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The set piece coach

The set piece coach


When Aston Villa invested in a set piece coach, there was push back that it was one coach too many. But the team’s investment in Austin MacPhee is paying off – so what do other teams have to learn?


Hi, I’m Andrew and this is the Playmaker.

One story, every day to make sense of the world of football.

Today… the story of Austin MacPhee, the special set piece coach.

Last weekend, Aston Villa’s Danny Ings scored on his home debut in some serious style. 

The goal came from a long throw, and the striker found himself a pocket of space away from any of the Newcastle defenders to score a near perfect bicycle kick. 

It was sensational.

“Mings again the target, he’s managed a flick-on, oh brilliantly done, magnificent from Danny Ings! Freddy Woodman just rooted to the spot, he’s absolutely no chance of getting anywhere near it but magnificent from Danny Ings.”

Sky Sports commentary

The video’s been viewed millions of times already. 

But it wasn’t by pure luck that Danny Ings found himself in that position.

Aston Villa have appointed a set-piece specialist called Austin MacPhee, to work on their routines. 

And… it’s paying off.

“Great finish from Danny Ings, and a set play we have actually worked on in pre-season. So, super finish and what we brought Danny Ings in for.”

“You’ve got yourself a set-play Coach this season, and the benefits are clear for everyone to see with that goal.”

“Yeah, certainly, and the second goal. Just being organised, everyone on the same page, understanding what we’re gonna do and the second goal comes from that.” 

Dean Smith, speaking to Sky Sports

So this story, really, is about Austin MacPhee. 

He’s only 41, but he’s arrived at Villa with a wealth of experience and an unusual background.

He’s a former footballer who started out in the youth ranks at Forfar Athletic in Scotland, but moved to the US at the age of 20.

There, he played college soccer. Perhaps that’s where he first learned the benefits of detailed analysis. It’s much more common in American sports.

Allow me a side note here: Gareth Southgate went to the US before the 2018 World Cup to study the NBA. The “back screen” move used widely in basketball formed the basis of his “love train” lineup at corners during that tournament.

Anyway, Austin MacPhee didn’t stay in America. He moved on to Romania and then to Japan’s J League to get more experience.

When he returned to Scotland, he’d gained degrees in psychology and English. He’d learned Japanese. And he grabbed attention by taking Cupar Hearts to the Scottish amateur Cup Final at the age of just 27.

So Austin MacPhee’s background is a highly unusual route into coaching in the professional game.

And his globetrotting continued, as he went to work with the Mexican national team for the 2014 World Cup. 

He was tasked with creating complex scouting reports on opposing sides.

And he said that experience convinced him that anything is possible.

And so far, that’s turned out to be true for him.

In 2016, he joined the Northern Ireland squad playing in Euro 2016, their first ever appearance in a European Championships. 

They’d qualified against the odds.

And Austin MacPhee — with his “anything is possible” attitude — looked to find ways that the minnows could gain an advantage. 

Through his detailed analysis, he highlighted where players needed to be alert to the dangers of the opposition, and also where they could exploit potential weaknesses.

“Paddy McNair came into the team he’s used to playing passes and playing in a way that Louis van Gaal wants him to play which is well documented – it’s a slow build up and dominate the game through possession. But we don’t want that, we’re effective and we score goals in under five passes, so you’ve almost got to de-Man United Paddy McNair’s initial thoughts on the pitch and get him to play in our system.”

PLZ Soccer – The Football Show

Beyond all expectations, Northern Ireland made it through to the knockout stages where they were beaten 1-0 by a very strong Wales side.

Head Coach Michael O’Neill praised Austin MacPhee’s “obsessive attention to detail”.

It only takes a glance at his record at every club he’s been involved with to realise that this approach really works.

Aston Villa couldn’t have hired him at a better time, either. Opta stats show that the Premier League hit an all-time low in terms of set-pieces last season.

The money earned from an increased league position means that even a handful of extra goals from MacPhee’s methods would pay his salary several times over.

Yet there has been some push back from those who prefer a traditional approach to the game.

“My concern is when you’ve got a club who’ve already got a manager, who’s supposed to be good at what he does, hence the fact he’s in a Premier League job. He’s already appointed two coaches, who are supposed to be obviously very good, because he’s employed them and trusted them to work alongside him. And then they want to employ a set-piece coach, or a throw-in coach or a defensive coach on top of the coaches they’ve already got. And then you get to the point of ‘Well, what are they doing?’

Danny Murphy, talkSPORT

That’s Danny Murphy. 

He’s already been corrected by Liverpool’s throw-in coach who says he’s been studying his subject every day for 17 years — something an assistant coach would never have time to do. 

“That’s why they bring in specialists like me,” he said.

Like it or not, analytics are here to stay in the game of football. 

And Aston Villa’s Austin MacPhee has already made the path that others will surely follow.

Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford and produced by Imy Harper.