Soccer

Arsenal’s clever corners and their importance in the Premier League title race

On 10 April 1993, Manchester United needed a win to regain top spot in the inaugural Premier League season.

A draw against Sheffield Wednesday would not have been enough to return to the summit with just five games to go.

The final minutes of that game played a big part in United’s first Premier League title.

After conceding in the 65th minute, Steve Bruce’s two late headers won United the game and returned them to the top of the league. Both goals came from corners – the equalizer came from an outswinger and the winner was from the second phase when Bruce headed Gary Pallister’s cross into the bottom corner to spark jubilant scenes on the touchline from Alex Ferguson (six years before he was knighted) and his assistant Brian Kidd.

Goals from corners have been important for former champions. In the past 16 seasons, only five Premier League winners have scored less than 10 percent of their goals from corners. The highest proportion in that time came at United in 2007-08, when almost a fifth of their goals (18.8 per cent) were scored from corners.

Fast forward 10 years to the summer of 2018 and it’s Liverpool who looked to set pieces to give them an advantage over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. In the 2018-19 pre-season, Jurgen Klopp sat down with his assistants Pep Lijnders and Peter Krawietz to revamp the club’s set-piece routines.

Klopp’s side missed out on the title by a point, but their 14 goals from corners – the highest in the league that season – helped them come so close to City.

The following season Liverpool went one better to win their first league title in 30 years. And guess which other table they topped in 2019-20? You guessed it: goals scored from corners (11).

The warning signs had been there in 2018-19, when Liverpool’s 14 goals from corners accounted for 15.7 per cent of their total; City’s figure that season was 6.3 per cent. Perhaps City had already tried to respond to that by appointing Nicolas Jover as a set-piece specialist in July 2019.

Gradually, City improved their set-pieces and their ratio of goals from corners increased: 7.8 per cent in 2019-20 and 10.8 per cent in 2020-21 as City reclaimed their Premier League crown.

Premier League top scorer from corners

Season Team Goal from corner kick

2018-19

Liverpool

14

2019-20

Liverpool

11

2020-21

Liverpool

11

2021-22

Man City / Liverpool

15

Jover’s departure in July 2021 did not immediately affect City as they promoted under-18 head coach Carlos Vicens to work on their set pieces. What they might not have expected was that Jover’s new employers would be challenging them for the title within two years.

Arsenal’s acquisition of City’s set-piece specialist last season significantly improved their corner output. In the season before Jover joined Arsenal, they had the second-worst record in the league for goals scored from corners (three). Then, when Jover arrived, they jumped to third place (13 goals) only behind City and Liverpool. This season, Mikel Arteta’s side are fourth in terms of goals scored from corners with seven.

Arsenal also have the second highest expected goals (xG) from corners in the Premier League this season at 6.61. And on average they create the most dangerous chances from corners in the league with 6.12 xG per 100 corners.

Arteta had stressed the importance of set pieces after his side beat Aston Villa in March last season when they scored from the second phase of a set piece. “They (set pieces) are a big part of the game, especially in the Premier League,” he said. “You can see the top teams score a lot of goals from set pieces, but then they score another one or two (from open play) and nobody talks about it, but they have made a difference there.

“You can see that happening in the Champions League. You have to dominate all parts of the game. Football is getting faster and more complicated. Everyone is really good and has good knowledge and we have to find advantages where we can.”

With Jover in the coaching staff, Arsenal’s corner routines have been smarter. This could be seen in Arsenal’s first game of the 2022-23 season at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace’s defensive approach on this corner is to have four man-markers, Eberechi Eze (No.10) moving out towards the edge of the box if Arsenal play the short corner and four zone-markers in the six-yard area.

Arsenal have two runners in Gabriel and Granit Xhaka, with Gabriel Jesus in an odd position on the touchline behind the back post and three players outside the box should they lose the ball.

This is where the trick occurs.

As Oleksandr Zinchenko is one of the three players outside the box, and primarily there in case Arsenal lose the ball, he is unmarked. As a result, he has free rein.

Gabriel fakes a move towards the near post and Jesus’ positioning simply drags a Palace player into a dead zone. As for the trio of Arsenal players in the six-yard area and Xhaka, their movement complements the others. The trio maintain their positioning as the corner is played…

… and Xhaka drops deeper, outside the box, to replace Zinchenko (yellow) and ensure Arsenal have three players (Ben White out of the picture) outside the box if they lose the ball.

All this creates space for Zinchenko to head the ball back into the six-yard area, where Arsenal have three players in position for a header. Gabriel Martinelli meets Zinchenko’s headed pass and scores to give Arsenal the lead.

