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Xaor's Corner: Set Pieces



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This will, presumably, be the last post I make before the discussion swaps to being about FIFA 13. The demo releases in not much over a week, and though I’ve already had a taste, it’s a long time since those few hours in June, and I’ll be interested to see what has changed since then. In the meantime, I’m going to discuss an area of FIFA which has seen some changes for FIFA 13, but not ones which should change the overall landscape. As a whole, the set pieces in FIFA are, and have been throughout the generation, a fairly weak point – excused more by their relative importance than anything – it’s high time that changed.


The penalty mechanic is one of the only ones which has received significant attention this generation, having been first implemented, like quite a few really great features), in the 2010 WC edition of FIFA. It has been much criticised for not being all that intuitive – but it does allow for a much greater variety of penalties, and PES 2013’s system, which is of the old style, seems prehistoric in comparison.

The shooting side of the penalty mechanic at least seems satisfactory, but the saving side, for me, does not. My primary criticism with the penalty system as it is now is that it doesn’t really reward the striker for taking the risky option. Putting the ball into the corners is difficult and there is a decent chance of a miss, and if you don’t get it quite into the corner it will be saved by a keeper diving in the right direction.

If on the other hand you hit the penalty far enough to the left or right to not be saved by a stationary keeper, but no further, you’ll generally find that a diving keeper will go too far. It’s ironic really, because this often can mean that a player new to the system, who usually underestimates how long they need to hold left or right, will take a penalty which is incredibly difficult to save even if you go in the right direction. Ridiculously, often the best way to save penalties is to sidestep just before the penalty is taken – a tactic I don’t think I’ve ever seen in real life. Most of all, it has created a situation where a good penalty is usually easier to save than a bad one.

I guess the problem in part is that while the new system allows the striker to hit the ball pretty much anywhere into the net, the keeper still has quite distinct areas in which he can make a save. Personally I feel the solution is to introduce a more complex mechanic for the goalkeeper saves, allowing them to react more to the situation and override the specific input they were given. If the ball is going a bit to the right and the keeper is told to dive right, he would be able to adjust his dive as the penalty is taken so that he doesn’t overshoot the ball. Obviously this is something which should be heavily stat dependent.

There are some issues on the striking side of things too – you shouldn’t be restricted to just chipping down the middle for example, but more importantly there are some fairly exploitative ways of taking penalties. One way I found a while back was that you could completely neglect the side-to-side timing element of the penalty and fully power your shot so long as you aimed directly downwards – you’ll get a penalty which is randomly aimed, but in the net and hit with maximum power.

Shooting from freekicks

Though the freekick system is indeed getting an array of improvements this year, we do know for sure that the core elements of the system will remain the same as they have been for many years. We’ll now have the ability to encroach and add people to the wall, and we can now use dummies as well – but none of these added features will mean that much when the core freekick mechanic will be as dull as ever.

Dull primarily because we have very limited choice in how we try and score them. You always have to shoot to the unguarded post, you always have to get it pretty tight to the post, and that’s pretty much it. Watch scored freekicks in real life and there is a remarkable variety. They don’t have to be pinpoint – they can be hit in at the guarded post – a lot of unpredictable movement can be applied to the ball. These things are all missed by FIFA’s freekick system, and again, a large portion of the problem comes from the keepers.

The problem can be envisioned most easily by imagining a rectangle extending out of the keeper to represent the area of the goal he will be able to make a save to. The tendency is that for any given freekick you are left with a small slither where you can score. Most veterans will have noticed that by moving the keeper towards the middle of the goal (by moving the wall in the opposite direction a few steps), that imaginary rectangle will cover the entire goal, and it will become nearly impossible to score.

The only reason that particular issue isn’t a gamebreaker is that not that many people know about it, and a different issue with freekicks allows you to get around it. When changing the freekick setup, for instance by changing taker, the entire setup resets, including the wall/keeper position. It is a bit of a saviour at the moment, but it does need to change in the long run. The exploit therefore is to change setup and take the freekick as fast as possible, which means that the defensive side cannot properly set up to defend.

That needs to be fixed. It could be done by having the transition occur live and not going to black screen, but that could take a long time if a player in the box had to swap with the freekick taker 40 yards away. The reset could no longer change the position of the defenders – but what if the setup change did necessitate the defensive setup changing too? Probably the best solution would be to have a small delay before a freekick could be taken which would restart whenever a blackscreen reset occured.

