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 remaining.

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

After the goals in the 65th minute, Steve Bruce’s two late headers won United the game and put them back at the top of the league. Both goals came from corners – the equalizer was from an outside forward and the winner was from the second leg as 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.

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

Fast forward 10 years to the summer of 2018 and it’s Liverpool who were eyeing the groups to give them an edge 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 close in on 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 2019-2020? You guessed it: goals 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 percent. Perhaps City had already tried to react to this by appointing Nicolas Jover as a set-up specialist in July 2019.

Gradually, City improved its set-pieces and the corner kick ratio increased: 7.8 percent in 2019-2020 and 10.8 percent in 2020-2021 as City regained its Premier League crown.

The Premier League’s top scorers from corners

The season Team Corner goals

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 coach Carlos Vicens to work in their groups. What they could not have foreseen 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 massively improved their performance from corners. In the season before Jover joined Arsenal, they had the second-worst record in the league in terms of goals scored from corners (three). Then, when Jover arrived, they jumped to third (13 goals) just behind City and Liverpool. This season, Mikel Arteta’s side are fourth in terms of goals scored from corners with seven.

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Arsenal also have the second highest expected goals (xG) from corners in the Premier League this season at 6.61. And on average, they are creating the most dangerous chances from corners in the league at 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 he scored from the second group stage. “They (set-ups) 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 one or two (from open play) and nobody talks about it, but they’ve made a difference there.

“You see it happening in the Champions League. You have to dominate every part 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 on the coaching staff, Arsenal’s corner routines have been smarter. This can be seen in Arsenal’s first game of the 2022-23 season at Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace’s defensive approach to this corner is to have four players, Eberechi Eze (No 10) moving towards the edge of the box in case Arsenal play the short corner and four zonal markers in the six yard area.

Arsenal have two runners in Gabriel and Granit Xhaka, with Gabriel Jesus in a unique position near the second line beyond the back post and three players outside the box in case they lose the ball.

This is where the trick happens.

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

Gabriel fakes a move towards the near post and Jesus’ positioning simply drags a Palace player into the dead zone. As for Arsenal’s trio of 6-yarders and Xhaka, their movement complements the others. The trio maintain their position as the corner is played…

… and Xhaka drops deeper, outside the box, to replace Zinchenko (yellow) and ensure Arsenal have three players (Ben White is off) outside the area in case they lose the ball.

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

This routine against Palace was included in William Saliba’s opener against Brentford on 18 September. To defend against the late runner from outside the box, Brentford’s Aaron Hickey marks Martinelli (no.11), who is one of three players defending the potential. against. The rest of Brentford’s defensive system consists of four markers (red), four zonal markers in the six yard box and Bryan Mbeumo towards the edge of the area to protect the short corner.

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Arsenal’s formation here is split 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 place the cross, Jesus (red) is close to David Raya to thwart the Brentford keeper and Saliba (yellow) begins his move towards the edge of the six-yard box, making a run at Ivan Toney . However, the important player here is Xhaka (red, no. 34). The Swiss midfielder drives to block Ben Mee and Pontus Jansson, with the latter unable to leave his area to track Saliba due to Xhaka’s block.

This allows Saliba (yellow) to attack the cross freely, and the support group of Partey, White and Gabriel (white) is there in case Saliba drops the ball for a second header.

However, they are not needed as the Frenchman’s header goes straight, but having two runners in Partey and Gabriel (White) – White failed to escape Brentford’s mark – provides another opportunity for Saliba (Yellow) when attacking the nearby pillar.

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 box, as Hickey had to leave in case Arsenal used their late run routine 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 scoring in the area, in addition to two players in Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez (white) and three players towards the edge of the area to protect the short corner.

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

In this case, Arsenal only have two players to defend against the counter-attack, Saka and Zinchenko (off the shot). This is why Saliba goes down when a corner is taken, because the routine involves Zinchenko and Arsenal should have another player with Saka to defend the potential counter attack.

Meanwhile, Xhaka moves towards the edge of the box…

… because when Odegaard plays the pass to Zinchenko (who was off the shot from the left) it becomes four against three, and Xhaka becomes free.

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

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

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

Xhaka calls for the pass, but Martinelli doesn’t play it correctly because this time McTominay is aware of the Arsenal midfielder’s movement.

So Martinelli plays it back to Saliba, who lays the ball to Zinchenko and it looks like Arsenal’s routine has been neutralized. The reason why United don’t move completely to the wing is because of the four Arsenal players (yellow) on the other side. Eddie Nketiah, the last goalscorer, is out of action.

Zinchenko then plays a clean through ball to Xhaka and with McTominay still catching…

… Bruno Fernandes shifts his focus away from Martinelli and towards Xhaka, which allows the Brazilian winger to make a foray forward into space with the rest of United’s backline occupied by Arsenal players in the box.

Xhaka doesn’t play the ball to Martinelli and it goes back to Zinchenko who is free to advance and get away from Antony (white) because Saliba (off the shot) is already covering him to protect against the counter attack.

This forces Christian Eriksen to move towards Zinchenko and so Arsenal are in overdrive again, with Xhaka free this time. Zinchenko plays the ball to Odegaard…

… who finds that Xhaka ends up outside. At the other end, Nketiah (yellow) breaks away from Aaron Wan-Bissaka to position himself in the defender’s blind spot…

… 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 key for Arsenal in their title run this season. The improvement in this phase of the game since Jover’s arrival is evident.

In the five seasons before Jover joined, Arsenal had failed to score more than 10 goals in a single season. In his first season (2021-22), they scored 13. This season they are at seven after 19 games.

Arsenal’s goals from corners since 2016-17

The season Corner goals % of goals from corners

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 crucial for the title winners in the Premier League’s first season, and with a greater 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 team is backed into a corner.



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