Goal kicks are generally viewed as a miniscule part of football. However, in the modern game, they are becoming increasingly valuable. This is largely down to the fact that the amount of analysis conducted at the top level in order to improve performance continues to increase due to newfound technology and data, and therefore so does the amount of detail that is placed into microanalysis.
The advanced technology and data that football clubs from across the world use to analyse performance allows teams to evaluate the finer details of the game and attempt to perfect every phase of play, including goal kicks. Another reason that the value of a goal kick is increasing is because the number of coaches who desire their teams to play out of defence continues to increase within the modern game.
A goal kick is essentially the first phase of attack for the team with ball possession, and therefore coaches and analysts place great emphasis into perfecting this aspect of the game as it presents an opportunity to progress the ball from deep and spearhead attacks. Consequently, we have continued to see a rising variation of predetermined patterns and setups from goal kicks.
The phrase “goal kick” is recorded in general usage as early as 1867 but does not appear in the laws of the game until 1890. Before this, phrases such as “kick it off from the goal line” were used to describe this particular phase of play.
The 1863 FA rules defined the goal kick as a ‘free kick from the goal line’, and as you can expect, there are several differences between this and the modern day goal kick. Firstly, it was awarded when the defensive team was the first to touch the ball down after it had crossed the goal-line. This contrasts with modern association football, which awards the goal-kick against the last team to touch the ball before it went out of play.
Other features of the old goal kick consisted of being taken from the goal line itself, being taken in line with the spot where the ball was touched down and it could be taken “in such manner as the kicker may think fit”—i.e. as a punt, drop-kick, or place-kick. Multiple adaptations to the goal kick rule have occurred since then, with the most recent change coming in 2019.
The new adjustment to the rule allows players from the team that have possession to enter, and receive the ball inside the box, rather than having to wait for it to leave the penalty area before touching it. Yet, opposing players must remain outside the box until the ball is in play (when the goalkeeper first kicks it).
Since this small adaptation to the rule, the variety of goal kick setups we have seen in professional football has vastly increased. There has been a great increase in goal kicks that are played short because the new rule means that the first pass from the goalkeeper comes without pressure if the ball remains in the penalty area, as opposition can only enter the box and engage press the ball when the goalkeeper has touched it.
In this article, I will be explaining the advantages and disadvantages of several different goal kick setups that I have analysed, as well as evaluating how effective each one is.
The 3-2 Setup
The 3-2 setup has become one of the most common goal kick structures since the new adaptation to the rule. The 3-2 typically consists of the goalkeeper, the two centre backs and two centre midfielders. The centre backs split to make up back three; they traditionally position themselves close to the byline, whilst the double pivot usually position themselves behind the opposition’s first line of press.
The full backs, who are not quantitatively included within the 3-2, are then allowed to advance into higher positions, usually onto different horizontal lines to the double pivot. The 3-2 setup is representative of the growing role that goalkeepers play in build up within the modern game.
The role of the goalkeeper has changed drastically over the years; there is now a great demand for goalkeepers to be comfortable with the ball at their feet, as they are essentially used as another outfielder in the first phase.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have continuously used this goal kick structure throughout the season; it has bought them great success as they continue to impress with their ability to play out from the first phase, into the second. We have also seen teams such as Manchester United, AC Milan and RB Leipzig use this structure throughout the season.
One of the main advantages of this particular setup is that it allows for two midfielders to operate centrally, behind the first line of press. This essentially means there are more short, progressive options in central areas, which makes it easier to progress the ball from the first line of attack (the back three), into the second line of attack (the double pivot).
This is difficult to defend from the defensive team’s perspective, as it means there are more central passing lanes to cover in order to prevent the ball being progressed centrally.
The double pivot can easily be accessed if the wide players in the opposition’s first line of pressure block the passing lanes to the FB’s, who remain high and hold width. Blocking these passing lanes will more than likely prevent the ball from travelling wide, however, it usually opens up passing lanes from the centre back to one of the double pivot players, thus presenting an opportunity to progress the ball.
The use of two central players behind the first line of press, as opposed to a single pivot, means it is exceedingly difficult for the opposition’s centre forward to cover both passing lanes to the double pivot. This generates opportunities to progress the ball to the double pivot, as there is usually a free man in build up.
A second benefit of using the 3-2 goal kick setup is that it allows the full backs to proceed into high and wide positions. The positioning of the full backs is vital to the success of the 3-2 setup; they usually proceed onto more advanced horizontal lines than the double pivot.
Players positioning themselves onto different horizontal and vertical lines simply means there are always progressive passing options, short or long. This has been an important aspect behind Hansi Flick’s success with Bayern Munich this season.
