AFC Wimbledon: set-piece kings aim to make Arsenal dance to their tune

It is Monday morning at AFC Wimbledon’s training base and as the squad filter up the clubhouse stairs to the sound of the 80s before a team meeting, it is hard to believe they lost their last match. An eclectic playlist of songs picked by all players and staff, from Rapper’s Delight to Bob Marley’s back catalogue, booms from the speakers and last week the head coach, Mark Robinson, added another hit into the mix. “I was listening to Heart 80s and Kool & The Gang’s Let’s Go Dancin’ came on,” he says. “In the office everyone just started dancing. I thought it might make a bit of an anthem, win a game, get that playing after. I want people to enjoy coming to work.”

Wimbledon are on the fringes of the League One play-off places after an impressive start but have this week shifted their focus to their visit to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup third round. If they score at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday there is a good chance it will stem from a set piece. They have managed nine goals from set pieces so far this season – more than any other team in the top four tiers – and it is no coincidence. One of Robinson’s first decisions on taking permanent charge in February was to appoint the academy coach Andy Parslow as restarts coach, a role focused on throw-ins, free-kicks and corners, for and against.

“Make sure you give me a shout out,” Will Nightingale says, grinning, as he heads on to the training pitches. The defender is a shining example of hard work coming to fruition. He has four goals from set pieces this season, eclipsing his tally of three across the previous six years. “My missus is sick of me pausing corners on TV, rewinding and then watching them back,” Parslow says, smiling. Inspired by Liverpool’s throw-in coach, Thomas Grønnemark, he spent the first lockdown analysing Wimbledon’s corners on InStat – he watched every one from the halted 2019-20 season – and compared their conversion rate (just under 2.5%) with their league rivals’. Whenever Wimbledon or the opposition have a set piece, Parslow can be seen orchestrating things from the technical area. “We are not wild and wacky, it is just about being effective.”

Wimbledon also have a performance mindset coach in Steve Sallis and are trialling a substitutes coach, Sammy Lander. On the whiteboard behind Robinson are the words “starters” and “finishers”, the latter term coined by the England rugby union head coach Eddie Jones for his replacements. A few years ago Jones visited Robinson, then Wimbledon’s head of academy coaching. “I was so excited because I’m meeting Eddie Jones,” he says. “But he is so humble and he was asking me questions. I was thinking: ‘Stop asking me questions because I want to pick your brains!’ There were little things that he loved. All of our academy players wear a white sock on their weaker foot because we want to develop two-footed players, so they try to earn the right to wear two blue socks. That is still the case.”

Wimbledon’s innovative approach does not stop there. As well as signing Henry Lawrence on loan from Chelsea in the summer, Robinson made a presentation to the Premier League club about taking one of their coaches on secondment. Last season Justin Cochrane, now Manchester United’s head of player development, spent time at the club on secondment from the England setup and this season Chelsea Under-18s assistant manager, James Simmonds works with Robinson, Rob Tuvey, who started last season as Wimbledon’s Under-18s manager, and the rest of the staff. “It is good to have someone come in, challenge you and add to what you’re doing,” says Robinson.

Robinson believes standing on the touchline at Arsenal in charge of the club he has worked at since 2004, when he coached the under-nines, will be surreal. Before becoming a full-time academy coach, he worked in numerous jobs. He collected royalties for the Performing Rights Society in London’s West End, set up a soft-play business and did two days a week as a Chelsea tour guide at Stamford Bridge to develop his presentation skills. One of the other guides was an Elvis Presley impersonator and another went on Mastermind with Chelsea his specialist subject. “I can’t help sometimes thinking I’m waiting for someone to knock on the door, tell me it is all finished and say it was all a dream,” Robinson says.

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