That will prevent an exploit, but do nothing to introduce greater variety to freekick taking and to solve the original state problem. This goes back to the main problem with FIFA’s keepers in general – their reaction rates, their infallibility, and the apparent shallowness of the anticipatory intelligence. FIFA’s keepers don’t make the types of error which lead to a great variety of freekicks (or goals in general). They can’t misread the trajectory of the ball due to curve or a knuckling shot, they don’t get mislead by the expectation that the freekick will be taken towards the unguarded post. These problems have a dramatic effect on goalkeepers generally – I wrote about that in both this article about goalkeepers and this one about anticipation – but it is most damaging to freekicks.

Aside from goalkeeper improvements, there are other changes which could be made. It would be really useful if we could position our keeper independently of the wall, and some tuning could be in order so that top spin isn’t always the answer – but the importance of these changes is entirely dwarfed by what a goalkeeper upgrade could mean for FIFA. The more I think about it, the more I consider goalkeepers a likely top-5 priority issue for FIFA 13.

Indirect freekicks and Goalkick

A very different set of problems exist for out-of-range freekicks. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m always pretty frustrated if I get a freekick in my own half because I see almost no advantage to getting one. It’s simply to risky to play a pass short – aiming passes from freekicks is a tad unpredictable and if they go wrong there is a major chance you will concede. You almost always have to resort to punting it up there and hoping – and as such you tend to lose possession because your opponent fouled you, potentially having already wrecked your breaking attack to add further insult to injury.

The inability to take a safe short pass, which also extends very much to goalkicks, is entirely unrealistic – your passing options will undoubtedly out number how many opponents can mark them, and they will also look to find space if they have none. Because neither of those things happen, making a short pass is always a bit of a risk.

PES crudely solves this issue by restricting the movement of the attackers to prevent them from marking the short passing options. It’s not smart, but it does work and it is better than nothing. The ideal solution would be to have the defenders being more aware of their markers, always intending to make sure you have a safe pass. If it was available, cheeky attackers would quickly get bored of even trying.

There is an additional problem present with goalkicks regarding how the teams form up to receive one. Without fail, the teams will set up very tightly (with a very small gap between the defence, midfield and attack), and usually the attackers and the defensive line will be on the halfway line. In real life it’s rare that the defensive line would be nearly that high. Particularly when taking on a keeper with a more serious goalkick it’s not rare to see the defenders nearer to their own box.

This is one of those things which advances FIFA’s end-to-end nature. If a clean header is made by the attacking team, they can quickly break into an attack from there as they only have the defenders to get past and a lot of space to move into. If a clean header is made by a defender, it’s quite feasible to get it straight back into the attack. Most typically you can expect a real goalkick to result in the ball falling to the midfield one way or another – the very simple factor of how the teams form up for a goalkick in FIFA results altogether differently.

Crossed freekicks and Corners

I’ve already written about my feelings on these areas at some length in a previous Xaor’s Corner article, here. I’ve posted a shortened version below:

In FIFA 11, there were a huge number of complaints about how crossing, corners, and heading worked. Many, if not most, believed that the balance has been improved considerably in FIFA 12, but it’s still fair to say that the aerial battle is one of the least predictable and most frustrating areas of FIFA today, often leading to one feeling that headed goals are preordained, and little down to user control.

When playing FIFA, there is one very major and clear difference [from reality] which is really the crux of the issue: aerial battles are almost always limited to one player from each team going to head the ball, plus the goalkeeper.

The ideal solution is obvious: EA could remove the forced one-on-one situation, and free it up so that many players can go for the ball. If it only it were so easy – EA surely would have done this already if there weren’t considerable technical walls to doing so. We can hope that they make some headway with this, but even if they improve it somewhat it seems unlikely that the restrictions could ever entirely be removed in the short term.

So what else could be done to hide these problems? The most obvious would be making further improvements to player switching. Currently the game seems to choose the player who can get to the ball the easiest. In most situations this is fine, and works a treat, but it all too often lets you down in an aerial battle. It could, for example, look at a number of other factors when the ball is in the air. It could take into account which players were in front of the attackers, as well as player attributes like height, jumping, and heading ability before choosing the player. This would hopefully result in aerial battles being won in a more believable, predictable and fair manner than they are currently.

One other area to look at would be the tactical side of things – currently the tactical setup when it comes to corners and indirectly taken freekicks is non-existent. We have to rely on the CPU to choose where players should stand, with only the ability to control the ‘mentality’ of your team which dictates how many players will go up or stay back. It would be nice if we had more control here – able to allocate players to positions or duties.

Thanks for reading, please comment with any thoughts/ideas. There need be no guesses as to what the next article will be about! See you on the other side and enjoy the demo.

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