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How Set Pieces Have Shaped Real Madrid’s Season

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A look into how corner kicks, free kicks, and penalties have affected Los Blancos’ 2020 - 2021 campaign

Jose Breton/ AP Photo

It has been an up-and-down season for Real Madrid, as the club now sits third in the league table while getting through to the final eight of the Champions League, and having been knocked out of the Copa del Rey in the round-of-32 by third Division side CD Alcoyano.

Set pieces (including free kicks, corner kicks, and penalty kicks) have always been an incredibly important part of Real Madrid’s game, and as the club is an elite-level side with incredibly talented players, you can be sure that the club attempts to maximize its players’ value when both attacking and defending set pieces. One could almost say that Real Madrid’s squad is perfectly built to take advantage of set pieces, having excellent ball deliverers like Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and players with great aerial presence like Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Raphael Varane, and Karim Benzema. Let’s have a look at how set pieces have affected Real Madrid’s 2020/21 campaign.

Corner Kicks

First, let’s look at how Real Madrid have performed from corner kicks this season. As stated previously, Real Madrid have a roster that is brilliantly suited for corner kicks, as Los Blancos have (arguably) the best passer in all of world football, Toni Kroos, on set piece delivery.

Kroos always has a multitude of options, as a Real Madrid player always comes short on corner kicks, giving the German the option to play a quick pass and create a cross from a better angle. In the penalty area, Real Madrid typically put five players in to win crosses. Most often these five are Ramos, Varane, Casemiro, Benzema, and one of whichever winger is starting. These players have a set pattern that they run on most corner kicks, almost an “X” shape that can be seen in the picture below. These four will split into pairs and clump near the top of the penalty area, and two players will run to the front post and two to the back post to intercept the cross once the kick is taken.

Kroos’ deliveries are a mix depending on which side the corner is being taken from. As he is predominantly right-footed, corner kicks taken from the right side will often be out-swinging kicks, and corner kicks from the left side will be in-swinging. 30.2% of Real Madrid’s corner kicks are in-swinging, 31.5% of them are out-swinging, and 30.9% are taken short (the last 7.4% of Real Madrid’s corner kicks are played “straight” according the FBRef.com).

How a Real Madrid corner kick typically shapes up. The four biggest players in the penalty area will run in an “X” pattern to try and get onto the cross, while the fifth man will hold his position and get onto any stray balls that make it through.

Los Blancos’ record this season from corner kicks has been impressive. The team has scored nine goals in all competitions from corner kicks, which is already higher than last season’s total of five. Their leading goalscorer from corner kicks is Casemiro, who has three goals (Benzema is next with two, then Mendy, Ramos, Militao, and Vinicius Jr. all have one goal). Approximately 17% of Real Madrid’s goals this season have come from corner kicks — four of those goals being game-winners. The team has picked up nine points in La Liga as a result of their corner kick goals, and they’ve won one Champions League match courtesy of a goal that came from a corner kick (Ferland Mendy’s glorious right-footed strike in the first leg against Atalanta).

When compared with other La Liga teams, it is evident that Real Madrid are a cut above when it comes to corner kicks. They’ve taken 230 corner kicks this season, and 29.6% of those corner kicks result in a shot for Los Blancos, one of the best conversion rates in the Spanish League.

Data via Wyscout.com

When it comes to defending corners, Real Madrid have been quite good this season. They’ve conceded four goals from corner kicks, compared to the five that they conceded last season (which was a fantastic record, and a testament to the 2019 - 2020 squad’s excellent defensive work). Of those four goals, only two came in losses: the recent 2 - 1 defeat to Levante and the shocking Copa del Rey defeat to CD Alcoyano.

Zidane’s men have limited their opponents to a shot from about one of every four corner kicks, the second best record of all La Liga teams. The squad’s dominance from corner kicks has been a key reason that they’re still in the La Liga title race this season, and still chasing the Champions League Trophy.

Real Madrid defend corners with a man-to-man marking system (as most teams do), and their serial win rate can be attributed to the physicality and drive to win the ball out of the air from their ‘big men’. Raphael Varane, for example, boasts one of the highest aerial duel win rates of all players in La Liga, with the Frenchman winning 74.4% of his challenges out of the air. Sergio Ramos and Casemiro are the players with the next highest rates, both winning aerial challenges with around 55% consistency.

Free Kicks

A quick disclaimer before discussing Real Madrid’s free kicks: this will only cover Real Madrid’s free kicks in the final third of the pitch (it will be the same when discussing Real Madrid’s opponents’ free kicks). This is because the vast majority of Real Madrid’s free kicks in the defensive and middle thirds of the pitch are taken short so that the team can retain possession.

Real Madrid’s free kick strategy is similar to that of their corner kicks. They will send multiple players to overload the far post, hoping that one of these players can put a header on goal or redirect the ball back into the center of the 18 yard box where more Real Madrid players are waiting for a possible rebound (Benzema is often in the more central role on free kicks).

