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Film Room: How the Loons have dominated MLS is Back with Set Pieces

A talking head on TV once said that Set Pieces are important... MNUFC are proving just that

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Sporting Kansas City Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll try and keep this simple to start, but it might get confusing later on.

Rule Number One with set pieces... put the ball in a dangerous area and good things are more likely to happen. Case in point goal number one against Sporting Kansas City.

There is obviously nothing special about this own goal. The numbers committed forward by Minnesota United show the scenario in the game, in fact it’s complete desperation in stoppage time. All of your aerial threats right in the middle of the goal to go up and win the ball, but sometimes it goes off of a limb and trickles in. Sure you can call it lucky, but in sports sometimes you have to create your own luck. This was one of those moments.

This is why set piece specialists are so important to have in a team, as long as they can fit other roles as well. Jan Gregus has been invaluable for corners and for driven balls anywhere around the 18, especially for this disallowed goal in the 64’.

This concept you will see over and over again for the Loons. They love committing as many bodies as they can to a certain area, knowing most times the service from Gregus will be in that area. Earlier in the match you saw the same concept on a disallowed goal from a simple corner routine.

Consistency is key on set pieces, not only in the delivery but also understanding how to move off of each other and create space. You don’t need a multitude of patterns called out by the coaches, you just need a few variations in how to create separation from your markers using your teammates around you.

What happens on most instances for the Loons is a mass amount of bodies in one confined area (sounds like everything Dr. Fauci wants us to avoid). The simplicity is why this works over and over again, and there will be plenty of examples below.

Another facet on what makes MNUFC so good at this is the timing of the runs, and the runners meeting the ball in the spot at the exact time it’s arriving. If you want to dominate on set pieces this is a necessity, and it’s something very simple to do. Set pieces aren’t meant to be complicated, but sometimes teams overcomplicate the simple. The Loons aren’t one of those teams.

However what makes this concept difficult for the goalkeeper is what got this goal disallowed, with the screen by Kevin Molino being offsides. The VAR review gave a great angle showing the layers of depth on a corner.

While you want the bodies to be in a confined area where the ball will be delivered into, an attacking team will also want layers in between where contact is made and the goal. The hope is to make it more difficult for the see, but also to allow for possible redirections.

This is generally done in two ways. One way is the players attacking the ball, following the potential curve of the ball and areas it could land in. The other way is when you put bodies along the flight of the ball from the aerial duel towards the goal to screen the goalkeeper or create a redirection.

Although recent results would show the Loons as dominant on set pieces, that hasn’t been the case in every game. In the second game, against Real Salt Lake, the Loons created no dangerous set piece opportunities and only had one corner in the entire 90+’. If I were a coach planning for defending MNUFC set pieces, I’d be making sure a member of my staff is over-analyzing that game.

That being said, when MNUFC eventually another opportunity, in the 2’ against Colorado Rapids you could tell that set pieces became more of an emphasis.

You can see the same concepts above that you saw against SKC, except this time Gregus had poor delivery. All of the numbers were committed to the center of the goal and his ball found the near post. Gregus is bound to make mistakes, but if he only gets one opportunity in a match and this is the effort he will be criticized.

However the clearance was not ideal from Colorado and found Romain Métanire ~30 yards out from goal in the central area of the field. You can tell he only considered two options, the possibility of finding a short option to find the free player in Gregus who had just taken the corner or just having a hit on frame.

Well he rightfully took the shot, and William Yarbrough had to parry it out wide where it found Luis Amarilla. Now he definitely should have squared this across the goal and hope for a deflection towards the goal. However Amarilla is a striker and if you do that you’re not a striker. Especially a striker in his first minutes in a few months, and if you’re a goal scorer you shoot in the 18 even if it is the wrong choice here.

Later on the dangerous set piece opportunities paid off against Colorado, with a great driven ball by Gregus. The delivery is so good you can’t question it’s intention. However ignore the quality of the ball when you watch this goal and instead watch how simple Ethan Finlay’s movement is.

He almost looks lazy, even on freeze frames. However he knows he has to perfectly time his move to the ball in order to keep the angle with the ball coming in, the near post, and the defender on his back. With the second angle you can see him try and keep an angle so he can track the ball as it comes around the wall. A little side shuffle is still movement, and the way he used the defender not reacting is pure simplicity again from the Loons.

Can we just take a second and admire Gregus’s technique.... okay back to analyzing.

Later in the game came a great opportunity to get another late winner, Jose Aja creates great separation from his marker and the delivery is perfect (I told you this would be a thing). How the ball even found Raheem Edwards, who was screening the goalkeeper, I don’t even know. Raheem knows he should be finishing this, but since the Loons were already through none of the fans really care. Edwards seems to care though.

What these freeze frames also shows is the levels of protection for if the corner is cleared to the edge of the 18. I would love to see more wide angle drone camera shots, especially off set pieces to see the complete shape of the team and how it changes based off of different scenarios.

So through the group stage you could see the chance creation potential from set pieces, but the inconsistency from game to game was a worry for some. At least that is what I thought going into the knockout round, and then I couldn’t ignore the set piece threat for the Loons anymore when this happened.

To try and describe this goal would be ludicrous... so naturally I will try.

The aerial camera is a gift for watching attacking movement off of set pieces. Below you will see the screening player at the top of a rough diamond shape, the right edge of the shape you have a movement being made to try and draw players outside of the near post. You can tell Columbus Crew SC did not want to get beat at the near post, and would take their chances against the Loons in aerial duels.

