the-set-piece-‘genius’-transforming-arsenal

The set-piece ‘genius’ transforming Arsenal

When referee Andre Marriner finally blew his whistle and signalled towards the centre spot, confirming Calum Chambers’ close-range effort in Arsenal’s Carabao Cup win over Leeds last month had crossed the line, the defender made a beeline for the dugout.

He was mobbed by team-mates when he got there. Substitutes Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsdale were first to reach him. Mikel Arteta joined the celebrations too. But the man Chambers was looking for was Arsenal’s set-piece coach Nicolas Jover.

Moments earlier at the Emirates Stadium, when Chambers was preparing to replace Ben White, Jover had told him he was going to score with his first touch. “That’s why I went running over to him,” said a grinning Chambers afterwards. “It was a nice moment.”

His goal, nodded over the line following an Emile Smith Rowe corner just 23 seconds after his introduction, was one of seven Arsenal have scored from set-pieces so far this season.

Their total of six in the Premier League is the joint-highest in the division along with Saturday’s opponents Liverpool. They have already equalled their total for the whole of last season, when only Fulham and Sheffield United scored fewer goals from set-pieces.

An area of weakness has become one of strength, with 46 per cent of Arsenal’s Premier League goals coming from set-pieces this season compared to just 11 per cent last term, and it owes a lot to a summer signing whose arrival went largely unnoticed.

Jover is an unfamiliar name to many, but he was known to Arteta, having spent the previous two seasons working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He joined Arsenal in July to replace outgoing set-piece coach Andreas Georgson, who had accepted an offer to return to his former club Malmo after a single season in north London.

Arteta described Jover as “someone whose expertise can be incredibly useful and valuable for us” soon after his appointment. “It’s a crucial part of the game nowadays,” he added. “It’s something you have to dominate and master and we are in that process.”

The Arsenal manager had seen first-hand how Jover improved Manchester City from dead-ball situations both offensively and defensively during his time as Guardiola’s assistant.

In Jover’s first season at the Etihad Stadium, they scored more set-piece goals than any other Premier League side and conceded the second-fewest. In his second, the numbers were similarly impressive as he helped them reclaim the Premier League title.

At Arsenal, meanwhile, Georgson’s impact had been mixed.

The Swede helped them defensively – in fact no Premier League side conceded fewer set-piece goals than the Gunners last season – but he left considerable room for improvement offensively.

His replacement has brought a fresh perspective and he has a wealth of experience behind him too.

Jover, 40, started out as an analyst at Montpellier, where he helped the French outfit claim their first Ligue 1 title in 2011/12, and went on to have spells as a set-piece specialist with the Croatian national team and Brentford before his move to Manchester City.

At Brentford, he came to know Mads Buttgereit, another set-piece coach who was working for their Danish sister club Midtjylland at the time. Matthew Benham, the club’s owner, and Rasmus Ankersen, their co-director of football, were eager for the pair to bounce ideas off each other. They started what Buttgereit calls a “study group” over Skype. Before long, there were in-person visits too.

Thomas Partey headed home from Emile Smith Rowe's corner

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Thomas Partey headed home from Emile Smith Rowe’s corner against Aston Villa

“We would watch each other’s normal day routines but after that, in the evenings, we just sat and talked set-pieces,” Buttgereit, who now works with the German national team, tells Sky Sports.

Their conversations made a lasting impression on Buttgereit.

“I always had a passion for set-pieces but at that point I was still a normal coach, in a normal coaching role,” he adds. “I think, after meeting him, I began to see myself more as a set-piece specialist.

“Nicolas is a genius in the way he thinks and the way he creates the plans. Sitting with him and discussing different set-plays, you feel everything has an exact thought behind it. There are no coincidences at any point in any routine.

“Whenever we discussed set-pieces, it was never simple. We could discuss a specific corner routine for over an hour, not a problem. We would go through every aspect and go through what the opponent would then do. It was very, very detailed.

