Corner kicks are always greeted with a thunderous
roar. They bring hope, however hopeless they actually prove to be.
Statistically, corners are football’s least effective set-piece and are in a worrying
state of decline. Since 2000, across Europe’s big-five
leagues, they have led to a goal just 3.3 percent of the time. 4 in 10 corners don’t clear the first man,
16 percent result in an attempt on goal, just 7
percent end up on target and, perhaps most damningly, only one in every hundred
leads directly to a goal. Arguably the biggest casualty of the Premier
League era is the corner. It was a potent threat in England’s old
Division One. Beefy centre-backs, like Manchester United’s Steve Bruce would charge forward,
providing a regular threat to goal. Since the post war era until the inception
of the Premier League in 1992, corners created goals 6.5 percent of time. So why has that
number more than halved? The simplest theory is defenders have become
more astute, especially since the advent of video technology. They know what’s coming
and can practice resisting it in training. Teams also commit less players forward to
prevent being hit on the counterattack. This is a
slightly irrational fear, since only 7 of the Premier League’s 56 fast break goals
came from corners last season. Nonetheless, whereas
Arsenal’s 2003-2004 ‘Invincibles’ averaged almost 6 attackers inside the box per corner,
by the time Arsene Wenger left in 2018 that number had dropped to under 5.
But the problem runs deeper than just savvier defenders or less cavalier attackers. It can
also be pinned on the irrational rise of the out-swinging
corner. Of the 120 goals scored from corners in the Premier League last season
48 came from outswingers. Yet they accounted for
62 percent of the 3,911 taken. This is statistically mirrored in Spain, Germany,
Italy and France. Outswinging corners have less pace and more
velocity, providing defenders with extra time to deal with danger. Even if the attacker
wins the ball they tend to be further from goal and
it’s tougher, with a higher (and often lofted) ball-flight, to generate power.
There are ways to combat this, like a longer run ups from outside the box, or heading the
ball firmly into the ground first, but these two trends have faded from fashion.
Inswinging corners have their own issues. They come with greater risk but much bigger
rewards. The ideal delivery is to whip in the ball at a lower, inviting angle just past
the penalty spot, leaving onrushing goalkeepers in limbo. But inswingers have no margin for
error: almost 55 percent failed to clear the first man in the Premier League last
season. Some of the league’s biggest teams appear
to have also forgotten the optimal delivery zone,
instead aiming for the spot between the penalty spot and six-yard area. To be effective here,
a drilled cross is usually required and that’s far simpler to execute in open play from more
beneficial angles and in a less congested box.
On paper, Manchester United, Tottenham and West Ham were the most wasteful
last season. In fact, the trio managed just four goals collectively using this tactic.
Tottenham’s Cristian Eriksen was the biggest individual offender. 66% percent of the Dane’s
corners were cleared at the near post and his crossing accuracy was a miserable 14.4
percent. The top teams at inswingers in 2017-2018 were
Arsenal, Manchester Cit, Chelsea and Bournemouth. They not only scored
19 goals between them, but saw over 10 percent of inswingers lead to a shot
on target. Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has always
favoured the inswinger. They accounted for 52 percent of his corners at Bayern Munich
between 2013-2016 and 55 percent of those during his Barcelona stint between 2008-2012,
thus bucking the trend and leading to 41 goals in the process.
Under Pep, City’s return of 8 goals from 284 corners last season was also much improved.
Before he joined, City had the fourth-worst return from corners, managing a goal every
81 compared to one every 35.5 now. Guardiola
is also an advocate of the much- maligned short-corner. Since 2000, it has led to more
goals, chances and shots on target than any other typeof delivery.
Short-corners, especially when taken quickly, offer better angles for both out- and
inswingers. They have a higher success of beating the first man and give attackers time
to make unpredictable and quick movements, forcing defenders to react more quickly.
But ultimately the success of any type of corner is determined by quality of delivery.
Bizarrely, in the modern game, a number of top clubs don’t do their corner takers any
favours, providing them with an slender run-up zone. For instance, the touchline at Old
Trafford is on a slope, while Tottenham’s new 1 billion-pound stadium has just a foot
of turf available before a steep decline towards the
advertising boards. The perfect corner can be assessed on both
the the area the ball was placed and, regardless of delivery, whether the end result led to
a meaningful chance or goal. Using this criterion, Pep Guardiola argues the best corner taker
in the Premier League is James Ward-Prowse. But the Southampton midfielder’s numbers
are actually quite uninspiring with just 8 assists
from 247 corners, although his crossing accuracy is a respectable 28 percent.
Based on players with over 150 Premier League appearances, the most valuable Premier
League corner takers are Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas , Ryan Giggs
and Chris Brunt. Part of this quartet’s success is varied
ball placement. Football’s ‘Millennium’ fad is to put
the ball as close to the outside of the corner arc as possible. This allows for the longest
possible run up and the white line also provides a point of reference for impact. But it can
lead to predictable delivery. This still works fine for inswingers, but
outswingers actually have slightly more success when the ball is placed nearer to the flag.
So, the key to taking better corners: use inswingers, move the ball-placement back and
commit an extra player to the box. As for those vilified short-corners, they’ll probably
continue to get bad press. But as statistical analysis improves and becomes better accepted,
affording defences an advantage in preparation, they just might be the corner’s best hope
of staying relevant.