It was a subtle moment. A tactic once implemented across the football pyramid, now happily forgotten.
Upon defending a corner, the ‘organiser’ would grasp control and bellow a phrase heard across parks and professional stadia alike. “Right,” would come the cry as the smallest opposing player trotted towards the corner flag and the towering centre-half took control of the six-yard-box. “Everyone, switch on! Front post. Back post. Mark a man.”
“I just loved that. Being in the middle and thinking, ‘this is about me wanting it more than them’,” recalls Harrogate Town manager Simon Weaver, who enjoyed a 14-year career in the lower leagues. “Let me see the ball and attack it.”
A commanding centre-half in his playing days, Weaver has led Harrogate’s most-successful period in its 107-year history after leading the north Yorkshire club to League Two for the first time following back-to-back promotions.
For a former defender, set pieces were always going to be crucial. As a coach, Weaver is quick to acknowledge the demise of an old school of thought.
“The old way…it was always marking. Your man doesn’t score. If he scores, it’s your fault.” he explains. “The issue is you can get blocked. The movement of other players became more sophisticated [during my playing days].
“I remember at Scarborough. There was a blatant foul [on me] but the referee didn’t see it because of all the bodies in the box. You’ve got to be able to see the ball and man. If you take your eye away from one of those two things you can be in trouble. It only takes someone to lose you or get a run across you and it’s a glanced goal.”
Sure enough, the danger of being outfoxed by the opposition’s movement – or worse your own players switching off in dead-ball situations – has led numerous managers to move away from traditional set-ups.
Instead, defenders are organised into a zonal structure by their coaches. A method Weaver experienced – and thrived under – while playing for Keith Alexander at Ilkeston and Lincoln City.
“At Lincoln, we had a big team of six-footers and Keith used to do it zonal,” he recalls.
“He [Alexander] would line up players across the six-yard box and I was in the middle. That was my role and what I loved doing. You’ve got to have that aggressive intent to head the ball. You take away that worry of where the opposition is.”
Man-marking aside, what’s happened to the player on the front and back post – where have they gone?
“It’s evolved,” answers Weaver. “We did [have players on the post]. My ‘keeper liked it. But then we moved away from that. We discussed it after a patch of conceding from set-plays.
“In many games, you’ve used up two players and there hasn’t been anything to clear off the line. And sometimes they [defenders] were just stood by the post and it has gone in anyway. You think, ‘your job is marking the post. A routine has killed us because you weren’t switched on’.”
Formerly, putting a player on each post was a tactic so unquestionable that it became an emblem of the game. A cliché of defending the goal at all costs. Now, it’s widely recognised that the once-universal tactic was overstated in its effectiveness.
“[Nowadays] filling in the middle of the goal is more important than the edge,” Weaver adds. Often, it’s not the first contact that scores, it’s the second or the third. There’s no denying the stats tell you that truth. Having access to that [data] has definitely evolved the game set-piece wise.
“It’s almost a full-time job that analysis role, but it’s time well spent. Everyone learns in different ways so it’s up to us to process the data that can improve our players. I’m on my laptop sending videos, saying, ‘hey, look at this player – that’s your role’. Everything’s got more sophisticated because there is much more analysis.”
And yet, despite this, data brings its challenges. Video and statistical analysis means decisions by players and coaches are under immense scrutiny from opposition scouts. Days spent looking to find an advantage means even the smallest of details will be noted.
Dean Adams, who has worked as a scout at Portsmouth and Brighton explains how data can be key to finding any opposition weakness.
“Analysis for the Premier League is so in-depth,” he states. “From defending set-pieces, attacking set-pieces, free-kick routines, which way does the keeper throw the ball out –every single defensive and attacking play is noted.
“We can note on a diagram where a player is, if their striker comes back and sits by the front post, for example. You look back at it [the video] and you see a different part you didn’t notice when watching the game.”
It’s not entirely unexpected football has entered its Moneyball faze. But the sheer amount of data accumulated during the 90 minutes borders insanity.
For coaches like Weaver, stats, data, and video analysis have become the tools of the modern-day manager, who spends as much time in front of a screen crunching numbers as they do on the training pitch instructing their players.
“When we hit the National League, you got coverage of your next opponent. That’s their defensive set-up [and] that’s how we can get round it,” Weaver says.
“We played Blackpool in the FA Cup and we were toe-to-toe for 45 minutes. We’ve come out after half-time and our captain, who’s only 5ft 6, he’s a few yards from the front post. He’s good at attacking the ball, but in that moment he went towards the corner taker. “They’ve whipped it in and because he’s slightly out of position he’s scored an own goal. I’m going home thinking, ‘I can’t believe it’. Why have I put the smallest player there?
“But you’re talking to them [the players] and we’ve done that for three and a half years and gone up twice. It’s the first time we’ve been exposed. Then, in the game after, the opposition has seen that and now they’re peppering the near post. All of a sudden, you’ve got someone analysing a weak spot – so yes, it’s moved on in that regard.”
As managers, players and analysts look to gain an advantage, strategies are becoming almost solely created by stats. The player on the post is another cliche left in the past, falling victim to a tactical age dominated by data.