Corners Part One: Why most corners fail to beat the first man and other mysteries

Corners Part One: Why most corners fail to beat the first man and other mysteries

The humble corner kick enjoys something of an image problem. For fans, winning a corner is a cue for much excitement. Yet the event itself is typically a source of anti-climax as the attempted cross fails to find its target and is headed clear by the nearest defender.

And scouts don’t love them either. Of all the tasks associated with writing next opponent reports, the thing I always leave until last, the most onerous task, is the description of corner kicks for and against.

Transcribed in words and diagrams from full-zoom phone camera footage, they are the equivalent of other jobs’ most dreaded admin.

And yet, at the top level especially, it can be a single corner kick that separates the winners and losers, the sheep from the goats, the difference between three points and zero, promotion and relegation. And that’s why everyone in football is obsessed with them: how to score from them and especially how to stop them.

Corners: The numbers game

According to Opta, an individual corner kick will lead to a goal only around 3% of the time (120 goals in the Premier League in 2015/16). Overall there were 1,026 goals scored at an average of 2.7 goals per game in the 2015/16 season. And corners contributed 11.69% of all goals scored. So, clearly attacking and defending corner kicks is an area of both threat and opportunity for coaches.

Overall, set piece goals, (that’s goals from corners, free kicks and throw ins), account for between 25% and 33% of all goals scored in the course of a season. Or put another way that can contribute to a typical return of an additional 0.3 goals per game in the top leagues.

According to the maverick football analyst Ted Knutson of Statsbomb it is possible to more than double the number of goals a team scores from dead-ball situations. He says that the best set-piece-focussed clubs can push this number up to 0.75 or 0.80 goals per game from set pieces alone – presumably by working with him. “That’s not an exaggeration – the keys are in the data.”

He says: “What is the value of adding 15-20 goals a season to your club without having to pay the transfer fee or wages of a 15-20 goal a season striker, which in the modern day is likely to cost £100M all-in?”

A single goal, in England’s moneybags Premier League is estimated to have an economic value of £2.5m according to Knutson. So you could extrapolate that the value of the goals scored from corner kicks in the 2015/16 season equates to a whopping £300m – a figure equivalent to Liverpool’s total earnings for the year ending May 31, 2016.

It certainly sounds very compelling as an argument for spending more time on the training field perfecting corner kick routines and delivery.

So why aren’t there more goals scored from corners?

In the past five seasons, the Premier League’s goals-from-corners ratio has barely moved, varying between 0.32 goals per game to 0.38. And it’s likely broadly similar trends prevail across Europe’s leading leagues or in international football. So, with the status quo appearing to hold sway here, what exactly is going on?

Well, there’s two things.

Firstly, it will always be easier to stop a team scoring than it will be to score yourself. That is as close as we can get to an immutable football law and it explains why well organised teams can consistently hold their own against more talented players, against expectation.

Secondly, for all the time spent on scoring goals from set-pieces (top teams typically enact a rolling play-book of 15-30 attacking corner kicks on a rotational basis) they also spend time on preventing their opponents from scoring through video analysis and next opponent reports.

And this explains why, as defensive and attacking units cancel each other out, nothing really appears to move on much and goals are still most likely to be scored from a classic inswinging corner that falls perfectly for an on-rushing attacker.

The impasse occurs I would guess because, in this endless game of poachers and gamekeepers, attacking and defending strategies mature broadly in tandem.

Are corners getting worse?

It’s long been statistically proven that the holy grail in terms of scoring a goal from a corner comes from winning an attacking header or scoring opportunity beyond the front post, generally five or six yards out, when an attacking player runs in and outmuscles or evade their defending opponents (as per the diagram below).

And Pat Nevin’s BBC video presentation explains just why attacking corners so often don’t beat the first man and breakdown. There’s more to it than the physical fact of crowds tight to the action, raised pitches and jarring 4G turf inserts, put in place to counteract touchline wear and tear, creating non-ideal conditions for taking a corner in some of the world’s best-known stadiums.

The reality is that largely, your side’s attacking corners are cleared by the first defender due to the risk to reward ratio that resides within every flag kick opportunity.

Seeking the unstoppable corner

The goal-side defender comes first to clear the ball, normally followed by an attacker. So, the sweet spot for the ‘unstoppable corner’, is into an imagined rectangular box that is just to the right and above the head of the defender who is covering a zone on the front post edge of the six yard box. This ‘golden zone’ is too high for the first defender to head clear but dipping with pace just right for the in-rushing attacker behind him to convert as he gets across his marker. This normally results in a goal, either directly or indirectly through a touch or ricochet in the packed goalmouth.

That is the theory. It’s just that as a skill it is really, really hard to perfect time after time.
Indeed a best guess according to Opta’s Alex Rathke is that just 14% of these optimum inswinging corners, in a season long study across the five major leagues (2015-16), that were aimed into this ideal location resulted in a ‘pass completion’, and therefore a chance to convert.

But here’s the paradox of what is the ultimate percentage game. Even with say 40% of those corners failing to beat the first defender and fizzling away to nothing, it remains a strategy that is worth persevering with. This is simply because a ball driven into the optimum area that is successfully attacked has the greatest chance of resulting in a goal.

Another major factor, favouring this front post inswinging corner approach, is that if the first defender wins the ball, typically heading it back out towards the touchline, out for another corner, or straight up into the air then there is only a low chance of conceding from a counter attack.

