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What Is A Set Piece In Soccer?

What Is A Set Piece In Soccer?

In recent years, the popularity of soccer in the US has increased dramatically. But watching soccer is a very different experience from watching US sports like baseball, basketball and NFL. The game plays out in a continuous, often relentless flow, with far fewer stoppages and breaks than these sports, and sometimes the ball won't go out of play for minutes at a time.

However, stoppages are still common within football; in fact, a typical professional soccer match will usually see the ball out of play for at least 30 or 40 minutes of a match — in one Premier League game between Leeds United and West Ham United during the 2022/23 season, the ball was only in play for a total of 42 minutes and 12 seconds, a league low.

What happens the rest of the time? Largely, these gaps in play will be spent preparing for set pieces. Set pieces are a super important aspect of association football that have been integral to the development of the game since its formalisation way back in the 1860s. In this article, we'll be explaining what a set piece (otherwise known as a set play) is in soccer, running you through each different type of set piece and explaining how this element of the sport has been utilised differently by innovative teams in recent seasons.

What Are Set Pieces In Soccer?

The term 'set piece' in soccer refers to the action of putting the ball back into open play from a dead ball situation.

This will happen on a regular basis throughout the course of a 90-minute match; every time a shot, cross, pass, tackle or interception leaves the field of play (whether at the side of the pitch or at either end), a set piece will then have to occur in order to send the ball back into open play.

There are a number of different types of set pieces in soccer, awarded for various different reasons. For example, free kicks are only awarded when a foul is made on the field of play, whereas other types of set pieces (such as throw-ins, for example) are simply a method of returning the ball to open play after it has exited the pitch.

In the next section of this article, we'll take you through each of the set pieces soccer players must use to return the ball to play.

Free Kicks

Free kicks are awarded every time a foul is committed on the field of play outside the penalty area. A free kick must be taken from the place where the foul was given, and the ball must be in a stationary position before a player uses their foot to restart play with a pass, cross or long ball.

In defensive areas, free kicks can help relieve pressure and give teams a chance to get into shape, while further up the pitch free kicks can lead to dangerous attacking situations. Playing into this possibility, some coaches will devise clever free kick taking routines involving specific crosses, short passes, lay-offs or attacking runs to try and outwit the opposition back line and beat the goalie.

Free kicks can either be direct or indirect. Direct free kicks (where players are allowed to shoot on goal) are awarded for the most serious offences, whereas indirect free kicks will be awarded for less severe fouls like obstructing an opposition player or stopping a goalkeeper from releasing the ball from their hands. You can find out more about this subject in our article on direct vs indirect free kicks.


Another common type of set piece in football is the corner kick. Corners are awarded when the ball exits the field of play via the end goal line (without going into the net) after last touching a player on the defending team.

If the ball touches an attacking player last a goal kick will be given, but if it comes off a defender the advantage is given to the attacking players.

With a corner, players will have the opportunity to re-enter the ball into open play with a kick from either the left or right corner of the pitch, in a designated arc zone. The ball must be stationary when kicked and within the white markings of the corner area. Mostly, this type of set piece will be used as an opportunity to deliver the ball into the opposition penalty area using a lofted cross. Tall, physical defensive players will be brought forward to crowd the penalty box and provide the kick taker with plenty of aerial options. The best set piece specialists should be able to whip a dangerous ball into the air and onto the head of an attacker from a corner, creating dangerous chances.

When a corner is taken, defensive players need to remain at least 10 yards away from the corner arc until the ball is in play. If the corner taker touches the ball for a second time after their initial kick, before it has touched another player, this is an illegal offence and the opposition will be awarded an indirect free kick. You can find out more information about corners in our in-depth guide to everything you need to know about the corner kick in soccer.


Throw-ins are the most common set piece in football, awarded every time the ball goes out of play on either side of the pitch (typically 40-60 times per match).

Whenever the ball exits the side of the pitch, the opponents of the player who last touched the ball before its exit (deliberately or accidentally) are awarded a throw-in, which they will take from the spot at which the ball left play.

There are two main types of soccer throw-in: short throw-ins and long throw-ins. Short throw-ins can be taken quickly as a means of recirculating possession and moving the ball around the pitch with speed, and in these situations the ball will often be thrown just a few metres, with limited power applied to the set piece so that the ball is easy to control. On other occasions, players will take their time over short throw-ins, using this soccer set play to allow teammates to get in position before tossing it down the line for a player to win a flick-on or hold up the ball.

The other key type of throw-in in soccer is a long throw; this is a more direct attacking move, designed to launch the ball into the opposition's final third from a deeper position. Typically, teams using long throws will have a specialist player on the job; think Rory Delap at Stoke under Tony Pulis, or more recently Mads Bech Sorensen's powerful launches for Brentford in the Premier League. Long throw-ins can cause havoc in the opposition penalty area, as defenders struggle to effectively clear this looping ball that drops ominously into threatening zones. Long throw-ins can offer a soccer coach the opportunity to plan an intricate set piece routine, orchestrating certain attacking movements and runs in order to take advantage of this attacking opportunity.


When we talk about set pieces, soccer free kicks, throw-ins, and corners are usually what we're focusing on. But technically speaking, there are a couple of other methods for getting the ball to re-enter the field of play that aren't always thought of as typical set pieces. One of these is the penalty kick in soccer. 

Penalties are awarded to an attacking team when one of their players is fouled by the opposition inside the opposition penalty area. It doesn't matter how serious the foul is, as long as the referee deems it to break the Laws of the Game, a penalty is given, and the attacking team has the chance to shoot on goal from the penalty spot, 12 yards out with only the goalkeeper to stop the ball from bursting the net. While not as common as corners, throw-ins or free kicks, penalties are still seen regularly in professional football; in the 2022/23 season, Manchester City alone were awarded 10 penalties.

Goal Kicks

The final way of formally re-entering the ball into the field of play is via a goal kick. Goal kicks are given when the ball exits the field of play via the end touch line (rather than the side of the field) after last touching an attacking player.

When a goal kick is given, the goalkeeper will have the opportunity to distribute the ball up the pitch from inside their own six yard area.

How Important Are Set Pieces Within Professional Soccer?

These set piece types are used regularly throughout the whole of the footballing world, from youth soccer games to huge globally-watched matches at competitions such as the World Cup. The importance of set pieces, therefore, cannot be denied. And in recent years, certain clubs — particularly those with a heavy focus on data and analytics —  have begun to place greater emphasis on set pieces within the game.

For example, when Brentford came up to the Premier League for the first time in 2021/22, they targeted set piece play as an area of the game where they could gain huge advantages, and as a result of cleverly-worked routines were able to seriously maximise their potency from corners and throw-ins. 

Data analysis during the 2021/22 campaign showed that at one point Brentford were averaging 0.95 shots per 90 minutes from throw-ins, while every other team in the league managed an average of just 1.09 shots per 90 combined. It's a remarkable statistic that shows how teams can harness the power of the set piece to their advantage. If you'd like to find out more about how the club was able to do it, check out our article on the return of the long throw-in at Brentford FC.