contributing and individual moments where you think someone’s gotten caught in the wrong place … but not all of that is what it seems.
It’s why some of us fought fiercely against the criticism Maeda was getting, for example, or that which Starfelt sometimes still gets … it’s about a misunderstanding of what these guys are actually doing on the park as opposed to what they are perceived to be doing.
To be honest, one of the best pieces of analysis I’ve seen on TV recently came from Neil McCann, of all people, when he did a brief segment on BBC Sportscene involving Oh, and the impact he had as a sub in a recent game.
To the untrained eye, the big guy didn’t do that much but McCann drew on his experiences having played the game to offer what I thought was a very detailed insight into how Oh works defenders, makes space for his own movement and that of other players and offers options in the penalty area we don’t get from Kyogo.
None of us spotted it at the game. Know why?
Because all of it was going on off the ball.
McCann highlighted the importance of that work … and that’s what the writer of this tactical analysis has done. He’s highlighted things that aren’t immediately apparent but which are clearly drilled into the team during training and at set piece practice.
One of the tactics he highlights happens when we are up against a man-for-man marking system.
Against that system, Celtic basically tries to exploit it in two ways. One of them is to use our attacking players as shields to stop defenders actually getting to the ball. But he thinks Ange’s system is more sophisticated than the standard method, which is simply to get an attacking player to stand in the guy’s way and block him off.
What Celtic does is uses the attacker to block and simultaneously run towards the ball, which creates what the writer calls a “moving screen” – it sounds fairly simple and basic, but it depends on the players knowing what the other will do and having the skill to exploit the critical moment, which is usually to take the ball and feed it to someone unmarked.
This sentence highlights the difference between what the fan in the stand expects and what actually happens out on the pitch.
“In these kinds of cases, the intention is never to direct a header goalward but to make the first contact to redirect the ball into a more threatening position for a teammate to attack.”
So those of us who have lamented those numerous corners which aren’t just flung at a big defender’s head are actually missing what’s really going on at times. So, too, are the opposition based on the number of these we score with.
How many times have we watched corners or free kicks fly right over the heads of the players waiting in the middle to the back post?
The “floated cross” is one of our techniques for dealing with zonal marking.
Again, most observers are waiting for that punt directly into the penalty area for a big bruiser to get the head on. So when the ball flies over them the first instinct is to wonder if we ever work on this stuff at all … but of course, we do.
The floated cross can result in back-post headers catching the defence unawares.
More often than not the player at the back post will, instead, direct another header either back into the box or towards the edge of it for a player to get on the end of.
This isn’t “direct from the corner” scoring, but we’ve gotten at least ten points out of those little routines.
It’s not a ground-breaking, earth-shattering analysis.
Your average football coach could have given a lecture on the same subject, with the same data set.
But your average football coach would be giving that to a classroom of other wannabe coaches, or to journalists or writers trying to get a clearer understanding of the game, or, of course, to players either in preparation for a match or in the aftermath of one to see what went right or wrong.
But so few of these articles, and so few publications, break this stuff down in this way for the average fan and that’s a shame because I’ve developed a real love for this kind of analysis and am eternally grateful for the continued growth of my own understanding of the way the game is actually played.
I urge everyone to read this piece, it’s worth your time.