Roughly half the goals scored in soccer arise either directly or indirectly from set-plays, that is to say from free-kicks, corners and throw-ins (see Figure 1). It therefore makes sense to plan thoroughly so that your team can defend efficiently at set plays to give away as few goals as possible. However, prevention is better than cure and a team which avoids giving away needless set plays in their own defending third will make it more difficult for their opponents to score.

Free-kicks are a major source of goals. Defenders who lack discipline and make poor challenges leading to free-kicks do so at the benefit of the opposition. Similarly, defenders who lack composure and technique when in possession in their own half, often lose the ball and give away free-kicks when put under pressure. The same goes for defenders who lack the necessary mental and technical skills to clear the ball, often put their team under pressure through needlessly giving away corners or throw-ins. So why are set plays so dangerous ?

1/ Many attacking players can be moved into pre-planned attacking positions and carry out pre-rehearsed moves.
2/ The player taking the free-kick or corner cannot be pressurised as defending players must be a certain distance from the ball, allowing him the means to make the most of his strike.
3/ The ball is "dead" making it easier to strike.
4/ Players cannot be offside directly from a throw-in or corner.
5/ The defence may not be properly organised with defenders out of position, especially when dealing with the opposition's pre-planned attacking moves.
6/ The defender's concentration may drop due to them having moved into their position and feeling they have done their job, especially as the game has stopped.
7/ The large amounts of players in and around the penalty area make it difficult for a goalkeeper to see the ball and his movements may be blocked when going for the ball.
8/ When free-kicks are struck directly from outside the penalty area, the ball can be deflected leaving the goalkeeper with no chance to save or this can lead to a secondary shooting opportunity.

From this, we can see the importance of implementing correct defensive tactics to minimise the risk of conceding goals, not only from free-kicks but from set-plays in general. Firstly, once the set-play has been conceded, the players must quickly sum up the situation and take up correct defensive positions in relation to the ball. This should be prearranged and rehearsed in training to allow the defenders to better concentrate on their own specific defensive tasks (marking, space coverage...).

Defensive planning and organisation needs to be carefully thought out. When players have been previously drilled on what to do their concentration is often better. Discipline is all important as the outcome will depend on each player correctly carrying out his assigned job. Overall, the major difficulty of a team when defending set-plays is whether to mark opponents or to cover space and to find the best possible balance between the two.


There are several methods which can be adopted to make up for the tactical advantage of the opposition when defending at corner-kicks:

Mental skills: Defenders must be calm, composed, organised and take charge of the situation. They must be disciplined as well as courageous and determined - always be first to the ball.

Defence in Numbers: Every member of the defending team can be brought back to positions in and around his own penalty area or two players may be left up the field in order to take advantage of any possibility of a counterattack The defence should always outnumber or at least equal the opposition.

Covering the posts: Two defenders can be positioned on each post to help the keeper. The defender on the near post should not obstruct the keeper's view (1 metre away and slightly in front of the post - see Figure 2). His major concern is the space in front of him as the goalkeeper and other defender are covering behind, especially when corners are hit to the near post. The defender on the far post should be positioned on the line for the best possible view. These defenders are useful in not only clearing shots off the line, but in covering the keeper if he decides to attempt to punch or catch the ball. If the ball is cleared, both should attempt to move out as quickly as possible so as not to play the opposition onside.

Covering the penalty area: Many goals are scored in and around this area, especially from headers. The front of the goal must be covered by several defenders. Defenders can adopt a "Zone Marking" policy where each defender is responsible for a particular space. If the ball enters this area, he should challenge for it and prevent any attacker from gaining possession.

Otherwise, a man-to-man marking method may be employed. This involves an attacking player being designated to a defender who must follow him at all times. Tall defenders are often moved up from the back to capitalise on their heading ability. Close marking by defenders (who should match them in terms of size and heading ability) can help prevent them creating chances or scoring goals. Some teams may find it useful to combine "Zone Marking" and "Man for Man Marking" This allows different areas to be effectively covered whilst the most dangerous attackers are closely marked.

