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

On April 10, 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 top with just five games to go.

The final minutes of the game played a major role in United’s first Premier League title.

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

Goals from corners have been important for previous champions. In the last 16 seasons, only five Premier League winners have scored less than 10 per cent of their goals from corners. The highest share in that period was United’s in 2007-08, when nearly a fifth of their goals (18.8 per cent) were scored from corner kicks.

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

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

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

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

Gradually, City improved their set pieces and their ratio of goals from corners increased: 7.8 percent in 2019-20 and 10.8 percent in 2020-2021 as City got their Premier League crown back.

Premier League top scorers from corners

Time Team Goals of tails

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-18s head coach Carlos Vicens to work on their set-ups. What they could not have anticipated was that Jover’s new employers would be challenging them for the title within two years.

Arsenal’s acquisition of City’s feisty specialist last season massively improved their corner production. 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) behind only 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 with 6.61. And on average, they create the most dangerous corner chances in the league at 6.12 xG per 100 corners.

Arteta emphasized the importance of set pieces after his side beat Aston Villa in March of last season when they scored from the second phase of a set piece. “They (states) are a big part of the game, especially in the Premier League,” he said. “You 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 made a difference there.

“You see in the Champions League it’s happening. You have to dominate every part of the game. Football is pretty much quicker 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 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) to move to 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 an odd position on the byline beyond the back post and three players outside the box in case they lose the ball.

This is where the trick occurs.

Since Oleksandr Zinchenko is one of the 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 to the near post, and Jesus’ positioning simply drags one Palace player to 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 angle plays out…

…and Xhaka drops deeper, outside the box, to replace Zinchenko (yellow) and make sure Arsenal have three players (Ben White not in the picture) outside the box in case they lose the ball.

All this creates the 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.

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

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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 is preparing to put the cross, Jesus (red) is next to David Raya to destroy the Brentford goalkeeper and Saliba (yellow) starts his movement to the edge of the six-yard area, and the run of Ivan Toni’s blindside. The important player here though is Xhaka (red, no. 34). The Swiss midfielder managers block Ben Mee and Pontus Jansson, with the latter unable to leave his zone to track Saliba due to Xhaka’s blocking.

This allows Saliba (yellow) to freely attack the circle, and the supporting cast of Party, White and Gabriel (White) is there in case Saliba flicks the ball on for a second header.

They are not necessary because the header of the French goes straight in, but with two runners in party and Gabriel (White) – White failed to escape the Brentford marking – gives another option for Saliba (Yellow) when attacking the near post.

It was another well-executed move and the freedom Partey had in that corner could be attributed to Brentford having one player less in the six-yard area as Hickey had to move out in case Arsenal used the 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 an opportunity for partying.

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

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

In this example, Arsenal have only two players to defend against the counter, Saka and Zinchenko (out of shot). That’s why Saliba falls when the corner is taken, because the routine involves Zinchenko and Arsenal need to have another player with Saka to defend the possible counter.

Xhaka meanwhile, moves to the edge of the box…

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

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

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On the second try, the routine succeeds. 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 fall once the short corner is played…

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

Xhaka calls for the pass, but Martinelli can’t play it correctly as McTominay is aware of the Arsenal midfielder’s movement.

Martinelli plays it back to Saliba, who plays the ball into Zinchenko and it looks like the Arsenal routine has been neutralized. The reason United did not fully shift to the ball side is that of the four Arsenal players (yellow) on the other side. Eddie Nketiah, the eventual scorer, was not shot.

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

… Bruno Fernandes shifts his focus away from Martinelli and onto Xhaka, which allows the Brazilian winger to run into space with the rest of the United defenders occupied by the Arsenal players in the box.

Xhaka doesn’t 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 for him to defend against the counter.

This forces Christian Eriksen to move up to Zinchenko and so Arsenal have the overload again, with Xhaka the free man this time. Zinchenko plays the ball in Odegard…

… Who finds Xhaka’s run out wide. At the other end, Nketiah (yellow) moves away from Aaron Wan-Bissaka to position himself in the defender’s blindside…

… 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 charge this season. The improvement in this phase of the game since Jover arrived is notable.

In the five seasons before Jover joined, Arsenal had failed to score 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

Time Goals of tails % 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 crucial for the title winners in the first Premier League season, and with an increased focus on putting 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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