Within the 3-2 shape, the full backs can be utilised as medium range outlets. If the opposition’s pressing structure remains narrow, and they decide to block passes from the centre backs to the double pivot, space will become unlocked in the wide areas. Therefore, the full backs can be used as outlets, as passing lanes from the goalkeeper or centre backs to the full backs remain accessible.
The full backs are usually uncontested when they receive possession, because the opposition full backs can easily be pinned back by wingers on their respective sides. This means that if the opposition full back did decide to push up and engage the full back with possession, he would leave the winger free, therefore manifesting opportunities for the team with ball possession to rapidly circulate the ball towards the final third to expose an underloaded defence.
The 3-2 shape also offers greater defensive security than other goal kick setups in case of a high turnover from the opposition. Essentially, there are four outfielders involved in short, central build up; therefore this means there are enough players positioned within the defensive third in order to deal with a turnover if the ball was intercepted by the opposition.
Ultimately, having a greater volume of players in proximity with the ball reduces the chances of the opposition scoring a goal or creating a clear cut chance from a potential high turnover as they will be outnumbered immediately and will be susceptible to immediate pressure as soon as they gain possession.
However, the main drawback of the 3-2 setup is that due to the central focus of build up play, any potential high turnover from the opposition will be more dangerous because the likelihood of it being in a central position is high.
Consequently, this is more likely to present a goalscoring opportunity for the opposition, simply because the ball is closer to the goal than if possession was won in wide areas, where the ball would be closer to the touchline and thus easier to defend against. As a result, this is more difficult to defend for the team that originally had possession, thus, this increases the chance of a goal being scored after a high turnover from the opposition.
The 2-3 setup
Similarly to the 3-2, the 2-3 setup is also very common in modern football. The 2-3 setup consists of two centre backs who drop wide and deep inside the box, two FB’s who remain wide, but in slightly deeper positions to those within the 3-2 shape, and the single pivot who operates behind the opposition’s first line of press.
Liverpool and Chelsea have both utilised this goal kick shape this season, whilst Bayern Munich under former manager Niko Kovac also set up in the 2-3, which can be seen in the image below.
The first advantage of using the 2-3 setup is that it allows you to progress another midfielder into a more advanced position, therefore onto a different horizontal line to the single pivot.
As mentioned in the analysis of the 3-2 setup, positioning players on varying horizontal lines aids ball progression because it means there is always a number of progressive options for the player in possession. So, allowing your other central midfielders to advance into higher positions than the single pivot offers more medium range progressive passing options into the second phase. This is represented in the image above, as Thiago and Muller occupy higher positions than Kimmich, the single pivot.
The second highlight of using this specific setup is the use of the full backs. As there is just a single, short progresive option (single pivot), the ball is naturally circulated out wide if possible, and therefore the full backs are usually heavily involved in progressing the ball into the opponent’s half. Thus, this can result in wide combinations occurring in order to move the ball forward once the ball has traveled wide.
This is usually manifested by the winger on the ball side dropping deep to receive a pass down the line from the full back, and quickly returning the pass to the full back who has moved inside, on the blindside of his marker. Also, the full back could find the single pivot by performing a horizontal bounce pass, for the ball to be progressed immediately after via a vertical pass from the pivot.
However, there are drawbacks to using this system; the first one being that there is only one player that is offering a short, central progressive option meaning he can be marked tightly and therefore nullified in build up relatively easily.
The opposition can either opt to simply place emphasis on blocking the passing lanes to the pivot via intelligent pressing or man mark the single pivot which would almost negate his influence within build up as he would be under constant pressure and any pass to the pivot would be high risk, and therefore increase the chances of a turnover. Therefore the team’s possession may become stagnant or they may be forced long by the opposition.
In turn with this comes the second potential problem; if the opposition cut off passes to the single pivot, this means the likelihood of the ball being moved out wide to the full backs increases because they become the only viable, short option. However, due to the level of predictability, the opposition can set pressing traps in wide areas when the full back receives the ball.
They can do this by placing emphasis on blocking central areas, thus opening up passing lanes from the centre back to the full backs, inviting the team with possession to move the ball out wide, before pressing aggressively when the ball reaches the full back. As a result, the team is more likely to be forced long or lose possession in their defensive third, which is a dangerous prospect as high turnovers have potential to manifest goal scoring opportunities.
Deep Full Backs
The deep full back setup is a less common one compared to the two analysed above. This particular setup comprises two full backs remaining extremely deep in build up; the horizontal line that the full backs occupy will not be too dissimilar from the centre backs, who split and drop deep inside in the box.
