Setting it up in style

Setting it up in style

football

Bengaluru FC players and coach Carles Cuadrat have put in hours of work both on and off the field to improve their scoring off set-pieces. DH Photo/ B H Shivakumar

Nishu Kumar stood far away from the penalty box before tearing into a lung bursting run. In the box, Juanan and Harmanjot Khabra move outside, dragging a defender along, at the far post. Sunil Chhetri moved in. Erik Paartalu, central, and Albert Serran, at the near post, blocked their man as Nishu arrived in space in the box and rifled his effort into the back of the net. As he wheeled away in celebration of his goal, Chhetri trotted over to the bench, exchanging a quick celebratory high-five with his coach. It had worked again. 

In the days leading to the match against Hyderabad FC, Carles Cuadrat had tweaked their corner routine. That was a goal scored in the training ground. It was also Bengaluru FC’s 13th goal from a set-piece situation, directly or from second balls. It accounts for 68.4 percent of their goals. But then again, this is Cuadrat’s speciality: set-pieces.

It all started during his stint in Turkey with Galatasaray a decade ago. With the advent of scouting programmes and technology making it harder to surprise teams tactically, the focus was shifting to set-pieces. Cuadrat and Albert Roca, formerly head coach at Bengaluru FC, were keen to be ahead of the curve. The head coach at the time, Dutch great Frank Rijkaard, had little interest in set-piece routines so the onus fell on the two Spaniards. The theory is simple, set-pieces give you a chance to hit a dead ball into the box with your tall players already in the final third. It also allows for trickery. So they got to work during preseason. 

“It was against APOEL in the preliminary round of the Europa League, first official game of the season,” remembers Cuadrat. “We had a very tall central defender, Servet Çetin. We were doing a movement with a last man. It creates that confusion because he looks like he is defending. He ran almost from the half of the pitch and headed in from the penalty spot.” 

That was the beginning.

Cuadrat and Roca would use the same trick in a 2-1 win over Mohun Bagan in the AFC Cup in 2017, Sandesh Jhingan the beneficiary this time. The corner routine a variation to one Nishu scored on Thursday or Chhetri’s header against Kerala Blasters at home earlier this season. 

While, more pronounced this season, set-piece goals have been peppered across the recent history of Bengaluru FC. The 3-1 win over Johor Darul Ta’zim during their AFC Cup final run had goals from a corner and a freekick. The Indian Super League winning goal against FC Goa last season, came from Rahul Bheke’s header from a corner. It’s been a process constructed over the years.

“It helps that I don’t have to convince the players, they already know it works,” says Cuadrat. “So it’s easy to keep the routines and add more variations. We can send the ball to Juanan, Erik, Udanta (Singh), Bheke or Nishu so it makes it difficult for the opponent because if you want to cover players and the zone, you have to sacrifice.”

The preparation is laborious. It’s hours on the training field plus a lot of information fed into the players which changes based on personnel and marking system - zonal or man-to-man. A club insider once spoke about how the routines change every time the freekick spot moves a few yards in any direction. 

“Before every game, we make a video and I explain what are the actions. So we know, the first freekick and if the ball goes to the corner then we are going to send ‘that’ way. If there is a second corner, we are going to send the ball ‘this’ way and do this kind of movement. If the next corner is on the other side, we do ‘this’. In the locker room we have the papers with the names and information so that when they get ready, they know which are their positions and what are their actions in every set-piece.”

It also comes down to players’ intelligence. “I’m lucky to have clever players. I ask some specific things but on the pitch, they have the power to make decisions. Kicking the 4-5 corner from the right, it becomes difficult because you have to memorise a lot. So they take their own decision, they know the signals and they trust that it works,” says the Spanish tactician.

While BFC do score a lot, some of their crippling losses have come from set-piece too. Like the two corners against Chennaiyin FC in the ISL final two seasons ago or the 3-2 loss to Mumbai City FC earlier this season to end their unbeaten 637-day home run in the league. Their record puts them among the teams who concede least from set-pieces, they work hard to not commit fouls in dangerous areas, but errors are bound to crop up.

“Football is a wonderful game, lots of things happen. Sometimes it’s because the other team did well or sometimes because someone lost focus or lost a marker. It means you can never be overconfident,” admits Cuadrat. “It’s a chess game. Of course the opponents know we are good at set-pieces and they have good tactics to defend. So we try to add new options and to confuse them. it’s a mental battle and sometimes they win, sometimes we do. But the game is very rich because you’re always thinking.”

A thinking man’s game... yes, we fancy that!

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