That routine against Palace featured in William Saliba’s opener against Brentford on 18 September. To protect against the late runner out of the box, Brentford’s Aaron Hickey marks Martinelli (No. 11), who is one of three players defending the possible. counting. The rest of Brentford’s defensive system consists of four man-markers (red), four zone-markers in the six-yard box and Bryan Mbeumo towards the edge of the box to defend the short corner.

Arsenal’s setup here is divided into three: Jesus and Xhaka (red) are the blockers, Thomas Partey, White and Gabriel (white) are the runners and Saliba (yellow) is there to attack the near post.

As Bukayo Saka prepares to cross, Jesus (red) is near David Raya to trouble the Brentford goalkeeper and Saliba (yellow) starts his move towards the edge of the 6-yard area and runs from Ivan Toney’s blind side. However, the important player here is Xhaka (red, no. 34). The Swiss midfield leaders block Ben Mee and Pontus Jansson, with the latter unable to leave his zone to track Saliba due to Xhaka’s block.

This allows Saliba (yellow) to freely attack the cross and the supporting cast of Partey, White and Gabriel (white) are there in case Saliba turns the ball on for another header.

They aren’t needed, though, as the Frenchman’s header goes straight in, but having two runners in Partey and Gabriel (White) – White failed to escape the Brentford marker – gives Saliba (Yellow) another opportunity when he attacks the near post .

This was another well executed move and the freedom Partey had in this corner could be attributed to Brentford having one less player inside the six yard area because Hickey had to move out in case Arsenal used it late runner routine they had used against Palace. .

In Arsenal’s recent win against Manchester United, it was another corner routine that brought them their first goal. Twenty minutes earlier, an identical routine had led to a chance for Partey.

Here United have five players marking zonally in addition to two man-markers in Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez (white) and three players towards the edge of the box to defend the short corner.

Before we move on to the short corner, note that Xhaka and Saliba (red) fall as Martinelli plays a set-piece to Martin Odegaard.

In this case, Arsenal only have two players to defend against the counter attack, Saka and Zinchenko (off shot). Therefore Saliba falls when the corner is taken because the routine involves Zinchenko and Arsenal have to have another player with Saka to defend the possible counter.

Xhaka, meanwhile, moves towards the edge of the box…

… because when Odegaard plays the pass to Zinchenko (who was out of bounds on the left), it becomes a four-on-three and Xhaka becomes the free man.

Zinchenko then finds Xhaka’s run into space which catches Scott McTominay and Wout Weghorst (white, near the penalty spot) who is positioned to protect the near post. From there, Xhaka passes it to Partey, who misses the target.

On the second attempt, the routine is successful. Again, United have the same defensive setup with three players to defend against the short corner, two man-markers (white) and the rest are zonal. Saliba and Xhaka (red) start to drop when the short corner is played…

… Xhaka moves to the free space towards the edge of the box and Saliba drops to allow Zinchenko (out of shot) to advance.

Xhaka calls for the pass but Martinelli correctly does not play it as this time McTominay is aware of the Arsenal midfielder’s movement.

So Martinelli plays it backwards to Saliba who plays the ball into Zinchenko and it looks like the Arsenal routine has been neutralized. The reason United don’t switch completely to the side of the ball is that of the four Arsenal players (yellow) on the other side. Eddie Nketiah, the eventual goalscorer, is out of action.

Zinchenko then plays a neat ball into Xhaka and with McTominay still catching up…

… Bruno Fernandes shifts his focus away from Martinelli and towards Xhaka, allowing the Brazilian winger to make a forward run into space with the rest of the United defenders occupied by the Arsenal players in the box.

Xhaka does not play the ball to Martinelli and goes back to Zinchenko who is free to advance and move away from Antony (white) because Saliba (out of shot) is already covering him to protect against the counter.

This forces Christian Eriksen to move up against Zinchenko and thus Arsenal have the overload again, with Xhaka the free man this time. Zinchenko plays the ball into Odegaard…

… who find out that Xhaka has run out. At the other end, Nketiah (yellow) moves away from Aaron Wan-Bissaka to position himself on the defender’s blind side…

… which allows him to attack the cross and head the ball into the net.

Using corners to gain marginal advantages over their opponents will be important for Arsenal in their title race this season. The improvement in this phase of the game since Jover arrived is remarkable.

In the five seasons before Jover joined, Arsenal had not scored more than 10 goals in a single campaign. In his first season (2021-22) they scored 13. This season they are on seven after 19 games.

Arsenal goals from corners since 2016-17

Season Goal from corner kick % of corner goals

2016-17

9

11.7

2017-18

10

13.5

2018-19

8

11

2019-20

9

16.1

2020-21

3

5.5

2021-22

13

21.3

2022-23

7

15.6

Corners proved vital to the title winners in the inaugural Premier League season and with an increased focus on set-pieces in the top flight, they could do so again as Arsenal look to win their first league title since 2003-04.

Arteta’s side have turned a corner.

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