Think about it. If the ball is cleared into a central area of the pitch, on the edge of the defending team’s 18 yard box, then a counter-attack can be on with as few as two passes before the breaking team get one on one with the opposing goalkeeper.

The coach’s fear of the attacking set-piece

Some seasons ago in the now sadly defunct UEFA Champions League magazine Champions, there was an analysis of the declining role of corners as an attacking threat. This feature largely followed the much-publicised and disputed assertions of Chris Anderson and David Sally’s book The Numbers Game ‘that corners are next to worthless’ in terms of goalscoring.

There have been multiple claims made about the growing ineffectiveness of corners over the years. They range from the protection afforded to keepers by referees, to harder, stronger, more athletic and better organised defenders. Now sides at all levels are willing to pull the entire team back to defend corner kicks, the weight of numbers in the area makes scoring from corners very difficult. Others cite the variety of mixed, zonal and man-marking strategies that make modern defending proactive, rather than just reactive.

But what ultimately caught my eye though, in that Champions’ feature was a quote from an eminent youth coach of a major club in Europe with notably small players (if I had to guess I’d guess Barcelona).

The coach, who refused to be named or quoted directly with his title for reasons that will become immediately obvious, said that he specifically instructed his players to kick any attacking corner they won straight out of play. His reasoning was that the chance of being suckered on the counter was greater than the chances of scoring given the personnel at his disposal and the reality of modern, well-drilled setpiece defence – even at academy level.

I do however think that this reasoning represents ‘just a moment in time’, the analysis paralysis of prozone culture, and a cycle of fashion. I don’t think we’ll see teams passing over opportunities to score from corners again. That sounds like a concept that was briefly fashionable in 2013 or so. Like football’s version of cargo pants. I don’t think it is coming back anytime soon.

Every corner is a unique event

After all, the flawed basis for the current negative thinking on corner kicks is eloquently summed up by one simple counter: corners are situational, contextual events in a game and therefore no two corners are ever the same. So, it is folly to lump them all together and look at average numbers that will include the full gamut of situations from teams running down the clock to hold their result, to sides desperately putting their keeper upfront to try and poach an injury time goal in a title decider. And of course there is a massive spread in between of  multiple, alternative scenarios.

It isn’t pretty either theoretically or practically, but the next time your team’s corner kick fails to beat the first man you can congratulate yourself in seeing that your men are successfully playing the percentages. By trying to put the ball in the ‘right’ area while mitigating against the risk of being sucker-punched.

Conversely, if your team starts favouring out-swinging corners, like Man City have done in Guardiola’s first season in England you can be fairly certain that  their priority is not scoring goals but rather seeing a successful pass completion and retaining possession so that:

a) they can rebuild an attack with secure possession.

b) like that U19 coach in the previous example, your team is absolutely petrified about being caught out by a fast break-out from their own attacking corner that is turned over and leaves too many of their men ahead of the ball.

And it is this issue of the corner’s potential to generate a fast break that also explains why a number of teams experiment with just one or no men on the posts defending set-pieces. I am thinking particularly about Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Andre Villas-Boas’ Spurs. Stoke and Hull at various times are also very obvious examples.

Corners: A source of goals at both ends

Pat Nevin, the ex-Chelsea and Everton winger turned pundit, believes that teams are increasingly prepared to take the gamble of having no players on the goal line, in exchange for being able to break up the field from corners, and instantly turn defence into attack. They reason that their chance of scoring from a breakaway is greater than their chance of conceding from a corner. Nevin, a former Scotland international and perennial corner taker has created a second BBC presentation explaining why some teams are no longer leaving men on the posts when defending corners.

And so, the solution that coaches can now come up with involves their marking players filling in on the posts once the ball and the immediate danger has passed their defensive zone on the way in.

This is the difference between so-called active defending and passive defending.

The guys on the posts are an option of last resort, they’re there to hack the ball away or block it if it is going in the corner.  So why not have them actively involved in the overall defensive exercise, either within a zone, or left up-field to exploit a fast break (and take an opponent with them as their marker)?

Why men on the posts still matter

Pat Nevin is right when he says: “With no-one on the posts everyone is generally 10 yards out and the defending team can break at pace.” And this also makes attacking corners even harder to convert as it pushes attackers out from the goal and also gives them marking jobs of their own to do in policing the men who were formerly rooted to the posts.

However, that simple fact discounts two key realities – negatives for the teams that leave posts open:

1. With no margin for error it becomes vitally important that the defending team clear their lines first time. Even if they have moved 1-2 opponent’s bodies out from their box by leaving their guys that were formerly on the post in positions to exploit a fast break chance. If the defenders fail to clear they could be left praying for an offside flag to save them from a simple finish.

2. The keeper, without back-up on the posts, will be less inclined to come off his line to claim crosses. This negates the height and reach advantage that goalkeepers (who can handle the ball, remember) enjoy over attackers. Secondly, it negates the potential for the keeper to break the attack by winning a soft foul under a challenge. Winning such a pressure-relieving free-kick is both highly likely and very welcome for those facing a corner in a game where referees favour goalkeepers over attackers when players come together.

The reality is that attacking and defensive corners remain something of a moveable feast. They exist as part of an ongoing struggle for supremacy between attacks and defences, it is a battle that broadly reinforces the status quo in the long-term but can create temporary, marginal  and very lucrative gains for a few smart teams in the short-term.

As per writing next opponent reports the grind of analysing and working on corner kick routines is simply something that has to be done. But the potential returns in the Premier League alone (an over-representative share of £300m) suggests that time spent on attacking and defensive corner kicks is time and effort well spent.