Offensive Set Pieces Off Free Kicks



Set pieces in soccer are often taken to re-start the game when a foul or infraction has occurred in the field of play.  The design for how an offensive set piece off a free kick is taken seems to only be limited to the imagination of the coaches and the players.  All free kicks, however, address at least two basic concepts: 1.) following the rules; and, 2.) accounting for the distance and angle to the goal being attacked.


The rules governing taking free kicks are contained in “Law 13 – Free Kicks” of the Laws of the Game.  In summary, the referee typically calls a foul, or stops play for a procedural violation, and ensures that the ball is placed where the infraction occurred.

The non-offending team takes possession of the ball to begin the re-start play.  All players of the offending team must stand at least 10-yards away from the ball. The ball is considered to be back in play as soon as it has been touched by an offensive player and visibly moves. The original kicker may not touch the ball a second time immediately after taking the kick.

Fouls and violations result in free kicks that are defined as being either “direct” or “indirect,” depending on the nature of the infraction. If an award is identified as being “direct,” the player taking the kick may score “directly” into the goal off the kick, without the ball having to touch any other player first.  If an award is identified as being “indirect,” the ball must touch at least one other player, of either team, thereby going into the goal “indirectly,” to count as a score.

The referee identifies if the kick is indirect (otherwise the kick is direct), ensures that the ball is stationary, that the defenders are not encroaching on the 10-yard requirement, that everything else is otherwise acceptable, and then indicates that play may resume.

Of course, all of the other Laws of the Game still apply, including how a goal is scored, as contained in “Determining the Outcome of a Match – Law 10,” and offside (see “Introduction to Offside.”)

Basic Strategy

Free kicks out of the defensive half of the field are usually little more than short passes designed to retain possession.  Free kicks in the offensive third of the field, however, get much more interesting because they are considered to be “set pieces.”  Set pieces represent an opportunity to create and then execute an actual plan or “play” for the re-start that may have a higher chance or scoring than is typical for the normal run of the game.  (“Set pieces” may also include corner kicks, penalty kicks, goal kicks and throw ins.  These are treated separately from free kicks.)

Because of the proximity to the goal, the defense typically builds a wall of defenders between the ball and the goal.  (See “Wall Building.”)  The basic strategy of an offensive set piece off a free kick, therefore, is to create and implement a design which defeats the wall, contains a minimum amount of complexity, and results in an effective shot on goal.

Coaches have to design the plays, introduce the plays to the team, appoint players to positions, and drill the team on their proper execution. The design is first based on the proximity to the goal. The second consideration is whether the kick is direct or indirect, and the third consideration is the players’ skill level to be able to perform.

Proximity to the Goal

There are five basic starting locations to establish set pieces closest to the penalty area.  These are:

  • Outside left and outside right (at the corner or down the line of the penalty area) – usually has a two-man wall and often involves a cross.
  • Near left and near right (from the intersection of the “D” to the corner of the penalty area) – usually has a three- or four-man wall and often involves a direct shot or a pass to the opposite side of the wall.
  • Near center (in front of the goal from the 18-yard line to approximately 6-yards away from the top of the penalty area) – usually has a four- or five-man wall and often involves a direct shot or a pass to the opposite side of the wall.
  • [Some indirect kicks may actually be inside the penalty area.]

Set Pieces – Near Locations

There are three additional locations to establish set pieces that are farther away from the penalty area.  These are:

  • Far left and far right (from either side of the “D” to the corner of the penalty area, approximately 6- to 10-yards away from the top of the penalty area) – may have a two- or three-man wall.
  • Far center – (between the intersections of the “D” with the penalty area, approximately 6- to 10-yards away from the top of the penalty area) – may have a four- or five-man wall.

Set Pieces – Far Locations

Direct or Indirect

Designs must account for whether or not the ball has to be touched by at least two players before going into the goal on an indirect free kick. All players must understand whether or not the award has resulted in a direct free kick or an indirect free kick.  One of the shortcuts to knowing the difference is that “all major player-contact fouls and handling” are direct and everything else is indirect.  (See “Direct or Indirect?”)