The Loons generally start their movements from around the penalty spot in order to create danger with the best attackers of the ball in the air between the spot and the 6 yard box. Michael Boxall and Aja beat their markers at the kick, however the Columbus markers take a good position a second later when they position themselves in the balls path before it arrives.

The one attacker who isn’t covered in a position where the defender prevents an action toward goal however is Robin Lod, who ends up free ~8 yards out from goal for a free header.

This is where the Loons details in their set piece design shine through, there are three Loons attackers along the path Lod will want to play the ball on towards the back post. These three attackers are looking for any sort of redirection on frame to make it nearly impossible for Tarbell to save. In addition, there is an attacker making a movement to cover the back post as Lod plays the ball.

Columbus do a good job in preventing the first attack off the corner, however the ball falls right back to Lod, and the player marking him is still ball watching. The Loons movement concept has now occurred and has broken down, it’s time to just put this ball on frame.

We have seen Lod put the ball into the ground as hard as he can before, and he choses the right moment to do so here. It was probably his best option and left only the chance of a fantastic reaction save for Tarbell.

Later in the game there was a great look from behind the goal on how MNUFC try and “crowd the goalkeeper”. Most people think of this concept with putting a bunch of bodies around the goalkeeper but the Loons go about this differently. They limit the bodies around initially and add movement to try and create windows at goal. It’s not about making the goalkeeper feel crowded but confusing him with movement and an obstructed view.

Columbus’s plan was to not get beat at the near post, with Zardes protecting the ball side edge of the 6 yard box, and Nagbe and a plus one in a bit of a free role to read the situation and track the movement of Finlay. In this instance Finlay is making these runs solely to draw more bodies and attention away from the main action, and he’s very good at it.

Gregus slightly over hits the ball, where Aja and Boxall attack the near post in the spot where Finlay had just vacated. However, I expect Amarilla to be more proactive and anticipate that if the ball is not won in the air that he is responsible for getting a shot on frame and covering the back post. If he does that, he gets a goal here and the Loons control the game from start to finish. These moments are what coaches talk about sealing the game in the first 15 minutes of the second half.

Cleary the Loons have variations for what to do off of their set pieces, however what they are starting to show is they have contingency plan for when a set piece fails. It’s all about adapting and making the best of the next situation. The next goal against San Jose Earthquakes is an even better example then the one against Columbus of this concept.

Below you see the same concept we’ve seen many times before of when the ball is initially played off of the corner. There is a player screening the goalkeepers vision and a near post run, as well as committing bodies to a targeted area where Gregus will deliver the ball into.

The difference is how San Jose defends outside the 18 with their man marking system.

San Jose runs a man marking system as we all know, and you can see it above. I assume the only player not pictured is central, high up the field which leaves lots of space for where Hassani Dotson eventually gets the ball below.

Even though Dotson just sends in the second ball through a cross he had many options to consider. There was an option out wide, but he made the right choice to not play that as nothing else besides a cross he can already play will occur there.

What Dotson truly had to consider was whether playing the ball back in was worth the possibility of losing possession. You can see Ozzie Alonso checking and demanding the ball to either attack the top of the 18 or try and circulate it back out wide to Gregus, who in most instances is the free player in the attack. In most cases that's the right thing to do and shows to how much the Loons rehearse set pieces.

However in this case there are multiple reasons as to why he was right to play it into the box. First off, because of San Jose’s marking system they actually account for the person taking the corner unlike most teams, and instead in this instance leave the right back free. This gives Dotson time to assess the situation and if he plays Ozzie it actually allows San Jose’s press to collapse centrally when Ozzie tries to go forward. Dotson also could have also seen that the Loons had numbers at the back post, and when someone vacates the space for a free header. It becomes the perfect adaptation to San Jose’s confusion in this moment.

The Loons clearly had rehearsed what happens on these set pieces when they break down and how the attack on the second wave of the set piece. There is generally no need for a third progression, as any chance of an organized sequence is gone. This was there last chance for this individual set piece.

So when Lod was able to beat his marker to the back post it was game over if the header could get to the back post and well it did. As shown in the second freeze frame, a yard advantage in the 18 is deadly when that final ball is played just right.

Set pieces can win you games if executed to the finest detail.

However, to be executing them at this proficiency and at this level seems difficult to maintain over a longer period of time. However this is a knockout tournament, and when you’re hot in terms of form in an aspect of the game you double down on it.

Fortunately as of late the Loons seem to be adding more “clubs to their bag” in how they want to attack teams besides relying on set pieces alone, even though that’s had all of the headlines. That being said expect them to continue to look to attack teams weaknesses on set pieces.

I don’t know who on the staff is responsible for designing the set pieces, and I’m sure many would love to know more on how the staff decides on concepts related to there opponent. My assumption is it is a whole staff approach, especially with not much else to do when in the bubble for a long period of time.

There appears to be general tendencies for the Loons on any attacking set piece. The action seems to start with a movement to pull players out from the near post, and if nobody follows this allows Gregus to drive the ball in for a potential flick on (Finlay’s goal vs Colorado). There always seems to be someone whose main job is to screen the goalkeepers view from whats happening in front of them, it will be interesting to see if this role is used for a new wrinkle more often in any upcoming games. Finally, although it seems very simple, just commit numbers into a targeted area around the six yard box. Trust your players to make a play and win an aerial duel.

It’s been very impressive how much MNUFC have dominated attacking set pieces this tournament, especially without respected aerial duel winner Ike Opara. Credit is given to Gregus, and he fully deserves it. However the system around it and it is planned by the staff is just as crucial. The Loons are proving just that, with the multitude of ways they can attack you if you give them a chance off of a dead ball.

Sometimes the weirdest ones just tend to go in when you need it...