This usually manifests itself as a flat back four shape, if the side in possession lines up with four defenders. However, the use of the goalkeeper in build up can allow the full back on the opposite side to the ball side to advance into a slightly higher position than his corresponding full back.
This season, we have seen Chelsea use this setup under Frank Lampard. We have also seen Marco Rose utilise it at Borussia Monchengladbach, and this was evident in their recent Bundesliga match vs Freiburg; this match will be the focus of this analysis.
One advantage of the deep full back system is that it encourages the opposition to press you if they want to counter the setup. This is known as press baiting; press baiting is fairly self explanatory – it encourages the opposition to press you whilst you have possession, and it is common for this to occur whilst deep possession is present.
Although this strategy does contain an element of risk, that being if the opposition’s press is successful and a turnover occurs, this is still an advantage. This is because if the opposition do opt to press in order to counter the strategy, this will stretch the defensive shape of the opposition, and therefore either open up space between the lines or in behind a high defensive line which can easily be exposed.
The opposition are more than likely to press because the depth of the full backs presents a great opportunity to win possession back from the opposition in an exceedingly advanced area, which would therefore display a considerable opportunity to score from the high turnover due to the area of the pitch that ball possession was regained in. As a result, space is likely to open up in between the lines of the opposition as their defensive shape becomes stretched; this often leaves free men and numerous vertical passing options.
The second advantage of using the deep fullback setup is that it offers defensive security if a high turnover was to occur. With the deep full backs, you essentially have a higher volume of players that will be behind the ball if a turnover occurs, which therefore increases your chances of successfully preventing the opposition from creating a chance from a high turnover.
Also, due to the focus on the deep full back, if possession is lost in the first phase, the ball is likely to be closer to the touchline than in-field, where the opposition would be more dangerous. This means that any potential high turnover should be easier to defend against due to the wider positioning of the ball; as mentioned earlier, it is much easier to defend against a turnover if the ball is closer to the touchline than in a central area because the ball is further away from the goal.
However, the main con of using this setup is that the full back can easily become isolated in possession if the opposition’s press is effective and is performed as a unit. The positioning of the full back, deep and isolated, is an attempt to initiate the press from the opposition in order to create space higher up the pitch which can then be exploited via vertical, progressive passes.
Nevertheless, when the opposition presses the full back aggressively and blocks vertical passing lanes, the full back can become isolated. As a result, possession may be turned over and therefore lost, or he could be forced to play long where the chance of conceding possession is higher.
The Box (2-2)
The box is quite simply a 2-2 formation; the goalkeeper acts as an outfielder by joining one of the centre backs to form the first line of attack. Then, the other centre back joins the single pivot to create the second line of attack, which is positioned behind the opposition’s first line of press. Consequently, this creates a box shape.
This goal kick setup was used by Pep Guardiola in Manchester City’s Community Shield fixtures vs Liverpool at the start of this season; this was the first competitive match that Guardiola participated in since the rule change. It was clear to see that the Spaniard had placed detail into this extremely unique setup. Personally, this is the only time I have seen this particular box setup, which represents how rare this specific structure is.
The first major advantage of using this setup is the inclusion of the goalkeeper in build up. It has become the norm for goalkeepers to be comfortable with the ball at their feet under pressure from the opposition, and this is required within this setup. The goalkeeper’s ability to act as an outfielder within the first phase has a positive knock on effect for the overall shape of the team.
Firstly, it allows one of the centre backs to advance into a position behind the opposition’s line of press, which consequently increases the amount of progessive options available. And in turn, this means that another centre midfielder can advance into a position higher up the pitch, where they can affect the match in the final third. Ultimately, this positional change allows the team in possession another man in the final third when the ball is progressed, and it provides another vertical passing option; this all stems from the use of the goalkeeper.
Secondly, similarly to the ‘deep full back’ setup, this system encourages the press from the opposition. The opposition are likely to press in order to counter the strategy because the ball is very central due to the central focus of the box formation. Thus, the opposition view this as an opportunity to press and win back possession in an advanced area of the field.
However, in doing so, the opposition open spaces within their pressing structure, and consequently they open passing lanes from the first line of the box to the second. As the opposition’s pressing becomes less compact, the ball progression from the goal kick to the second phase becomes more simple.
This is the reason why deploying two players behind the opposition’s first line of press is important; it means the opposition have more passing lanes to cover and therefore their role of preventing line breaking passes become more difficult due to constant scanning in order to keep track of the movement of the team with ball possession.
However, one of the challenges the team with ball possession will face when setting up in this format for a goal kick is the risk of a potentially dangerous turnover. This setup is exceedingly risky because if the ball is intercepted/lost, there are only two players behind the ball in order to prevent the turnover from being dangerous.
