I was recently told that the definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome’. The example given was walking repeatedly into a wall and thinking that you’d eventually be able to walk through it. Newcastle United’s indirect free kick routine may have been a suitable alternative.
We all know the drill by now, or at least we should do. When Newcastle get an indirect free kick, the set piece taker – usually Yohan Cabaye – will float the ball towards one corner of the penalty area where the 6 foot 5″ Mike Williamson will be waiting to either a) aim a header back across the face of goal for a team-mate or b) direct a header at goal himself. It’s grass roots football: essentially ‘get it in the air for the big lad’. It may work for Stoke, but it certainly hasn’t been the most productive approach for Newcastle.
The problem with this set piece routine for Newcastle is three-fold:
Firstly, it is far too predictable. At the highest level of the modern game, clubs employ scouts and analysts to scrutinise the opposition potentially weeks in advance of a fixture, with the brief of identifying team tactics and trends, including set pieces. Opposition sides know what to expect from Newcastle and set up accordingly, often by putting one or two of their tallest players on Williamson and holding a deeper defensive line to be able to attack the ‘second ball’ should he win the first header. There is little to nothing in the way of variety or surprise; expect the expected.
Secondly, such is the long distance and looping trajectory of the cross, it has often lost its pace by the time it reaches Williamson, who is then seldom able to self-generate any power should he win the header. The angle and height of the cross also gives Williamson’s marker(s) an equal run at it; there is little benefit to the attacker, unlike a cross which is fizzed in from a wide area.
Finally, Mike Williamson – for all he sounds like he could be a power forward for the Utah Jazz – isn’t that great in the end zone. Unlike the stocky Shola Ameobi, who has greater upper body strength, Williamson is slight in comparison and doesn’t have the same physicality to be able to hold off or overpower his man as effectively. I want to point out here that I do like Williamson and his height is an asset when defending, but he’s not a goal-scoring defender in the mould of Thomas Vermaelen or even Steven Taylor. In fact, Williamson is yet to score for Newcastle having made 69 appearances for the club.
Taking the above into account, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that Newcastle are one of only three sides yet to score from a set piece this season (the absence of Ryan ‘over-the-wall’ Taylor not helping matters) and scored the third least from set pieces in the whole of last season:
This is a far cry from the 2010/11 season, when Newcastle ended the season with 20 goals from set piece situations – the highest in the Premier League:
Funnily enough, the free kick routine used in the 2010/11 season is extremely similar to the one currently adopted. The difference then was that it was the powerful and angular Andy Carroll in the Williamson role, supported ably by the pinpoint delivery of Joey Barton. Although of similar heights, Carroll was far stronger in the air than Williamson is and that told in the amount of headed goals that he scored (5) and those that he assisted (6) often for Kevin Nolan. For all that was said in the summer about Carroll not being able to fit into Newcastle’s ‘new style of play’, whatever that is on current showing, United were a far greater aerial threat with him in the side than without and goals yielded from set pieces have drastically decreased since his £35 million departure.
As shown with Carroll, the looping set piece to the big man (for want of a better description) can work if you have the right target man. In Williamson, Newcastle don’t currently have that. As such, if there aren’t the right players for the job, why not try something different? Use Williamson as a decoy; use the predictability to your advantage. Work the ball down the flanks and look for a better angle to cross from. Play the ball short to Hatem Ben Arfa and just tell him to run with it. Hell, anything has to be better than the current approach which has at its best seen Williamson hit the post (Liverpool, 2011/12) and win a missed penalty (Norwich, 2012/13).
I’ll just leave this video here..
Alan Pardew alluded to bringing in a ‘set-piece specialist’ in his phone-in with BBC Radio Newcastle in the summer, yet frustratingly it doesn’t look as though any progress has been made on that front. Hopefully it remains a priority. For a side containing Jonas Gutierrez – the second highest fouled player this season, with 3 per game – set pieces are guaranteed and Newcastle being able to better take advantage could be the difference between winning and drawing, finishing in a European place or not.
The definition of insanity? Perhaps not. Time for a rethink? I’d suggest so.