Figure 2 below demonstrates a well-balanced variation on player positions during a corner-kick. If the ball is played either to the near or back post, there is adequate cover. If the ball is played into the penalty spot area or outside the area (especially if another attacker is introduced into the area of the kicker for a short corner), then cover is also available. The weak factor is if the ball is cleared, then there is little possibility of a counterattack and if the opposition team quickly regains possession, pressure can be immediately put back on the defence.

Generally, player positions should be based on the opposition's formation and moves. If for example, the opposition places a player with good heading ability at the near post, the defence may want to place another defender in front of him so he is "sandwiched" to reduce his potency.

Here, all the team is back defending: 1 player is positioned to block the corner (here positioned
for a left foot in-swinging kick), 1 defender per goal post, 2 defenders covering the near-post area,
2 defenders positioned at the back post & 3 covering the inside & outside of the penalty area.

Blocking the kick: Positioning a player 10 yards from the player taking the corner kick may prove useful. They can cut out the risk of a quick short corner as well as interfering with the kick. He may be able to block the kick by jumping or force the attacker to play the ball differently and thus affect the quality and danger of the kick. If the attacker is going to play an out-swinging corner, the defender should stand closer to the goal line. For an in-swinger, by standing a bit further away from the goal line, he will have more chance of blocking the ball. This defender can also mark the player taking the kick in case the ball is cleared but is then played back out to him. He can also contribute if a counterattack is on.

Playing the Offside trap: If the ball is cleared or played out of the penalty area, teams may want to move forward as quickly as possible to catch opponents offside. This requires good communication and timing of movements between defenders.

Clearances: Defenders should aim to clear the ball as far, high and wide as possible to allow themselves to regroup as well as clearing the danger. They must be able to use both feet and their head.

Counterattacking: Opponents often push key defensive players up for corners. This can lead to them being "exposed" to fast counterattacks, especially when the keeper having gained possession, plays the ball out quickly and accurately to a team-mate.

The Goalkeeper: One cannot emphasise the the importance of the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper is responsible for his goal area and must through good communication skills, give instructions to his defence. Depending on the speed and flight path of the ball, he has to decide whether or not to challenge for the ball. He must decide early, time his action and chose whether to catch or punch. His initial position is extremely important. If he stands at the back post, he may not have time to get across to an inswinging near post corner and vice versa, especially if there are players blocking his path. Positioning himself in the middle of the goal with a half-open stance so he can see both the kicker and what's happening in front of him is preferable.

So how can one coach and organise corner practice ? For example, a corner drill can firstly be carried out without opposition. The individual positions and roles of the defenders must always be clearly defined. The corner should be taken from both sides and the service can be varied (speed, near post, far post, short, inswinging...). Only once the coach and players are satisfied with their performance, can opposition players be introduced. Be careful to prevent players from getting bored or cold.

The opposition should include 7-9 players who are given the freedom to move into any position. Start off by serving from one side only and vary the service as much as possible. Once satisfied, the coach can change the side from which the corner is taken. Around 10 corner kicks taken from each side usually provides a good session. Try zone and man-to man marking and a mixture of the two.

There are several important points at all levels of the kick that the coach must observe and analyse:

Positions: Analyse the positions of the goalkeeper, near/far post players and those covering the penalty spot area. Do they keep to their designated positions ?

Marking: Analyse the marking capacity of each player. Is the marking tight or is the player often caught ball-watching ?

Technique: Analyse the technique of all the players to clear the ball and how quickly they move out once it has been cleared.

Mental: Evaluate the capacity of the players to adapt to different types of serve, especially the short corner. Are they determined in challenging for the ball and is the communication good, particularly the instructions from the keeper ?

One final point which may prove useful is the observation of opposition attacking tactics, especially at top level play. Many teams use different signals to carry out various tactical ploys - for example, a hand signal. A coach can through careful video and match analysis, study player behaviour to discover these signals and their signification and put into practice different defensive strategies to counter these ploys.

Coming soon, different animated drills for coaching defending at corners. To read the rest of this article click here.