Nonetheless, this is extremely unlikely because if the ball was won by the opposition, the ball would be very central and close to the goal, thus leading to a clear cut chance and probably a goal as the chance would be indefensible.
It’s certainly fair to say that this particular goal kick strategy we saw from Guardiola that day was extremely offensive, something that symbolises his philosophy.
The Long Ball is Far from Dead
Although it has decreased in frequency, the long, direct ball forward from the goal kick is far from dead in the water. Playing a direct ball forward immediately from the goal kick is usually far from an aimless ball forward; there is normally justification behind it.
Firstly, I will look at the long ball to the target man. This setup is self explanatory; the goalkeeper plays a direct, long ball into an area where the team’s target man is operating. To be able to perform this, you must have a target man within your ranks, and you also must have a goalkeeper who possesses the ability to play accurate long passes into specific areas of the pitch.
One advantage of quickly circulating the ball to the target man from the goal kick is that it allows the ball to be moved up the pitch quickly. This is a positive because it essentially minimises the risk of losing possession in deep areas where a potential turnover would be extremely dangerous and difficult to defend against.
Moving the ball forward quickly allows the team to shift up as a unit and therefore move up the pitch into a more advanced position. As a result, midfield players can advance into positions around the target man and therefore increase the chances of retaining possession after the target man flicks the ball on, or holds it up, simply because they have numbers in proximity with the ball.
If using this setup, it is extremely important to make sure the target man has players around him and does not become isolated. Otherwise, it would be near impossible to retain possession after the first challenge from the target man.
However, one drawback of this method is that if used regularly, the opposition can nullify the threat because of predictability. The success of the long ball to the target man is very dependent on whether or not he can hold the ball up or flick it on to an onrushing team mate.
Thus, it is more simple for the opposition to mark the target man tightly and prevent the team from retaining possession if the long ball is being performed regularly. This is why this setup cannot be used constantly.
Secondly, I will look at the direct ball forward to exploit the space behind a high defensive line. This setup is very reactive to the opposition’s defensive line from your goal kicks and therefore it is very rare; if the defensive line is high, the space behind it can be explored via a long pass to a player who has crept in behind the defence from the goal kick.
As you cannot be offside directly from a goal kick, the player can receive the ball one on one vs the opposition the goalkeeper. This setup can only really be used once during a match because the opposition will be exceedingly aware of the same pattern occurring once again.
In order to be able to perform this, it is vital that the goalkeeper can play accurate long passes over 60-70 yards. They must be able to play a range of different passes. Ederson at Manchester City possesses this ability, thus we have seen this performed on a few occasions during their matches.
The main pro of this goal kick setup is that if performed successfully, it creates a goalscoring opportunity for the player, usually a centre forward, who is receiving the ball immediately after the goal kick.
If there is space behind the opposition’s defensive line, it can leave the striker one on one with the opposition’s goalkeeper, and therefore is a rapid way of progressing the ball to the final third and creating a clear cut chance. We have seen Ederson and Sergio Aguero perform this more than any other side at Manchester City under manager Pep Guardiola.
However, one potential drawback is that the pass required from the goalkeeper is usually 60 yards at least, and therefore the pass is susceptible to an interception, and therefore possession may be conceded. This again highlights the importance of owning a goalkeeper who can accurately pass over a great range.
In summary, it’s fair to say there is an enormous variety of goal kick setups within the modern game, and the adaptation to the rule that was integrated in the summer of 2019 only increased this variety. A common theme throughout the different setups that I have analysed is the importance of having players who are comfortable with the ball at their feet and can play under pressure.
There is a high demand for first phase players, mainly defenders and goalkeepers, to be an asset in possession. This manifests the evolution of playing out from the back, as this was never the case 20 years ago; defenders were expected to defend and have very little ability when the ball was at their feet. However, this has changed drastically within the modern game, as the amount of coaches who see value in playing short from the back continues to increase.
It is also important to mention that possessing composure, a mental attribute is vital in order to play out from the back. When the opposition team presses in the first phase, the players in possession must be able to remain composed when they have the ball in order to retain possession and ensure a high turnover does not occur.
Environmental impacts such as encouragement from the crowd when the defensive team presses aggressively can also affect one’s composure, however, the very best manage to remain composed and play out with ease, under pressure. This is essential for playing out of defence successfully.
After the resumption of football in recent weeks after a ten week break due to the coronavirus pandemic, the variety of goal kick setups may well increase due to the copious amounts of time that coaches and analysts have had to work on shoring up the finer details of their teams performances. As a result, we could be about to view a number of new look goal kick setups in the coming weeks.
By: Ollie Himsworth
Featured Image: @GabFoligno