Approaches to Design

If you start with the concept of eight general locations, and each could be either a direct or indirect free kick, there could be the need to design as many as sixteen set pieces.  These could involve one or more of the following features:

Direct Shot – On a direct free kick the shot is taken on goal, sent around the wall to the side opposite the goalkeeper, with a bending ball to the upper corner; or, through a “gap” in the wall.

Simple Touch – On an indirect free kick, one player touches the ball and ensures that it moves.  A teammate immediately shoots.

Cross – Set up similarly to a corner kick play, this covers both direct and indirect free kicks.  (See:  “Types of Corner Kicks.”)

Stepover (Fakeover) Run – Misdirection in the hope of moving an opponent in the wall before a direct shot, this player may also touch the ball (usually a sole-of-the-foot drag farther beyond the near side of the wall) that allows for an immediate shot on an indirect free kick.

Misdirection – Any of a number of fake runs through the defense without an intention of turning around to receive the initial kick. This is an attempt to draw defenders away from the actual play.

Screening – Two teammates stand directly in front of the ball, as it is placed, in order to obstruct the view of the players in the wall and the goalkeeper. They then break away before the kick or as part of the play.

“Committee” – Similar to screening, a group of teammates gathers around the ball, seemingly deciding how to take the kick, and then break into positions as part of the play.

Single Pass – In one instance, a teammate starts or moves to a position lateral to the ball and away from the wall in order to get a better angle for the ensuing shot on goal.  In another instance, a striker runs to goal from a lateral position in order to receive a leading ball.  Both cases involved receiving one pass from the kicker.  (Can start with a Stepover.)

Two Passes – After an initial single pass, a second lateral pass, back in the direction the original pass came from, may provide for an opportunity because the wall starts to break up.  This is usually done quickly in a small area. The second receiver must shoot and not be tempted to dribble.

Chip Over – This is a pass intended to go over the top of the wall to an onrushing striker.

Deception; Decoy – Players other than those actually taking the kick, move from starting positions toward open space in order to influence defenders away from the actual play.

Ghosting In – A player attempts to “hide,” or look like they are not participating, and then drifts toward goal.

Crashing – To rush a group of attacking players to a designated area in front of the opponent’s goal or to put numbers into the penalty area.

Rebounds/Follow-up – All attackers need to specifically be prepared for the possibility that, after the ball has been shot, it may rebound off the wall, off some other defender including the goalkeeper, or off the goal.  They need to respond immediately, recover the ball, and try to get off another shot.

Coaches are encouraged to use the web, buy books, and watch games on television to study free kicks and incorporate successful actions into their own designs.  Example:

Player Performance

Set plays require dedicated, capable, and responsible players to make them work. They need to be smart, understand each situation, be able to determine which set play to run, and then be able to physically perform.  Kickers must understand that they must not start the play until it is perfectly clear that the referee is ready. If it is not clear, they can specifically ask the referee if he is ready to proceed.  Prior to this, the ball, within reason, may be slightly “re-positioned” or “re-set,” such as on top of a tuft of grass. Otherwise, all players must understand that the ball must be “set tight” and may not be moving when the initial kick is taken.

Each player must fully understand their responsibilities in any given set piece.  A “dead-ball specialist” (free-kick specialist, free-kick taker) may be identified who can take a direct shot using a “bending” ball.  This is a specific talent that requires great skill and countless hours of practice.  There may be the need to identify two players, one who is particular adept with their right foot and one with their left, as appropriate for either side of the goal.

Players must all be aware of whether or not kicks are direct or indirect.  Players are to be assigned to specific positions in set plays.  Only one player can actually be in charge.  This player may have to ask the referee “for 10-yards, please” if one or more defenders is encroaching and it appears that the referee is not going to do anything about it.  If “10-yards” is asked for, all players must know that the play cannot be run until the referee addresses the encroachment and then signals that he is ready for play.

