There was no doubt in Richard Bredice’s mind about how the best free-kick routine he’d analysed played out, it was just the colour of the shirts of the team behind it that kept changing.
To begin with the Anderlecht First-Team Opposition Analyst had us imagining Liverpool’s kings of Europe in their all red kit conjuring up a genius set-piece which began with the sort of back pass that normally has fans groaning in frustration rather than gasping in anticipation.
We were groaning when Newcastle was mentioned as a possibility, though on reflection that was probably unfair given the level of detail someone like former Toon manager Rafa Benitez puts into preparing his teams for matches.
Tottenham was another team thrown into the ring before it finally transpired the free-kick Rich had repeatedly rewound, rewatched and paused like an over-excited schoolboy watching the leg-crossing scene in Basic Instinct was by Watford in a game against Huddersfield.
Rich said: “It was funny because from the very first game week of that season there was a buzz about Watford. They’d scored from a corner routine (a Roberto Pereyra volley from the edge of the box) so they became a bit of a team who you were interested to see their set-pieces because you knew they were going to try and do something different.”
By the time Rich came to analyse the free-kick against Huddersfield, he had already watched it on Match of the Day on Saturday night and caught it the following morning on Sky Sports News.
Prior to joining Anderlecht in the summer of 2019, Rich spent just over six years as first-team opposition analyst at Manchester City.
CLIPPING AND STORING SET-PIECES ON DATABASES
His Sunday routine during that time would be to put every single set-piece taken by all the Premier League teams into two databases. The first filed all the set-pieces by team, the second filed all the goals by attack and defence.
Rich explained: “While I was working for City, each week I would database every set-piece that was taken over a Premier League weekend so that when it came to analysing that opponent I would already have all the set-pieces there and then I would also make a separate database showing set piece goals scored and conceded, so again when we came to playing each team, I already had the information on all the goals they had scored and conceded from set-pieces in that season.
“So I would have done the work on one of the game weeks and revisited it whenever we played Watford or Huddersfield.”
This was done using wide-angle footage from full matches but Rich was spared the task of coding and clipping all the footage.
He said: “We were working with an outside company that we set up our own algorithms with in terms of finding out some of the detail we were after from set pieces.
“It told us things like who was taking the corner, how many players were in the box, which players were in the box, those sort of things. The things that scouts and analysts would look for anyway. It just meant that we did not have to manually input that data, we were being told this from the data.
“So basically if you imagine the full 90 minute game, you put it into Sportscode and import the xml which then clips out on the timeline all the moments and also all the set-pieces.
“I would go through all those moments and make sure they were the right length and we had the correct information from the algorithm and once I was happy with it I would database those clips for each team and then for the set-piece goals database.”
WHERE TO START A CLIP FOR A FREE-KICK
As part of the algorithm, the video would be clipped with a pre-roll which would include the free-kick being conceded and build-up to the free-kick being taken.
One of the first things Rich did when reviewing the Watford free-kick was to decide whether there was any relevant detail in the action prior to the free-kick being taken or to clip and archive from the moment the free-kick was taken.
He added: “Thinking about how the algorithm worked, it would have started about ten seconds before.
“Sometimes it was useful to see things like hand signals for example but they were very difficult to decipher.
“You could drive yourself crazy trying to work it out as teams change from one week to the next but it was always good to have that option to see if there was one and you could decide if that was important or not.
“There is not a standard answer as to where to start a clip for a free-kick.
“The whole point of databases is that you may not realise something at the time but when you come to play that team, you see, for example, they take quick free-kick 20 times and it is two particular players who are good at it. So there is player A (a defender), who as soon as a free-kick is given is looking for player B (normally a forward) to make that run that he makes quite a lot.
“On those clips, you might want to start from when the free-kick has been given but there will be certain ones when, let’s say it is a direct free-kick and they are just shooting at goal, that can be cut shorter. You do not need the build-up because there is no information to be had. You know they are going to shoot and there is nothing more to it.
“When I came to watch the Watford free-kick, I remember seeing it and thinking I will definitely use this when we come to play them.
“So this actual free-kick I did not leave the video from the point of the foul. I had rolled the game on a little bit.”
