How not to defend set-pieces (ft. HFX Wanderers & Cavalry)

I can’t remember another game in my lifetime where four goals, in fact – 100% of the goals, came from set-pieces. I love analyzing team structures and shapes in traditional match analyses, and I could tell you all about Cavalry’s almost 3-3-1-3-esque build-up or Halifax’s stern 4-3-1-2 press. But ultimately, this game was decided by free kicks and corners. While that may be seen by some as “boring”, on this occasion, all four of the goals resulted off the back of both tactical and psychological mistakes, more than worth breaking down in detail. So with that, here is our Match Analysis of Halifax’s 2-2 draw with Cavalry, and our case study on how not to defend set-pieces.

HFX 0-1 CAVALRY

In the first instance (and throughout the game), Halifax positioned two players on the posts when defending Cavalry’s corners. Research has generally shown that this is one least successful approaches when defending corners in the modern game, possibly due to the numbers it takes away from other areas of the box, and the potential complications it creates for the goalkeeper in commanding their area. The clear advantage is in adding a second and third goalkeeper to the mix, albeit ones who can’t use their hands, theoretically aiding the team’s ability to stop shots on the line. But that only comes to fruition if the players stay to their task, unbothered by any other distractions. Colin Gander failed in this instance after the initial header was lost, and his decision to leave his post is exactly why Myer Bevan was able to stroke in the rebound, in the exact spot where Gander began the sequence.

But the goal was far more complex than just Gander leaving his post. HFX’s zonal marking scheme, specifically the positioning of their players, was puzzling at best. They positioned three players at the near post + the near post marker. They also positioned two at the back-post, even though no Cavalry players were anywhere near them. From the above image, you can already begin to see the wheels falling off. Daan Klomp can easily recognize the best position to adopt, and only Samuel Salter is in a sound enough position to cover a player. If he leaves his zone to track Karifa Yao, he’s done like dinner. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Yao moved to Salter’s left, pulling the winger with him, and opening the door for Daan Klomp (highlighted) to receive a free header in the most dangerous area of the pitch, with only Aidan Daniels (a significantly weaker aerial threat) close to the situation.

At a bare minimum, HFX should have positioned one of their stronger aerial players around the penalty spot, or even man-marked Daan Klomp – knowing the threat he poses in the air. Stephen Hart’s team have all the commanding tools they need to excellently defend set-pieces and crosses into the box, but positioned their best pieces to the puzzle in the wrong places. Fortunately for HFX, Cavalry had their own catastrophic marking from corner kicks.

HFX 1-1 CAVALRY

With Bent delivering an in-swinging ball on his right foot, Halifax aimed their deliveries toward the back-post. On paper, Cavalry were far more equipped to defend this ensuing corner kick than Halifax were in the last instance. But there’s a tricky line to manage from set-pieces, and it’s the line of when to watch your marker vs. when to watch the ball. With the right body position, the best can usually achieve both. But here, right from the start we can see two clear issues. First, both Victor Loturi and Jose Escalante have no regard for the flight of the ball, and are only paying attention to their man. In fact, they even have their backs turned to the ball.

The second problem is an aerial mismatch in the 5’10 Jose Escalante matching up against the 6’2 giant Samuel Salter, who also happens to possess favourable intelligence with his movement in the box. So when Bent’s delivery lands exactly on the money of Salter’s noggin, Cavalry are completely out of sorts. But the problem is only exacerbated from there.

As soon as Salter peels away from Escalante, Loturi only has eyes for the ball. In the split-second that this happens, Karifa Yao also loses Peter Schaale, giving the Halifax defender free reign in front of goal. When Schaale’s subsequent header bangs off the cross-bar, Loutri’s now lost Akeem Garcia completely, with the goal-scoring striker now in acres of space.

Individual mistakes like this generally have less to do with team tactics, but it must be noted that when Cavalry should have engaged greater attention onto the ball, they were too focused on the man. But as soon as focus needed shifting back to the man, they instead focused on the ball. Again, it’s difficult to track both simultaneously, and that’s where tactics and organization can help. Cavalry could have started Ali Musse in a far more advantageous position, as he’s doing absolutely nothing at the top of the box other than preparing for a subsequent counter attack.

The starting position of Elliot Simmons is also odd, given that no player would have been likely to either receive or move into the zone he covered. He could have shifted himself a few steps closer to goal or closer to the penalty spot, which is usually the most congested area for opposition teams to attack. This is one of the preeminent problems with pre-planned zonal marking on set-pieces, as it takes little consideration for the attacking organization of the opposition on the day itself. As HFX persisted in playing to the back-post, Cavalry could have been quicker to change their defensive organization in response.

HFX 2-1 CAVALRY

Unfortunately for Tommy Wheeldon Jr., even when he changed markers, Samuel Salter again wheeled away from his opposite number. Moments before the third goal, we see Ali Musse and Elliot Simmons in the same positions, for little reason.

Simmons has half an eye on Aidan Daniels at the top of the box, but would be better served situating himself at the top of the six yard box and helping to defend an area that HFX are likely to deliver into, or more likely to bang in a rebound. Quite reasonably, we also see Jose Escalante and Mason Trafford have switched markers, with the captain now tasked with tracking Salter at the back-post. As the delivery soars into the exact area we suggested that Simmons could have been marking, Mason Trafford tries to get in front of Salter, preparing for a back-post flick-on.

Sound in idea, Trafford fails in execution, as his body positioning fails to allow a clear line of vision to the HFX man. Salter then receives with room to make up his mind, take a touch, and hammer home the left-footed finish.

From there, Halifax always looked the stronger team, and defended well in their 4-3-1-2 shape. But they couldn’t stop committing silly fouls, and it ultimately proved costly with nearly the last kick of the game.

HFX 2-2 CAVALRY

The least incriminating but certainly the costliest on the day, Halifax again failed to adequately cover the correct zones of play when defending this free kick. They positioned two players in close proximity on the back-post, away from the congested area, and failed to place any player around the penalty spot (a frequent targeted delivery zone), or on Cavalry’s intended target – Daan Klomp.

They failed to learn their lesson from the first corner of the game in not man-marking the Dutchman, and immediately paid the price for it. Christian Oxner could also have questions to answer, in his attempt to come out and command an already congested area. As he failed to win the punch and Klomp bulldozed his way through, HFX could do nothing to stop the shot on the line. Having conceded this goal with just seconds to play, Halifax will feel particularly perturbed by their poor marking.


CONCLUSION

Heading into Matchday 7, both Halifax and Cavalry have much to sort out from their set-pieces. Halifax should focus on developing their zonal marking schemes to better adapt to the opposition, and switch to a mixed-marking-scheme, in which they can man-mark the opposition’s danger men. Cavalry meanwhile will need to do the same in shifting players into areas where they are better positioned to aid the team’s cause, and may need the rudimentary reminders about how to best track both man and ball at the same time.

For more inside the Canadian Premier League, see ‘Four tactical discussion points from Matchday 6 in the CANPL‘. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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