Italy’s success at the Euros was underpinned by the innovations and imagination of their set piece routines. The man responsible was Gianni Vio, a former banker from Venice who spent much of his spare time as an assistant coach in the lower leagues of Italian football before being given the opportunity to work in the top flight.
Vio was deployed by Roberto Mancini as Italy’s set piece coach after spending the last 20 years studying the many variations in free-kick routines. He launched a website on the subject, which spawned the book That Extra 30 Per Cent.
The book drew the attention of the former Italy goalkeeper, Walter Zenga, who contacted Vio after becoming coach at Red Star Belgrade. Zenga hired Vio for his set-piece expertise when he became manager of Catania in 2008 as they battled to stay in Serie A. His impact could have hardly been more dramatic. His first game was against Napoli on 6 April 2008, and Catania won 3-0 with two goals scored from set pieces.
The first came from a free-kick wide on the left. As the ball was struck, three attacking players moved out of the penalty area, drawing their markers away and allowing four other players to run towards the near post almost unchallenged. One of them found the net.
The second goal was scored from a corner. Catania’s players flooded the near post area, again drawing the attention of defenders and goalkeeper, while also leaving a player free on the edge of the box who was able to run unimpeded to the far post and score.
Later that season Vio’s influence led to set piece goals against Roma and Juventus in a pair of important 1-1 draws, which went a long way to preserving Catania’s status as a Serie A side. They stayed up by a single point.
Vio’s routines usually aim to create an element of uncertainty among defences. This is often brought about by players exchanging positions just before the kick is taken. Another of his favoured moves is for the attacking side to build their own walls at free-kicks, often taking up an offside position before dispersing, sowing confusion among the defence.
His canvas of set pieces is broad, with a dizzying 4,830 variations. Each one is adapted to the strengths of individual players. “You need to analyse the players you have and find solutions tailor-made to their skillset,” he said in an interview with La Nuova di Venezia newspaper. He does concede, however, that having a plan is only one aspect of a free-kick’s success. “There are players whose reading of the game is special. At the highest level, Sergio Ramos comes to mind. Wherever you put the ball, you can bet he’ll find a way to get on the end of it. Timing is the most important thing when it comes to finishing off a set-piece.”
Only one of the 142 goals scored at Euro 2020 came from a direct free-kick. It was scored by Denmark – another team who employed a set piece coach at the tournament – against England in the semi-finals. Mikkel Damsgaard’s strike was fantastic but the goal also showcased the work of Mads Buttgereit, the team’s set piece coach.
Damsgaard was helped by the three Danish centre-backs, who lined up to the left of the defensive wall and then moved in unison to the right just as he was about to take the kick. Their movement affected Jordan Pickford’s line of sight and, by the time the goalkeeper had adjusted and moved to his right, the ball was flying into the top corner. The goal was a testament to Damsgaard’s ability over a dead ball but, in a sense, it was also a team goal. “The way of thinking that a set piece goal is somehow a cheap goal, I can’t understand it,” says Buttergeit. “The teamwork involved in it is fantastic.”
Buttergeit and Vio have something in common; they have both worked with Matthew Benham, the Midtjylland and Brentford owner who made a fortune as a professional gambler. In Benham’s first season in charge at Midtjylland, in 2014-15, the club won the Danish Superliga title for the first time, in no small part down to their success with set pieces. Twenty-five of their 65 goals that season came from set pieces; the next highest in the league was 11. Specialist coaches are usually employed to deliver marginal gains, but scoring more than double the competition is a huge advantage.
Set piece coaches are no longer on the periphery. The world’s oldest professional club, Notts County, recently hired Alex Clapham as assistant coach to lead their approach to set pieces in the National League. Higher up the divisions, there is something of a merry-go-round for set piece coaches. Nicolas Jover moved from Manchester City to Arsenal over the summer to replace Andreas Georgson, who is now working at Malmö. Like Buttergeit and Vio, both Jover and Georgson had stints at Brentford.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford was the highest-profile move of the summer transfer window but the appointment of Eric Ramsay may be just as significant. Manchester United managed to prise Ramsay away from Chelsea, where he was the Under-23s coach. In September 2019 Ramsay became the youngest Briton to gain a Uefa Pro licence, doing so at the age of 27. After stints as academy coach at Swansea and Shrewsbury, he has been earmarked as one of the rising stars in the coaching world.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær identified set pieces as a weakness for his team last season. Manchester United conceded 14 goals from set pieces (the second highest in the Premier League behind Leeds) and scored only seven from set pieces, the same as relegated West Brom. Solskjær was instrumental in United hiring somebody for this specific role.
Ramsay’s appointment marks a step up in United’s approach. Before he joined the club, the assistant manager, Martyn Pert, and goalkeeper coach, Richard Hartis, had joint responsibility for set pieces. Ramsay will also be assisted by Tom Green, the club’s dedicated set piece analyst. If Ramsay is as effective as Vio or Buttergeit, he might be as influential to United winning a first title for nine years as Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho or Raphaël Varane.