Of the 32 teams at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 15 scored at least 50 per cent of their goals from set-pieces. Five of the 11 goals scored in the quarter-finals, and two of the four scored in the semi-finals, came that way, while England’s tally of nine set-piece goals set a new World Cup record, overtaking Portugal’s return in 1966 by one.
It underlined a growing trend for goals from deadball situations and in a league where teams meet each other as often as they do in the Scottish Premiership, free-kicks and corners are recognised as a key area where players can still provide an element of surprise. Which is why Hearts research and practise them so diligently, according to manager Craig Levein, who saw his men take the lead from another well-worked effort against Partick Thistle in their Scottish Cup quarter-final last week.
It wasn’t enough to grant them uninterrupted passage into the last four, an equaliser from the Championship side forcing a replay at Tynecastle this Tuesday, but other well-drilled manoeuvres have netted them goals this term. On top of the cup efforts, they have scored eleven from corners and free-kicks in the league this term – only Aberdeen, with 12, have scored more. With top scorer Steven Naismith ruled out injured again, it offers the Gorgie side a way to get other names on the scoresheet.
Levein gives the credits for Hearts’ deadball success to his assistant, Austin MacPhee.
“Austin does most of the set-piece work and he focuses on that, which is quite good, and means he has a bit more time to look at routines,” said the Tynecastle manager. “We have got a variation of options and set plays are important to us because we have a lot of taller players and our set-piece deliveries are usually quite good, whether that is Olly Bozanic or Olly Lee. It is something we should take advantage of because we have the height and the quality set-piece delivery.
“Otherwise, we play each other that many times the only way you can surprise people is when teams sign new players.”
Inspiration for the deadball choreography comes from all over the world, with MacPhee, scrutinising some of the less predictable versions to add to Hearts’ playbook and he will be looking to make that count this week as they look to book a tantalising semi-final slot against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. “He has different names for them all and he steals them from other people,” said Levein.
“I think he names them after the teams he has stolen them from. Although he’s come up with a couple of original ones as well.
“He has quite a varied range and some of them are quite straightforward and it’s just about getting the ball in and others are quite inventive. We have got goals from set pieces and there are other situations when we should have scored but we have still created chances.
“When you have tight games, and a lot of the games in this league are very tight, and I put the Partick Thistle into that category as well, it’s a good opportunity to get all of your bigger players in the box.
“Very rarely in open play do you have six players in the box. So for me it’s simple, if we have six players in the box then let’s make the most of it.
“Austin has been given the time to take that and run with it, he discusses it a lot with Christophe [Berra] and the players to see what routines they want to use in certain games. They have a little playbook. It’s something different, it’s something you can surprise the opposition with but, sometimes remembering them all can be tricky! I find myself asking: ‘What one are we doing here?!’ But if I don’t know what is coming, neither will opposition defenders. That’s the hope. So Austin has done well in that regard because we have scored goals from them.”