Chelsea manager Mauricio Pochettino has expressed his desire for the club to have a set-piece specialist.
The Blues have struggled this season and currently sit in the bottom half of the Premier League table. While many of the struggles have been from open play, Chelsea have also failed to make too much of an impact from set pieces.
Far too many times the Blues have a corner hitting the first man, or the complete opposite and over all the heads in the box. It’s the same from indirect free-kicks, which often come to nothing.
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“We work a lot on set-pieces. We have a group of analysts. After that, it is about the quality of the player, about the takers,” Pochettino said.
“We don’t have a specialist. Maybe Chilly [Ben Chilwell] is good in the delivery, but we don’t have a specialist after that. If you want to be good in set-pieces, you need good takers.
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“When you have good takers, it is not down to the work. We work similarly, but the problem is to have good takers. Look at West Ham. What changed? The taker is (James) Ward-Prowse. For sure, you can work, like West Ham were working. But now, you add a player like him, you increase the percentage.”
Pochettino worked with Ward-Prowse when he first came to England as Southampton manager, so knows exactly what it’s like to have the Englishman as his set-piece man.
Ward-Prowse is an unlikely target for Chelsea, but who are some of the top set-piece takers in Europe that the Blues should take a look at?
In the summer of 2022, Chelsea were heavily linked with a move for Raphinha and it looked as though the Brazilian would join them from Leeds. Instead, he signed for Barcelona, and the move hasn’t quite worked out as both parties had hoped. Raphinha appears to be back on the market for the summer, and it could be worth Chelsea going in for him to cure their set-piece woes.
Playing 670 minutes in La Liga this season, partly battling injuries, Raphinha has taken 33 corners for Barcelona with 26 of those going into the box. He has a set-play xA of 1.14 and, crucially, two assists directly from set pieces. Of course, this isn’t American football and you can’t bring on a special team just for your kicks, so you need a player who can influence the game from open play too. Raphinha has been directly involved in eight goals in La Liga this season, averaging 1.07 per 90 minutes, with only six players recording more than his five assists.
Chelsea have already made a pretty decent signing from MLS in Djordje Petrovic, so why not shop in North America again? Kai Wagner played 29 games for Philadelphia Union in the 2023 MLS season, amassing 2,533 minutes. In that time, the German was directly involved in nine goals, with eight of those being assists. A left-back by trade, Wagner would prove good competition for Chilwell or even allow the Englishman to move further up the pitch where he perhaps might have a better impact on Chelsea’s team.
Wagner would also replace Chilwell as Chelsea’s first-choice left-footer on set pieces. The 26-year-old had a league-high 4.22 set-play expected assists and created seven Big Chances from set plays. Five of his eight assists came directly from set pieces and he took 131 corners in total, with 123 going into the box. He also ranked second for accurate corners into the penalty area. Defensively, Wagner made 63 tackles, 46 interceptions and won possession in the defensive third 108 times.
A player like Wagner would do well at Chelsea. Unfortunately, Wagner only signed a new contract at Philadelphia Union last month so Chelsea would have to do some persuading.
A central midfielder, Joey Veerman is one who can influence the game from open play and set pieces, as he’s shown for PSV this season. In the Eredivisie, PSV are already 10 points clear atop the table after 20 games, dropping points just twice — with those coming in their past three matches, including against a resurgent Ajax. So that’s 17 games in a row they won before finally dropping a point. Veerman has been integral to their title charge with a whopping nine assists, the most in the Eredivisie. He leads the division for chances created (77) and is also second for Big Chances created (11).
But, of course, we’re here to look at the danger from set pieces. Fortunately, Veerman leads the Eredivisie for corners taken (96), total corners into the box (83) and accurate corners into the penalty area (54), as well as penalty area entries — which covers both open play and set play. Veerman has a league-high 2.32 xA from set plays, while recording three assists directly from set-pieces. In open play, Veerman has also won possession in the middle third 70 times, while attempting and completing more final third passes than any other Eredivisie player.
One of Japan’s stars at the Asian Cup, Yukinari Sugawara has already been linked with a move to the Premier League — both Liverpool and Fulham were credited with reported interest last summer. The 23-year-old would be ideal for Chelsea as he’s a right-back, and Reece James has been seriously struggling with injuries over the past few years. Having a player like Sugawara would provide good competition for James and allow him to not rush back from any injuries that might affect him in the future.
Before going to the Asian Cup, Sugawara had taken 76 corners for AZ in the Eredivisie with only Veerman taking more. It’s only Veerman ahead of him for total corners into the box, while Sugawara is third for accurate corners into the penalty area. The Japanese defender has also created three Big Chances from set plays and provided one assist directly from a set-piece, alongside 1.34 set play xA. In total, Sugawara has four assists in the Eredivisie, with 37 chances created and a league-high 12 Big Chances created.
One for the future — so we know Chelsea’s owners will be fans — Lazar Samardzic has had a decent season as a regular starter for Udinese, having slowly been bedded into the team after joining from RB Leipzig in 2021. The 21-year-old central midfielder has started 16 of his 21 Serie A appearances so far this season, being directly involved in five goals for the Serie A strugglers. Two of those have been assists, with one coming directly from a set-piece. He ranks third in Serie A for set play xA (2.0) and has taken 56 corners, with 48 total corners into the box.
Including open play, Samardzic has created 36 chances and completed 32 take-ons, the latter the seventh-most in Serie A. Clearly a talented player, Samardzic was linked with moves to Inter Milan, Napoli and Juventus over the past two transfer windows. He’s one worth keeping an eye on.