Real Madrid has taken 84 free kicks in the final third (that have an intent of creating a chance, as the team occasionally takes short free kicks in the final third as well), and 31 of these have resulted in a shot being created — a 36.9% conversion rate, by far the highest in La Liga. Los Blancos have only taken nine shots directly from free kicks, and they are yet to score directly from a free kick this season (they only scored one direct free kick last season, Sergio Ramos vs. Mallorca).

This season Real Madrid have scored four goals from crossing free kicks, just down one from the five that they scored last season. Raphael Varane leads the way with his two goals from the February match against Huesca, with Casemiro just behind with his game-winner against Real Valladolid a few weeks back. The final goal that came from a free kick this season was the Jan Oblak own goal that resulted from Dani Carvajal’s volley in the first Madrid Derby. Real Madrid haven’t lost a match that they’ve scored from a free kick this season, and they’ve secured six points in the league from game-winning free kick goals.

Data via Wyscout.com

Los Blancos have been historically very good at defending free kicks, and that hasn’t changed this season. They’ve only conceded two goals from crossing free kicks, a headed goal from Joselu in their 4-1 thrashing of Alaves back in late January and Santi Mina’s header in today’s 3-1 win over Celta Vigo. The only other free kick that they’ve conceded from this season was from Luis Muriel’s direct free kick in Real Madrid’s most recent clash with Atalanta.

Real Madrid has the third best defensive record from free kicks in La Liga, only allowing a chance to be created from 16.5% of all free kicks in their defensive third. This once again comes from the aerial presence of players like Segio Ramos, Casemiro, and Raphael Varane, as well as the heroics of Thibaut Courtois, who’s bailed out the team a number of times this season.

Penalties

Aside from offensive corner kicks, penalties are where we see the biggest change from last season. Last season, Real Madrid attempted 12 penalties, making all 12. 11 of these came in the league (the most of all La Liga clubs last season), and four were game-winners, all four coming in the post-lockdown period leading up to Real Madrid’s La Liga triumph.

This season, however, Real Madrid have only drawn three penalties in 38 matches. Two of these came in the early season matches against Real Betis and Barcelona, and both were converted by Sergio Ramos. Both penalties would end up being matchwinners. Real Madrid hadn’t had a spot kick since October 24, 2020, until the second leg of the Champions League tie against Atalanta, where Sergio Ramos converted what proved to be the match-winning penalty in the 3-1 win.

The defensive side of penalties has been one of Real Madrid’s biggest issues this season. Nine penalties have been conceded by Real Madrid this campaign, with seven of them having been converted by the opposition. Los Blancos have not won a match that they’ve had a penalty scored against them, having drawn two matches and lost three (conceding three penalties in the disasterclass against Valencia skews the data a bit). There is good news for Madrid fans though: Los Blancos haven’t conceded a penalty since the SuperCopa loss to Athletic Club back on January 14th, almost two full months.

In their 51 matches last season, Real Madrid only gave up four penalties (all four were converted), and they won three of those four matches. This is just another testament to how defensively solid last year’s squad was.

The Final Numbers: An Overview

In a season that Real Madrid have had trouble scoring (they’re averaging 1.37 goals per match, down from 1.69 last season), goals from set pieces have become all the more important. Through 38 matches this season, Real Madrid have scored 52 goals, 16 (30.8%) of which came from set pieces. The distribution is as follows:

  • Corner kicks: 9 goals, 17.3% of total goals
  • Free kicks: 4 goals, 7.7% of total goals
  • Penalty kicks: 3 goals, 5.8% of total goals

Last season’s numbers (86 total goals scored):

  • Corner kicks: 5 goals, 5.8% of total goals
  • Free kicks: 5 goals: 5.8% of total goals
  • Penalty kicks: 12 goals, 14% of total goals
  • Set pieces accounted for 25.6% of Real Madrid’s total goals

Real Madrid have been quite good at defending set pieces this season, but the high number of penalty kicks that they’ve conceded has outweighed their defensive strengths. If the squad wants to win titles while scoring as infrequently as they are, they can’t concede as many penalties as they have this season and drop points because of it. This season Real Madrid have conceded 24 goals in total, 14 (58.3%) of which have come from set pieces.

  • Corner kicks: 4 goals, 16.7% of total goals conceded
  • Free kicks: 3 goals, 12.5% of total goals conceded
  • Penalty kicks: 7 goals, 29.2% of total goals conceded

2019/2020 numbers (37 total goals conceded):

  • Corner kicks: 5 goals, 13.5% of total goals conceded
  • Free kicks: 2 goals, 5.4% of total goals conceded
  • Penalty kicks: 4 goals, 10.8% of total goals conceded
  • Set piece goals accounted for 29.7% of of all of Real Madrid’s conceded goals

If Real Madrid want to keep their Champions League and La Liga hopes alive, they’ll need to continue their excellency from offensive set pieces and maintain their current run of good form defending them. What do you all think, are set pieces as important to Real Madrid’s season as I’ve made them out to be? Tell me below!