By John Cartwright
Ever since I can remember, and that’s a long time, the basic tactical set-up for free-kicks against – both from central and wide positions – has been more or less the same with the creation of space between the GK and his defenders being given priority status. This space is created in order to provide a better sight of the ball for GK’s and to keep attacking players from positioning themselves too close to the goal. There have been ‘tweakings’ with the ‘wall’ in the use of the number of players used and its construction, but that’s about it with regards to defending against free-kicks.
But there have been significant changes regarding free-kicks against over the past few years and more so last season — footballs are now produced that are more prone to dip and swerve; lightweight footwear allows more ‘feel’ on the ball; and just last season we saw Referees use foam to mark the distance between the ball and the nearest defending player(s) — the ‘cheating’ in the past by defenders to close this space down has ended.
With all of these new, positive changes to equipment and Refereeing, defensive structures have not shown similar positive changes to offset them and the goal has become more vulnerable. Direct, frontal free-kicks (18-36 metres) from goal have become more ‘stomach-churning’ for players, coaches and supporters as more often the ball flies over or around a ‘wall’ into the half of the goal vacated by the GK who is left stranded ‘protecting’ the other half ! Similarly, at free-kicks against from wide positions, the space left by defenders for the reasons already mentioned, have become equally difficult to defend. Both in-swinging and out-swinging free-kicks placed accurately and with pace into this space causing immense problems for defending players — GK’s in particular. Free-kicks from the bye-line to 10metres in wide positions are marked as at a corner kick, but at free-kicks given further from the bye-line so the space between the GK and his defenders is increased. This space has become a significant target for attackers to deliver the ball into and defenders are generally forced to run back towards their own goal into this space with opponents providing pressure on them. A mixture of defensive problems arises: — fear of turning the ball into their own goal — allowing attackers to get to the ball in front of them — collisions between the Gk and his own defenders or opposing players — GK decisions on whether to come out or stay on his/her goal-line — and after all this, the ball defeating everyone and lodging itself in the far corner of the goal!
It is becoming more a case of poor delivery technique by attacking teams than the efficiency of present defensive tactics that sees free-kicks not producing even more goals than they already are. Defensive space at free-kicks has become an important tactical issue that nobody seems to discuss or have ideas on changes. These defensive spaces have become less of a tactical plus and more of a physically dangerous and mistake-ridden zone.
What I’m suggesting will probably produce fierce argument and disagreement by many inside and outside of the game — change always does! I do not intend to explain in detail how I believe new defensive marking against free-kicks mentioned should be set up –I have my opinion and everyone should ‘experiment’ themselves with defensive positioning. Overall I believe that the goal itself and the route to it must be ‘blocked off’ as much as possible….. 1. The creation of the space between GK and his defenders from free-kicks up to a certain range should be abolished. 2. Place players in selected positions in selected roles against selected opponents. 3. All players between the ball and the goal … blocking the goal and space in front of it and an area up to the penalty spot. 4. A single player used as a ‘wall’ at frontal free-kicks only. 5. Have the GK positioned forward of the goal-line to allow as much free movement as possible.
I fully appreciate that opposing players would be able to take up positions closer to the goal and that there is always the chance of ricochets, blocking off etc. — as there are now. Careful thought regarding ‘blocking the goal’ and defensive positioning in the penalty area would drastically reduce defensive gaps against direct shots and floated aerial deliveries. It would also allow defenders to ‘attack’ the ball if necessary from both wide or frontal free-kicks rather than find themselves having to ‘scramble’ back towards their own goal as is too often the case with present defensive methods.
These changes are worth a try. Nobody it seems has come up with anything else and goals from free-kicks are becoming more frequent. Anyone with a group of players might experiment with defensive positioning against different attacking options to see if a better defensive ‘guard’ can be conceived.
To help assess distances from goal it is often possible to see at most grounds, public parks or stadiums, that the grass is often cut in 6 metre lengths across the field. The penalty area has three cuts to cover the 18 metres and the cuts continue up-field in 6 metre lengths. The new re-positioning of defenders at free-kicks against from frontal and wide positions I believe should apply up to a distance of 36 metres (6 cuts approx.) from the goal. Free-kicks, frontal and wide beyond 36 metres from goal should have some space between the Gk and his defenders, but not so far out as at present (12 metres I believe would be a sufficient distance from goal). This would reduce the mad scramble back by defenders and allow more opportunities for them to come forward to attack the ball. This extra distance of free-kick deliveries against also gives GK’s more time to deal with deliveries from this range.
Would it work? Unless time is spent experimenting with changes to the present methods we will not find out. There will be a great deal of discussion and disagreement with what I have said, but unless we show more bravery towards making changes and trying new ideas we will remain in the ‘backyard’ of world football. My book, FOOTBALL FOR THE BRAVE, was not meant to ‘fly the flag’ for physical bravery in the game, we have plenty of that anyway, but to promote the importance of mental bravery by coaches and players to develop new ideas or search to improve on existing methods of playing the game….. I hope this ‘Blog’ will reach those brave enough to confront and challenge the ever changing game of Association Football. Perhaps you could reply to this ‘blog’ if you have experimented as mentioned and comment on the reaction of your players – positive and negative as well as your own thoughts and opinions —- also pos/neg.
Best regards and good experimenting ……..John