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Deciphering The Secrets Behind Sergio Ramos’ Set-Piece Wizardry

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Deep insight coupled with video analysis on one of the games’ greatest ever set-piece finishers.

SSC Napoli v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Sergio Ramos is a man of many talents. He is a supreme leader, a powerful athlete, a technically gifted player, and one of the all time great defenders on his day. But what undoubtedly stands out above all, is his god-like ability to score from set-pieces.

This has been evident for a long time. Even before his legendary La Décima strike, Ramos was regularly popping in with crucial goals from corners or free kicks - whether that be in El Clásico or in a tight game against a league minnow.

However, even by his standards, Ramos’ 2016/17 season has been close to unbelievable. He has racked up 10 goals - 8 from set-pieces - in all competitions with a quarter of the season left to play. On top of that, every single one of his strikes have come at crucial moments to either open the scoring, equalize play, reduce a deficit (panenka vs. Sevilla in the Copa del Rey), or win Madrid the game.

When you look at his shooting numbers, things just get more impressive. Ramos has completed 29 shots from set-pieces across La Liga and the Champions League (amounting to 1.3 shots p90 in the league and 1 shot p90 in the UCL), which is just a little under Cristiano Ronaldo’s 33 in the same competitions. Out of those 29 shots, a clinical 28% of them have been converted.

Seeing that Ramos is so good at thundering headers into the top corner, hasn’t it occurred to other managers, to you know, neutralize him?

Of course it has - there’s simply no stopping him.

Some put it down to sheer determination and willpower and there is definitely some validity to that theory. Football and sports in general are inextricably linked with self-belief and mental strength, but there is also skill coupled with a strategy that makes everything tick. The “skill” part is rather evident. Ramos isn’t just a physical beast with an iron will - he is extremely good at heading the ball. The “strategy” bit is less clear. Is there a method to Sergio’s genius? Does he execute specific moves or make certain intelligent runs to put himself in advantageous situations? Let’s find out.


Before we dive into the intricacies of Ramos’ set-piece wizardry, a quick briefer on the styles of set-piece defense is in order. Without exception, teams defending corners or free kicks use three different types of defense: zonal marking, man marking, or a mix of both.

Zonal marking is as simple as it sounds (though in practice it is difficult to execute). Each player is assigned a zone in and around the box to guard. The players on defense only engages the opposition attacker once the attacker enters the relevant zone the defender is occupying.

Man marking is the exact opposite. In this system, each defender picks a man and follows the attacker wherever he goes.

Considering the obvious weaknesses of both types of defenses, some managers decide to employ a mix of both systems.

Since Ramos is only one player, he only has to deal with one of zonal or man marking at a time, even in mixed systems. This is because he is either guarded by one player or challenged by a defender in a certain zone regardless of whether the system is mixed or not (in other words, mixed systems are only mixed when applied to the team as a whole, but not when applied to an individual player). Due to this, the following categories for corners have been split into “Ramos vs. Zonal Marking” and “Ramos vs. Man Marking” (there is no “Ramos vs. Mixed Systems”). Free kicks have been dealt with separately due to the different dynamics that are in play when compared to corners.


Sergio Ramos vs. Zonal Marking (Corners)

By far the most common system Real Madrid have encountered has been some form of zonal marking and Ramos has attacked that system the same way nearly every single time.

The first thing to note in the above clip is Ramos’ starting position - it is the same on every play.

His positioning always originates from the area from the edge of the box to the penalty area. This is the case for several reasons.

The most obvious is that it always gives Ramos the ability to sprint towards the ball and therefore strike at goal with greater momentum. When coupled with his powerful neck muscles and perfect technique, the resulting shot is close to impossible to stop for the goalkeeper.

Another advantage, is that Ramos’ starting position makes him impossible to keep track of. This is because the base from which Sergio takes off from is far away and out of sight of the six yard box, let alone zones to the side or front of it. Thus, defenders, who must watch the flight of the ball, cannot see Ramos coming until it is too late. This element of surprise, coupled with his running start, means that it is literally impossible for an opposition marker to defend against the speed and intelligence of El Capitán’s runs.

This is a crucial pro for Sergio, since he is a well-known threat that manager’s surely prepare for. Staying out of sight of the defender he intends to target negates the defender’s supposed “preparedness.”

Another curious characteristic to observe is Ramos’ finishing positions. As you may have noted in the above video, the set-piece king nearly always seems to end up in the same place.

That “place” seems to be the left-hand side of the 6 yard box, whether the corner be taken from the left or the right. It is hard to explain why Ramos prefers this spot other than that it may simply be Zidane’s plan, but it is obvious as to why it is so effective.

