Coaching Free Kicks and Corners

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Tommy Wheeldon Jr. is Technical Director at Calgary Foothills Soccer Club, assistant coach with Team Canada U17 Men and head coach of the Foothills U23 PDL team. As a professional he played for Swindon Town and Torquay United in England, and Calgary Storm in the A-League. Tommy has a degree in sports science and the UEFA A license.

From what age do you spend training time working on set pieces? Do you dedicate entire practices or parts of other sessions?

We start at U10, giving them a corner kick routine. We’ll modify what we do to accommodate them not being able to kick it very far. Training will take up some of a session, but not an entire practice. At U12 we would continue to work on corners, but maybe add in a free kick routine. That might take the form of a 15 minute activity at the beginning or end of practice. When we scrimmage we will then call a free kick and have them try it in the game environment. As they get older it becomes part of what we call our game prep which we do before upcoming games. We’ll go through attacking and defensive shape, set pieces and restarts. Our U23 PDL team have their home opener this weekend and Saturday we will spend an hour rehearsing our set plays.

How do you come up with ideas for set pieces and decide what will work for each age group?

There are a number of factors that come into play. Firstly, we look at our team strengths: if we have a player with a really nice left foot who can put the ball into dangerous areas, we will target that. For our U10 girls they can’t head the ball so we will adapt to the restraints that they have. I coached a U16 girls team where they couldn’t really get the ball in to the area, but had a couple of skillful players, so the goal became playing it short to allow the playmaker to be 1v1 in the box. So for me it is about your personnel first, but secondly the strengths of your opponent become a factor. If they have a big kid who likes to head the ball, or an active goalkeeper then we will avoid them or block them out.

Are set pieces part of your club curriculum?

Yes it is. We try to mentor our coaches and show them a couple of rehearsals when we have coach training. With the Women’s World Cup coming to Canada this summer there will be goals from set pieces so we will clip them and show our coaches so they can try them. If you are an American football player, there are always restarts that you can plan for, because that’s how the game is played. Same for hockey with power plays and face offs. In soccer it is good that players understand that although it is a free flowing game, there will be moments we can plan for.

Some people will argue that by using time to work on restarts you are prioritizing winning over player development. How do you respond to that?

When kids have success doing something they buy into it. Last year our U16 boys were learning the game of futsal as part of their development. We had three teams of four and challenged them to go away and rehearse three different corner kicks. Each then had to play against each other and try to defend the routines they had come up with. As a group they then voted on which ones they thought were most effective, and used them in their next game. For me, getting the kids bought in and solving problems is a very important part of the game, and we achieved it by working on set pieces.

When you are planning to work on set pieces, will you start with the technical components the players will need?

Correct. At the younger ages (7-11) in what we call our skills window we will focus on striking the ball and playing it well. As they get older we will work on passing accuracy and range. Generally we look for one of the nicer ball strikers to take the free kick or corner – just because the number of chances you get in a game might be very low, so you want to have the best chance of success when the moment arises.

Shadow play and rehearsals can be difficult for players to stay focused. How do you make it interesting for them?

We will make a game out of it. If you can get the players bought in to the process, they will learn from it. What I have done in the past is ask them what they think. They’ll go away and practice something, then as they come back to show it to me I’ll ask them questions or suggest ideas – why don’t we add a run over there? What happens if the guy makes a run down this side of the wall? – and so on. They then discuss it and have more ownership over where we go.

What are your coaching free kicks? Who organizes them?

Generally on any team there will be a couple of sharp shooters (the Pirlos or Beckhams) who can produce a goal. Our set plays are put up on the locker room board and if we have time when we’re away at a tournament we will have a PowerPoint presentation so that everyone knows their role as soon as they step on the field. From age 14 and above we will start to use the presentations as part of their preparation for games. Then in the game, if there is a foul at the edge of the penalty area my 2-3 players in the set piece routine will set it up. In those early years you will show them 1-2 things, but I’ve found that 14 year olds are more kinesthetic learners, so do better by rehearsing on the pitch rather than through presentations. As they get older they improve their visual learning. YouTube and Vine are also great resources as you can clip together Andrea Pirlo free kicks and share it with the players – then tell them we’re going to try this and see what happens.

How do you teach players to stay onside and time when to step and drop?

I call my set piece taker the quarterback, because if you reference football they are the one that calls the plays. When they are about to take the free kick I ask them to assess a few things: –

  1. Where the goalkeeper is;
  2. Where your players are; and
  3. What the conditions are like. Is it windy/rainy?

By answering those questions they have to make a split second decision on where they are going to put the ball. By giving them a thought process, we really give the ownership to them and let them solve the problem in the game themselves.

How many different corners will you have? How much does it depend upon the players on the team?

I’ll nominate my corner taker from the right side of the field, and from the left. Sometimes it is two different people and sometimes it is the same player. It will be set before the game though – at the pre-match chalk talk or at the training session the day before. At the younger ages if there is a player with a big kick, they will have success because they can put the ball into an area where kids can’t really head it and the goalkeeper won’t come out to catch it. As they get older we will add in what we call a maverick play where we do something unexpected and the other team will tend not to be soccer savvy enough to react to it in time.

How do you teach teams to defend corners?

We use a part-zonal system. The front post defender has two jobs, which are protecting the goal, but also dealing with any short kicks in front of them. We will also have a back post defender and one at the top of the six yard box. Everyone else will be marking or blocking attackers and getting ready for a counterattack.

What’s your view on teams who task a player with impeding the goalkeeper?

It’s no different to hockey where they screen the goalkeeper. Basketball players set up picks and blocks too to create space. On a corner you are trying to create something within the confines of the rules that will give your team a goal scoring opportunity. If they are a distraction and have an established position there is no issue.

We see many clubs who focus heavily on unopposed technical training, at the expense of tactical work. How do you find the right balance for your coaching staff?

A lot of our coaches are volunteers and some may not have the confidence or experience to do the most tactical sessions. We provide them with resources to help them with it as much as possible. We will show them video reels and back them up with statistics showing just how significant set pieces were winning games in major tournaments. Often we will reference the FIFA Technical Studies which have an incredible amount of useful data in them.

What was your experience like with the U17 National Team in Honduras recently?

It was superb. It was an absolutely grueling three weeks and we spent much of the time going over how we would play as a team, how we would defend, set pieces and so on. My job as the assistant coach was the analyze the opposition so I would go to games, take film and edit it into a highlight reel to show their tendencies in different situations. The videos had to be understandable for 16-17 year old players though, without overwhelming them. Mexico played a simple 4-4-2 formation, switching the ball east to west, hitting a diagonal ball to their winger who would cross it in to the split runs of the 9 and 10 in the center. You might have expected them to do something fancy, but their approach was simple, effective and won them the tournament. Costa Rica had a 3-5-2 so that was different for us, and Panama had a 4-5-1 with inverted wingers who liked to overload the midfield. It was good for our players to see these different styles, but for me it was great to get a better tactical understanding of the next level of youth player. I also created our attacking corner routines, which was a good challenge. We start again in August, but until then I am focused on the launch of our PDL team in Calgary.

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