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Sunderland v Durham - FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup

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Talking Tactics: Why are Sunderland Women so good from set pieces?

With ten goals from set pieces so far this season, Charlotte Patterson takes a look at what’s behind that success and how advantageous it is in today's game

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images


Football matches are becoming more evenly poised, and gone are the days when games were won by two or more goals.

This is due in part to the recent evolution within football, where tactics are now extremely important to a team’s daily operations. The end result is that matches are now tighter and determined by highly particular circumstances as a result of increased training and improved organisational abilities.

Sunderland Women v Durham Cestria players - Adobe Women’s FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Sunderland Women have done their due diligence in that regard and have been clearly working hard on set pieces and tactics during training.

Since the start of the 2023/2024 season, Sunderland have scored ten goals from set pieces, with six of those coming in league fixtures and four in the cup.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that none of those goals have come from the tallest players in the team.

However, the plethora of goals we’ve scored from set pieces have been from a wide variety of sources, positions, heights and ages, illustrating just how well the ball is being played into dangerous areas.

Earlier this season, we invited general manager Alex Clark onto the Haway The Lasses Twitter space to answer some questions, one of which was related to how dangerous we are from corners and free kicks.

A lot of goals in this league are scored from set pieces, so I think it’s really good that we’ve got a variety of options.

Players like to put different deliveries into the area or shots on goals, and I think they work really hard on it.

Steph Libbey in particular does a lot on how we set up and how the opposition set up their set pieces, but then it’s also down to the players and on the training ground as well.

A lot of players put in extra either before or after training, and they try to practice where they can. It’s really good that it’s all paying off.

From attending Sunderland’s games, I’ve noticed that at the end of the warm ups and just prior to kick off, a few players stay back to practice shots on goal.

In particular, I always notice Katie Kitching practicing her shots from just outside the box and curling them into the top corner.

It’s brilliant to see something that’s clearly well practiced by the number ten being transmitted onto the pitch, and Kitching has scored two goals directly from free kicks this season.

As I mentioned previously, credit should go to the players, but we also have to acknowledge the hard work being put in by the coaching staff, whether that’s Steph Libbey, Jonathan Craig or Jack Kehoe.

In football, a team’s response to set pieces can determine whether they win or lose.

This is something that coaches and analysts are all too familiar with, which is why they pay close attention to this facet of the game while evaluating the opponent. However, there are several kinds of set pieces that might be examined throughout a game, so which are the most crucial?

Goal kicks, kick offs, throw ins, corner kicks, free kicks (near, wide, far and indirect), and penalties.

Every one of the set pieces mentioned above has a distinct goal and function. They’re all included in both offensive and defensive systems, and it’s tremendous to see that Sunderland are exploring and excelling in this facet of the game.

The location or area of the set piece on the field during wide free kicks, the type of player taking the penalty, the number of players attempting to finish and their positioning on a corner kick, the manner to defend in a high block against an opponent’s goal kick, and many other concepts are also present in each of them and can make a significant impact on any game.

Set pieces essentially cover every event that takes place after the ball leaves the field of play and the game resumes.

Additionally, we may divide tactical reactions into offensive and defensive set pieces. Most professional, amateur, and junior teams adhere to specific rules in order to carry out these strategies as precisely and successfully as possible.

Knowing the players in the team is one of the most crucial components of set piece analysis and development. This determines how the set piece game model may be modified to neutralise the opponent based on player skill levels.

The kind of taker is the first thing to consider, and in this instance, it’s usually Katie Kitching or Natasha Fenton taking the free kick, and occasionally Mollie Rouse.

Through having designated takers, it indicates to players where the cross will usually swing towards, as well as the key players being targeted and whether or not they’ll attempt to go for goal.

The organisation of the participants who’ll take part in the set piece is the second idea to recognise, and we’re able to observe how the players move.

Every player needs to be aware of which zone to assault, where the ball will be headed, and which reference (objective) to seek out.

Finally, players in the rebound zone never move from their starting position.

They’ll constantly ensure that the squad is balanced to fend off any potential offensive transitions from the opposition and give themselves a slight chance to win the ball from the clearance and either go for goal themselves or swing it back into the danger area.


Aerial Duels Data of Sunderland Women in the last 10 games
Wyscout

Winning football games may depend heavily on a team’s capacity to defend set pieces. This skill has grown in importance and the 2022 FIFA World Cup was a reflection of this evolution.

With one in thirty five corners and one in twenty seven free kicks leading to goals, set pieces accounted for 19% of all goals scored during the tournament (own goals and penalty kicks not included).

Given these figures, it should come as no surprise that coaches are emphasising set piece defence more and more.

Of the nine goals Sunderland Women have conceded in all competitions (minus the penalty shootout in the cup), they’ve only conceded one from a set piece, in the form of a free kick against Sheffield United Women in the Conti Cup.

Teams that use the zonal system assign four or more players to particular spots within the penalty area.

These players are tasked with guarding their designated zones rather than being accountable for a specific player, and they frequently concentrate more on the ball’s trajectory than observing the movements of their opponents.

This strategy is based on the idea that if the defender wins the ball when it enters their zone, it makes no difference which opponents attempt to reach that area because they can’t score unless they win the ball.

As opposed to the zonal system, some head coaches would rather have their players concentrate on marking specific opponents in order to remove them from the game, as opposed to defending penalty area zones.

Each of the markers in this scenario is assigned an opposing player for whom they are solely responsible, and it’s the defender’s responsibility to prevent the player they’re assigned from becoming a major contributor to the opposition’s offensive play.

They must follow or stop attacking runs, make sure they win the ball before their opponent, or set up themselves so their opponent is unable to have a shot on goal.

The Lasses very much seem to adopt a system of man marking players on set pieces and making use of height advantage where possible, with the likes of Amy Goddard, Liz Ejupi, Natasha Fenton, Brianna Westrup and Grace McCatty being deployed against players of similar stature or who’ve been identified as a threat.

Given the sole goal conceded from a set piece and the evidence of the data above, this strategy is clearly working and paying dividends on the pitch



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