FREE-KICK TOOK SIX VIEWS TO NOTE ALL THE DETAIL
The clip had been rolled on to the point just before the Watford free-kick, awarded 30 yards from goal and 15 yards in from the left touchline, was taken. With the wide-angle Rich could see how both teams were set up.
He recalled: “What I liked about it was that Huddersfield were defending zonally from the free-kick as they normally would and Watford set up with two players at the back post so it looked like they were going to try and hang the ball up to the back post.
“They also had a player stood out wide on the opposite side of the box, on the side of the ball.
“He is keeping one of the Huddersfield defenders occupied wide on that left side.
“As it starts to play through, it looks like they are going to deliver an outswinging cross to the back post but the left-footed player actually runs over the ball and then Peraya, who shapes like he is going to take an inswinging free-kick actually passes backwards to Capoue.
“At this point Capoue is stood to the right of the taker in a very central position but another five yards back.
“There were loads of things going on that were really important to this working.
“So you’ve got the two players who started on the back post, one of them, Success, then ran towards the inside of the pitch and he was the one who ended up scoring the goal. The other, I think it was Gray, had a really important job because he ended up blocking the marker of the player from the edge of the box who received the long ball over the top from Capoue, who received the first pass from the free-kick.
“So you had Success who made the run inside after starting at the back post, he scored the goal but also if he had not scored then Peraya, the player who took the free-kick, had made a run to the far post and he could have scored if the ball across the goal bypassed Success.
“The reason Peraya could run straight through was because Watford maintained the full width of the pitch on the free-kick side which meant the Huddersfield player who should have been marking him at the back post was occupied wider.
“Everything and everyone has a purpose in this free-kick and you can see it. You can also see that each player knows what they need to do to make this work because if one of the pieces of the chain doesn’t do his job then this wouldn’t work.
“I ended up watching it five or six times because there were so many things going on. It was impressive.
“There are a lot of set-pieces to watch but when you saw one that was inventive, it was quite exciting to see. I could really appreciate the effort and time and put into it to make it work.
“You respect it because you know how much would have gone into that end point of them scoring that goal.”
NOTHING WORSE THAN A FREE-KICK THAT HITS THE WALL
As Rich noted, he has watched pretty much every set-piece taken in the Premier League over the past few years, so has probably seen more bad than good, but they all get treated the same way and filed on the team specific database.
There was not one specific free-kick that could lay claim to being the worst he had seen, just a collective award for all those efforts that failed to beat the wall.
He said: “Free-kicks can be bad for a lot of reasons. The most frustrating are the ones that go straight into the wall because there is not a great deal you can do or say with them.
“But even if it is a terrible free-kick you always want to keep it because you will likely come up against that team or come up against that manager or player in the future. You compare it with the most recent games and see if you can expect them to try the same again.
“What you may look at is if any players made a specific run or movement off the wall, if anyone tried to make any runs down the side or anything like that.”
It was very rare that anything would be noted about the free-kick taker, especially if he had fired the free-kick into the wall.
Rich added: “I don’t know anyone who is looking at how the taker strikes the ball.
“Even to know that information, it is not something you can affect. You will know how fast somebody has hit the ball or how much spin they get on the ball but I don’t know what you could do with that information per say.
“The only ones you may go into a bit more depth on is those who can strike the ball from a long way out using the ‘knuckleball technique’ like David Luiz or Drogba or Ronaldo.
“That capability was always documented if the player had that technique in his locker and the only other one you might look at is free-kicks that are closer to the corner. You’d note it if the players were looking to shoot from that angle or were they looking to cross.
“That is the only difference on direct free-kicks. If someone is really good at them you always noted it so Ward-Prowse at Southampton or if you played Everton you knew how good Sigurdsson was.
“So unless they had someone you knew was a really good taker, you did not go into any more depth than that because it is difficult to do anything about it.”
So any Watford free-kick that went straight into the wall would be filed alongside the one which brought Success his first Premier League goal.
Rich confirmed: “I would still put the free-kicks that went into the wall in the database. They would still be filed under that team as an attacking free-kick and would sit alongside the goals.
“The way I looked at it was each gameweek took quite a long time to go through, but when it came to analysing that opponent, especially when the turnaround was short, it meant you could spend more time doing the detail rather than having to do all of that work first.”