Matchweek Moments: Set Pieces, Set Pieces

By Ian Katan

With hopes of a European competition still faintly visible in the distance, Liverpool took another step closer as they beat Nottingham Forest 3-2 on Saturday. Both sides showed their technical prowess and dogged determination to reach their respective goals, yet it was dead ball situations that separated the two. All five goals were created from set pieces. 

Two of those were scored by Liverpool forward Diogo Jota, who has found his goalscoring form after a 372 day drought, netting four in two games. His first strike against Forest came from a dangerous Trent Alexander-Arnold corner kick that ricocheted around and fell to Jota in front of the net. Eight minutes later, Andy Robertson’s raised right arm signaled a crafty free kick that Jota brought from his chest to his thigh before finishing mightily past Keylor Navas. 

In between Jota’s goals, Forest equalized through Neco Williams from a set piece of their own. Moussa Niakhate’s deadly long throw-in turned Liverpool’s backline into spectators as Forest quickly switched the ball across the field for Williams to slam home. The former Liverpool defender held his celebrations despite the elation he must have felt scoring his first goal for Forest and his first ever in the Premier League. 

Despite Liverpool taking a 2-1 lead shortly before the hour mark from Jota’s second goal, Forest once more found a way to get back in the game through a set piece. Again, Niakhate’s long throw proved to be too much for Liverpool’s defense, who dealt with the initial throw but reacted too slowly to close down the second ball. Morgan Gibbs-White had yards of open space to watch the clearance drop onto his foot and fire a brilliant side volley into the bottom corner. 

Three minutes later, Mohammed Salah responded with the fifth and winning goal. Alexander-Arnold whipped a pinpoint free kick into the Forest box which Salah slammed past Navas. VAR checked for offsides, but Salah’s run was perfectly timed with Alexander-Arnold’s delivery and Liverpool walked away with three points. 

Specifically designed set pieces are becoming more and more present at the top levels of the sport, and this game highlighted their importance. Dead balls like throw-ins, corners, and free kicks are unique opportunities for teams to take advantage of if they’re prepared, or get hit hard if they’re not. Quick-thinking in the moment and having a predetermined plan can be the difference between capitalizing on an opponent’s inattention and missing the window to strike. 

Forest’s devastating throw is the perfect example of this quick-thinking and planning. “We knew about the threat: when Niakhate has the ball and throws it into the box,” said manager Jurgen Klopp after the game. Even with knowledge of the danger, Forest’s approach was too much for Liverpool to handle. On their first goal, for example, the long throw is certainly planned before the game, but it still requires Niakhate to have acute awareness of the defense’s positioning to best aim his deadly throw. 

Some clubs have also begun to hire full-time set piece staff to train players on pre-planned 

routines and patterns. Brentford, Arsenal, Brighton, and multiple other Premier League teams have enjoyed the benefits of their set piece coaches. After seeing the potential of Niakhate’s unique throw and the goalscoring opportunities that will be missed if they don’t take advantage of it, Forest may very well be the next to hire one. 

While Forest relied on their throw, Liverpool relied on Trent Alexander-Arnold, who was involved in two of the three goals. Beyond occasional defensive inconsistency, Alexander-Arnold has been one of the league’s best set piece takers since his breakthrough in the 2017/18 season. At only 24 years old, his 52 assists in 162 appearances put him fifth in the league’s all-time assist records for a defender. 

In the past few games, he’s continued to start at his usual right-back, but has been moving into a fascinatingly advanced role. Operating nearly as a midfielder for long stretches of the games, Alexander-Arnold has been able to better use his creativity and world-class passing to create dangerous chances for his teammates. But his danger is not restricted to open play, and his presence over almost every free kick Liverpool earn threatens any opponent. 

Alexander-Arnold’s incredible delivery keeps defenders guessing where the ball might land, and Niakhate’s powerful arm turns every throw into a potential scoring opportunity. As Liverpool and Nottingham Forest fight to reach their goals of finishing in the top four and out of the bottom three respectively, both teams will rely heavily on these key players’ quality from set pieces to get them there.