Twenty goals from set pieces! Why is Atletico so good at dead balls?

Diego Simeone's men have consistently converted from free kicks and corners this term. But what makes them so much better than everyone else in that facet of the game?
Atletico Madrid may still be some way short of its very best after losing many of its top players in the summer, but the team's prowess from set plays is now a greater weapon than ever.

The Rojiblancos sold Diego Costa, Filipe Luis, David Villa and Thibaut Courtois after last season's La Liga title triumph and there appears a greater reliance on dead-ball situations now for Diego Simeone's side. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Of the 46 goals scored by Atleti so far in 2014-15, 20 have come from free kicks and corners. And in La Liga, the ratio is higher: 17 out of 27. Or almost 63 percent.

They have come in all different ways. Some have been flicked on and finished at the far post (like Raul Garcia's goal in the Spanish Supercopa against Real Madrid), others headed home at the near post (Tiago at the Bernabeu in La Liga; Joao Miranda against Eibar), from a central position (Mario Mandzukic at home to Olympiakos), via a loose ball fired into the net after an initial clearance (Arda Turan versus Deportivo) or a well-worked move from a short corner or free kick (Diego Godin against Malaga; Jose Maria Gimenez at Elche). And the list (not including two penalties, nor another when the ball was played back into the box following a clearance from an initial set piece) goes on...

"I don't mind winning with set pieces," Simeone said in September. "It's part of the game. Everyone talks about strategy, but to achieve a dead-ball situation, you need to be attacking. To win a corner, you have to attack. The team works well to generate those opportunities."

But why is it that Atleti is so much more effective from dead balls than any other top team in Europe?

"I believe the secret is hard work and also having players with sufficient quality to be able to finish off those type of plays," former Atletico goalkeeper and coach Abel Resino told Goal. "Atletico have players who are very strong in that respect, like Mandzukic, Godin, Tiago, Miranda, Raul Garcia... they have so many players who can score from those situations. So that gives them great potential, and they have players like Koke who can deliver excellent balls into the box."

The starting XI chosen each week by Simeone practice set pieces in the final session before a match and the players are given instructions as to which methods will work against that particular team, how the rival defense marks in the penalty area and what the goalkeeper will do.

"It is a strategy with a lot of variants," Abel added. "It depends on the rival. If it's man-marking then there is one type of strategy that is more effective. If it's zonal marking then it's another. That is what the coaching staff work on during the week in order to come up with different alternatives ahead of a match."

And he added: "It's noticeable that they are working on both of those. Atletico have scored all sorts of different goals from set plays and that shows that they are studying their rivals' defenses. If you didn't study the rival, there is no way you could score so many goals from set pieces."

The goalkeeper's positioning is also key. Against Madrid, Atleti whipped in corners tight at the near post because that is an area seldom covered by Iker Casillas - and that strategy brought a goal in the Supercopa (Raul Garcia) and another in La Liga (Tiago). On the contrary, Godin's goal against Barcelona in the Liga clincher last season was a corner curled well away from Jose Pinto, who had a tendency to come off his line but would be unable to venture that far. Tiago's header in the 3-1 win over Malaga this season was from a near-post delivery, but the ball was curling away from goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and the two defenders in front of the Portuguese midfielder were fooled by his movement just before the kick itself. Nothing is left to chance.

Resino, who played between the sticks at Atletico from 1986 to 1995, believes goalkeepers have their work cut out against Simeone's side.

"It's very difficult to defend those type of plays," he said. "If the players are good at what they are doing and anticipate well, as is the case with Atletico, it's very difficult for the goalkeeper and you have to have a very high level of concentration. It's important for the goalkeepers to be brave, especially at corners."

But that is no guarantee of success against Atleti and even when an initial delivery is cleared by the goalkeeper or a defender, it is frequently returned with interest in the shape of a cross or a shot, with the Rojiblancos more often quicker to the loose ball than their rivals.

"The way they win the ball back, the way they anticipate and convert those rebounds into goals is key to maximizing those situations and it's something else Atletico do very well," Resino explained. "That has a lot of merit."

Godin's goal from a corner edged out Barcelona in the title decider at Camp Nou last season, while Miranda's header against Madrid following another Koke delivery a year earlier gave Atletico its first derby win since 1999 and saw Simeone's side claim the Copa del Rey at the Bernabeu.

For Atletico, both in La Liga and in Europe, set pieces have become a key weapon and a way of closing the distance in terms of budget between itself and mega-rich clubs like Real and Barca.

"In order for Atletico to be able to fight Madrid and Barca, these type of plays are fundamental because those teams don't score a fifth of what Atletico do from set pieces," Resino said. "Atletico compensate their deficiencies with these strategies and it is key for them in the fight against Madrid and Barca.

"Those teams work more on overall play and attacking, but not so much on set pieces, so it's a way that Atletico can close the gap on Madrid and Barca."

And that is exactly what Atleti did in La Liga last season, as well as the Champions League, when Simeone's men only missed out on the trophy after Sergio Ramos' late leveler and Madrid's extra-time win in Lisbon. This season, they will be hoping to go one better in Europe's premier club competition, but however well they end up doing, set plays are likely to be central to their success once again.

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