Not only is Ramos’ choice of zone close to goal, but he is always nearly contesting a free-ish header because of the way he approaches his position. As noted before, defenders are unable to keep track of Ramos due to his high starting position. That difficulty is doubled by Sergio’s insistence on arcing his runs so that he approaches the defender from behind, before either sneaking in front of them or staying course depending on the direction of the corner (if the cross originates from the left, Ramos likes to cheat in from of his man; if the cross originates from the right, Ramos stays behind the defender).

The only exception to the above examples is his second strike vs. Napoli, which wasn’t actually counted as a goal in the record books (it went down as an own goal).

In this instance, Kroos’ in-swinging corner curved farther away from goal to meet Ramos a good 6-8 yards away from the 6 yard box. Ramos read the flight of the ball and slowed his run to smash a header towards goal and give Madrid the lead. This play just goes to show that while our captain favors certain routines, he isn’t a one-trick pony and possesses the ability to dominate the box from all sorts of angles.

Sergio Ramos vs. Man Marking (Corners)

He also dominates more than one system, as evidenced by his goals vs. Málaga and Real Betis, which came vs. man marking systems.

Upon watching the video, you most likely noticed that Ramos’ starting positions were the exact same as the plays where he faced zonal marking.

However, as you have again probably noticed, Ramos’ finishing positions were different.

Due to the player marking Ramos, Madrid’s captain cannot as easily receive a somewhat free header near the six yard box. Instead, he has to focus on getting rid of his marker, by which time the cross would already be in flight. This means that he would more or less have to head the ball farther away from goal due to the lack of time to approach the keeper. But due to his immense strength and technique, he still has little problem at dispatching crosses from such positions into the net.

But what should really be the focus about the way Ramos beats man marking systems is his movement to get rid of his man. Not content to run towards his desired destination in a simple straight line, Ramos always executes false movements to throw his marker off his scent in order to receive an uncontested header. His world class agility, strength, and speed of thought, makes such actions possible on a world class level, leaving defenders nursing broken ankles in the shadow of one towering superhuman.

Sergio Ramos On Free Kicks

The final situation to analyze is free kicks, which Ramos approaches without regard for the type of marking due to the presence of an offside line. This is because Ramos makes sure to sit in an offside position before the free kick is taken, in order to prevent his marker from getting in front of him before play resumes. Thus, it matters little whether the team he is facing decides to zonally mark or man mark him.

However, the angle, distance, and direction of the free kick obviously changes the role of Ramos and his teammates’ greatly. Due to their being an infinite combination of said factors which can take place in a free kick, the number of variations that occur are numerous.

For the sake of brevity, I have selected a particular type of free kick which seems to display some interesting patterns.

As displayed by the compilation, the selected set-piece is taken from a sharp angle from the left-hand side of the pitch (from Madrid’s point of view) and around 10-20 yards from the box. In this situation, Ramos’ positioning is clear. He takes up the central position in behind the offside line, thus giving him the greatest opportunity to score out of anyone on the team.

What is more interesting is the way his teammates are positioned around him. Either Ronaldo or Bale makes the near-post run to drag defenders with them, whilst providing the opportunity for a flick-on. While this was not the case in El Clásico, Ramos’ strike in the 2016 Champions League final was the result of a well prepared play, in which Bale halted his run to flick the ball into Sergio Ramos’ general direction. The set-play that has oddly escaped immense praise completely bamboozled Atlético Madrid and gave Real the lead in the biggest competition in club football.

A similar type of play can be seen in Ramos’ goal vs. Málaga. While Ronaldo does not peel off sideways to present himself as the target man for a flick-on, he is positioned in a way that would allow him to flick the ball towards Ramos if given the chance.

This is obviously aided by the fact that the set-piece delivery man is Toni Kroos, who is right-footed and can deliver an out-swinger with wicked curvature. Thus the natural arc of the ball aids the potential for a near-post flick-on by Ronaldo or Bale, which enhances the possibility of Ramos reaching the ball.

This selected scheme is considerably different from the others because it is a system in which the team is focused on making Ramos successful. This contrasts heavily with Ramos’ role when attacking corners, which depends largely on his own speed, intelligence, and finishing ability. It just goes to show that, while Sergio is undoubtedly the biggest reason for his own success, Zidane’s blueprints and the role of Ramos’ teammates play a significant role in making Mr. 92:48 the most lethal set-piece finisher on the planet.


(All statistics taken from whoscored.com)