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Nicolas is a genius in the way he thinks and the way he creates the plans. Everything has an exact thought behind it

“There are a few set-piece coaches who I know personally but, in my mind, I think Nicolas is the best. He is fantastic.”

Jover’s attention to detail and ingenuity have been apparent in many of the goals Arsenal have scored this season. “I see his fingerprints on their set-pieces, for sure,” says Buttgereit.

There are disguised runs, decoy movements and always plenty of players in position to convert rebounds and loose balls – just as Chambers was in the 2-0 win over Leeds.

Arsenal have four players stationed inside Leeds' six-yard box when Pepe's back-post header is nodded over the line by Chambers

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Arsenal have four players stationed inside Leeds’ six-yard box when Pepe’s back-post header is nodded over the line by Chambers

When Thomas Partey headed home Smith Rowe’s corner in Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Aston Villa a few days before that, he was one of two players making near-post runs along with White in order to maximise the chance of a flick-on.

Takehiro Tomiyasu and Gabriel Magalhaes, meanwhile, occupied two defenders near the penalty spot, with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stationed inside the six-yard box.

Against Aston Villa, White and Partey make near-post runs while Gabriel and Tomiyasu occupy central positions and Lacazette and Aubameyang await rebounds in the six-yard box

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Against Aston Villa, White and Partey make near-post runs while Gabriel and Tomiyasu occupy central positions and Lacazette and Aubameyang await rebounds in the six-yard box

The idea is that Arsenal are set up to threaten from all angles and there is unpredictability in terms of their delivery too.

There have been inswingers and outswingers at different times. Partey and Gabriel have found the net from near-post headers but deeper deliveries have also caused opponents problems.

Indeed, in the last few weeks, only superb saves from Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel and Watford’s Ben Foster have stopped Aubameyang and Gabriel from scoring at the back post.

The underlying data highlights the scale of the improvement. Arsenal’s expected goal rate from set-pieces has leapt from 0.19 per game to 0.42 per game this season. Their expected goal rate from corners is up from 0.11 per game to 0.29. It’s also notable that they are completing a far higher percentage of those corners.

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A set-piece coach typically works on technique as well as on the tactical side – “the two things are tied together,” says Buttgereit – and Jover has helped develop a new set-piece taker in Smith Rowe, who didn’t take a single corner last season, but has taken eight in Arsenal’s last three Premier League games.

It helps, of course, that there are now bigger targets to aim for. Summer signings White, Tomiyasu and Nuno Tavares all stand at over 6ft. Partey, Gabriel and Aubameyang are similarly tall.

What’s most important for any set-piece coach, though, is that the players buy into their methods. That certainly seems to be the case at Arsenal. Jover has already built strong relationships. Chambers’ celebration against Leeds showed his popularity.

“You can have the perfect plan, but after that, you need to make the players buy into the plan and bring it onto the training pitch in a way that makes them believe in it,” says Buttgereit. “I feel pretty sure when I watch Arsenal that Nicolas is doing that.

Calum Chambers sprints towards the dugout after his goal against Leeds

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Calum Chambers sprints towards the dugout after his goal against Leeds

“Set-pieces are his passion. He transmits that to the players but he is also very open-minded. He listens to them and I think that’s a key point for any coach. It’s not just about telling players what to do; it’s a cooperation. Nicolas is always asking questions and he is never satisfied.”

Specialist set-piece coaches remain relatively rare across top-level football but Arsenal’s recent improvement from dead-ball situations underlines why they are becoming increasingly popular.

“A lot of young coaches say to me, ‘Yeah, but you are only the set-piece coach…”http://www.skysports.com/” says Buttgereit, who worked with Denmark during their run to the semi-finals of last summer’s European Championship. “But the way I respond is, ‘No, not only…’

“Thirty-five per cent of goals, in general, are scored from set-pieces, and if I am doing my job well, then we are going to be better than that. The role of the set-piece coach is not a highlighted one but I’m sure, in three or four years, every club will have one.”

In Nicolas Jover, Arsenal are grateful they already do.

Watch Liverpool vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm