How Can A Team Outwit Real Madrid from Set Piece Situations?

In my article posted the day before yesterday, I discussed why Real Madrid are excellent from set pieces. But can the set-up be broken with a few good plans? I certainly think so. It will require a lot of practice, and I’m not so sure anyone can stop Real Madrid from winning La Liga and possibly the Champions League this season, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Let me say at the outset that his article is inspired by Ted Knutson’s recent article on the same topic. Knutson and Thom Lawrence will be sharing their ideas with clubs through Statsbomb Services.

The Offensive Gameplan

Using Neil Charles’s Chalkboard app, this is (roughly) how Real Madrid lines up for corners:

Real Madrid Defensive Set Up For A Corner

So one decent set-up would be this:

Offensive Corner 1.png

I like this as it’s extremely versatile and can be improvised very easily. The player near the six-yard box will limit the movement of Keylor Navas and allow crosses into dangerous areas without the risk of being caught or punched out. The player near the corner taker, preferably a fast yet creative player who doesn’t pose much of an aerial threat, can move towards the corner taker late and execute a short corner. Delivering a cross from a short corner, when the defenders are caught unawares, is (obviously) a great strategy. An inswinger is the best option for this position. But a ball can be delivered directly into the danger zone, with the four players standing next to the four markers moving into the six-yard box. The player already inside the six-yard box should move back and get into the area with the other players. This will drag BBC out and create a situation where multiple players are competing for the same ball. The players outside the box should look to capture any clearances or rebounds.

For a short corner, Real Madrid players reorganize, with two players on the near post, two near the corner, and one at the edge of the box. A team can take advantage of this. Suppose we used the same set-up, but with the player who’s supposed to make a late run making the run early:

Offensive Corner with a disguised short corner

This will draw out that extra player and reduce the number of players in the box. Then, either whip the ball into the danger zone or pass it to the short corner receiver if he’s close enough and the receiver will deliver a cross from a different angle.

Another thing that can be used is Keylor Navas’s aggressiveness. What if you put three tall players who are obvious targets near the keeper and deliver a cross right into the six-yard box? The set-up will look something like this:

Offensive Corner with keeper chaos.png

There has to be enough pressure on the keeper to make sure he punches it out, rather than calmly collecting it. When the ball is punched out, one or two players have to move towards it before the Real players do, and shoot. Navas, who will be caught out of position, won’t have a chance of saving it. The defensive man-markers won’t really line up in one line, so improvisation is very important. This is quite a radical idea which may not work against a team like Real Madrid, but there’s no harm in trying.

Real Madrid also anticipate a shot from a free-kick in a shoot-able position. This was their set-up against Barcelona in the last Clasico:

Offensive Corner with keeper chaos

It’s obvious why Real Madrid would man-mark loosely when there’s a free-kick in a good area with Neymar and Messi standing over the ball. And of course, Messi went on to take a direct free-kick. Instead of doing that, Messi should have delivered an inswinger into the box with players running through the Real defence. Or, he could have chipped the ball over the wall for Sergi Roberto and Pique to pounce on. This is a viable strategy for any team, as it doesn’t require any distinct formation or plan. But it requires the person standing over the free-kick to dismiss his urge to shoot. (Think outside the box, but shoot from inside the box… Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) And it requires more players in the box. Another player standing over the free-kick is not a bad idea because it makes it look like a shot is going to be taken.

The Defensive Gameplan

I personally prefer the man-to-man marking system for corners, but a hybrid version works best. Taking into account how Real position themselves for corners, this is how I would line my team up if I found a UEFA certificate in my drawer and a missed call from a La Liga club which recently fired their manager:

Defensive Set Up 1

I would keep one man at the near post and one close to the man at the near post. The number of man markers should be the same as the number of attackers. Two players’ objective is to create a counter-attack: the one on the edge of the box to link the play and the one farther away from the box to dribble or hold the ball up for others to follow. One player should cut off the option of a short corner. This player also joins the counter. The ideal counter-attack would look like how Arsenal’s Invincibles countered from a corner in November 2003:

Formulating a defensive plan is hard against Real Madrid as they make plenty of runs. Stopping the runs will need intelligent defending. Players have to stay close to the attacker and keep looking around for potentially dangerous entries.


Tearing down Real Madrid from set pieces is no easy task. I will be very surprised if any team pulls it off (hopefully it’s Atletico in the semifinals). Set pieces shouldn’t be the only way to stop Real Madrid, but since the number of corners in a match is usually between 8 and 13, it’s a good way of producing high return shots with very little technical ability. Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and either Juventus or Monaco (or both if the teams want to plan early) should pay attention to Real’s set piece tendencies and do a better analysis and formulate a better plan.




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