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Can Danish innovation be the key to success from set-plays for Newcastle? Newcastle's poor record from set-pieces needs to be addressed - and a club in Denmark has the answer.

Byline: Mark Douglas NUFC Editor mark.douglas@ncjmedia.co.uk

THE month is March, the venue is the modest 10,000-capacity stadium of Randers FC and we are deep into the fi-nal round of a key title fight in the Danish Superliga.

The visitors - an unfashionable but recently revolutionary club called FC Midtjylland - are pressing for a winner against the third-placed hosts and get a fortuitous 88th-minute free-kick to the left of their hosts' penalty area. It's in a deliciously inviting position and what happens next is a goal that is much more significant than a mere three points on the way to a shock title win, the first in their history, for the modestly-run Midtjylland.

So here's what happens. Former Denmark midfielder Jakob Paulsen steps up and with a flash of his right boot bends it at chest height into the box, where two purple shirts make deliberate dummy runs. A surge of anxiety in the home defence takes over and the ball travels past a clutch of players before clipping the post and nestling in the back of the net.

It looks like a fluke but it's not. FC Midtjylland - a middle of the road club playing in a nondescript Danish town some four hours away from Copenhagen - are football's least well-known pioneers and what they do from dead balls should be a lesson to Newcastle United.

The Danish side are under the control of Brentford's owner Matthew Benham, a former hedge fund manager and sports bettor who believes he has come up with a statistical model that will revolutionise football.

You may know him as the man who sacked Mark Warburton after he led the club into the play-offs. But if his method of thinking proves correct, you'll soon regard him as the man who reversed years of ingrained thinking in a game that has proved surprisingly resistant to change.

Bensham does things differently. At Midtjylland he appointed 32-year-old Rasmus Ankersen, an ex-footballer, author and innovator who impressed him with his book the Gold Mine Effect - in which he claims to have discovered the secret of high performance in sport.

They believe that the only way to overcome the advantage that traditional Danish powerhouses like FC Copenhagen have is to innovate - so that is what they have done, making every decision at the club based on data.

There's a fantastic, in-depth article on this football revolution on a Dutch website called De Correspondent. Author Michiel de Hoog chronicles the way FC Midtjylland no longer track their progress by the league table but according to their mathematical model, which is a more accurate representation - they think - of what areas of their performance need to be improved and where they are performing well.

While the jury is still out on whether this experiment will transfer to English football - next year they will roll it out at Brentford - it is something that any club worth its salt should at least be paying attention to. And a very interesting part of this 'revolution' is their attitude to set -pieces. Midtjylland are Denmark's freekick specialists.

De Hoog writes: "Set pieces are discussed in training and in a formal monthly meeting, with Ankersen, the coaches, and three players present, and sometimes an outside expert is asked to comment. Last month, we had a former American football player from the NFL sitting in."

Which brings us to Newcastle United, a club so woefully poor at defending and creating chances at set pieces that it has to be a priority for Steve McClaren when he sits down with his coaching staff after being appointed next week.

This season United scored seven times from set-pieces - the 14th most in the league. In 2013/14 it was eight (14th again), and in 2012/13 it was six (18th in the league). In 2011/12 it was eight again (18th in the league).

All of that was under Alan Pardew. In 2010/11, Chris Hughton's final year, it was 20 - which made them the most dangerous from set-pieces in the Premier League. It has been some fall since then. Pardew's explanation for it was simple: personnel. The man who wanted little to do with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa had lost Andy Carroll - his best defender from corners and his best attacker from set-pieces - and felt it was a downward spiral since then.

"The set-play situation was a problem," he reflected earlier this year.

"I kept telling the board and the scouting team that we needed to get somebody to score from set-plays.

"Delivery was a problem after Cabaye and we struggled.

"I come to Palace and in place were two or three attackers of the ball, great delivery and a system that was in place."

But United had Cabaye from 2011 until 2013 and the record was poor. And despite John Carver saying back in May that his team had too many "five foot seven jockeys" United also still have some big players - Mike Williamson and Moussa Sissoko being key among them. Fabricio Coloccini, aerially, isn't that bad.

United, who had hoped Siem de Jong would solve some of these problems, clearly have to address this in the transfer market. Players who can deliver the ball and attack it must be recruited.

But there is a lesson in the innovation of Midtjylland. Handed the resources they have, successive United bosses seem to have resorted to the attitude that they cannot make inroads into this depressing trend. The Danes have four strikers on the book and only one of them is over 6ft. So they innovated and challenged what they had.

Have Newcastle done this? If so, it's been hard to see where the different approaches come from. Too often a ball slung to Williamson has resorted in nothing.

And it is costing the club. In a revealing feature in the Guardian last year it was reported that 31% of the goals scored in Europe's big five leagues in the last three years have come from set-pieces - one in three. Atletico Madrid won La Liga off the back of them last year, and have scored roughly 40% of their goals since Diego Simeone's arrival from dead balls.

West Brom, this year's top dead ball specialists, scored 20 goals from set-pieces, the difference between surviving and not.

No one would argue that they want Newcastle to become a team that relies solely on this tactic - or resembles a Tony Pulis side - but there is a middle ground and United's inability to improve is a damning indictment of those who have been responsible for drawing up their plans.

Why is it just the innovators of Denmark, with far fewer resources than United, who have challenged dead ball orthodoxy? If McClaren is going to improve Newcastle, and is really as good a coach as those who speak up for him claim, this has to be one of his priorities.

CAPTION(S):

| Yohan Cabaye was a threat from |free-kicks, but even with the Frenchman in the team, United were largely ineffective from deadballs - Alan Pardew (below) felt he didn't have the right players to exploit set-pieces
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Jun 6, 2015
Words:1181
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