At higher levels, requesting 10-yards initiates actions on the part of the referee where the referee marks the location of the ball with “vanishing” or “disappearing” spray, identifies the 10-yard distance, and similarly marks the location for a wall.  (The referee takes similar actions even if vanishing spray is not used.)  If “10-yards” has been employed, the kicking team should not re-set the ball.

Players must be aware that the defense may try to pull an offside trap.

Coaches must find the players who can perform or modify their set pieces to fit their personnel.

Other Considerations

Responses to an award of a free kick have been described as coming in two types, the “Ceremonial Free Kick (CFK)” and the “Quick Free Kick (QFK).” The Ceremonial Free Kick, typical of most set pieces, involves a delay where players of the kicking team congregate around the ball and appear to (or actually) decide which play to run. A Quick Free Kick involves taking the kick immediately to take advantage of a lapse by the defense.

The Quick Free Kick, or “quick re-start” or “fast re-start,” is rarely seen, but does happen.  It almost always is used on a direct free kick and must only be performed when the kicker is fully aware that the referee is ready for play to resume.  This often is implemented when a goalie who is setting a wall is out of position.  The kicker does not have to wait for defenders to be 10-yards or more away from the ball and the referee does not have to allow the defense time to build a wall if he is ready for play to resume.

The Odd Case

On extremely rare occasions, an indirect free kick may be awarded against the defenders where the spot of the ball is less than 10-yards away from the goal.  This could occur due to impeding, dangerous play, or goalkeeper errors (such as picking up a back-pass).  The defense is allowed to build a wall where the Law mandates that the players in the wall must stand on the goal-line, between the goal posts, until the ball is touched by the offense.

Most teams do not spend much time preparing for this situation.  At the highest levels, it happens in less than 1-percent of games.  There is a lot of variability in what defenders may do.  If the defense has not been properly prepared for this situation, a quick free kick utilizing a simple touch may be employed.  A direct shot may be attempted, hoping that the ball will touch someone, or a lateral pass or even a back-pass may be used.


Practice for offensive set pieces may consist of the following:

    1. Run the plays from all locations, direct and indirect, without defenders.
    2. If available, place mannequins (full-sized cut-outs, silhouettes; dummies, free-kick men, inflatables, Training Opponent Mannequins (TOM ®, Air TOM ®) for the wall).
    3. Add, stationary, live defenders.
    4. Switch to active, live defenders.
    5. Within a scrimmage:
      • Act as “referee;” call an imaginary foul or infringement; give the indirect signal, if appropriate.
      • You (Coach) point to the specific spot where the “foul” occurred.
      • Ensure that the defense builds the wall properly.
      • Players run the appropriate set piece.
      • Enforce the rules.

    Correct problems.  Repeat.  Rotate players to provide for contingencies.

    Demonstrate the worthlessness of kicking the ball into the wall or over the goal (“wasted free kick”).

    Demonstrate that players can’t mess with the wall.  Go over the rules applying to walls.

    Drill is necessary, but don’t drill out creativity.  Ask the players for their input.

    Soccer Coaching Tips:

        • For various plays, remember to prepare contingencies in advance for players who may be critical to a set piece and are unavailable.
        • Scouting an opponent really matters for set pieces, both for offense and defense. Look for gaps and delays.  See what works for other teams.  (Some teams have been known to have a player in the wall who anticipates kicks and jumps in advance.  The shot could be played under his feet!)
        • On an indirect free kick, don’t assume that the ball will touch someone. Incorporate the touch into the design.
        • The more complicated the set piece, the less likely it will succeed.
        • A referee decision on a foul or violation is also called an “award” of a free kick.
        • The indirect free kick signal is one arm raised above head-level.
        • The indication on the part of a referee that he is ready for the re-start to be taken may be overt or subtle. Overt indications may include an oral statement, like “Okay,” “Go,” or “Play,” or a visual signal, like an underarm sweep.  Subtle indications may be as simple as eye contact with the kicker or a nod of the head.

    (ORRIN KONHEIM contributed to this article.)

    © Copyright, John C. Harves