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 summit with only five games remaining afterwards.

The final minutes of that 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 United the game, and returned them to the top of the league. Both goals came from corner kicks — the equalizer was from an outswinger and the winner was from the second phase 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.

Goals from corners have been important for previous champions. In the past 16 seasons, only five Premier League winners have scored less than 10 per cent of their goals from corners. The highest share in that time came at United 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 were looking to set pieces to give them an advantage over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. In the pre-season before 2018-19, 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 get 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 goals; City’s figure that season was 6.3 per cent. Perhaps City had already tried to react to that by appointing Nicolas Jover as 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 got their Premier League crown back.

Premier League top scorers from corners

Season Team Goals from corners

2018-19

Liverpool

14

2019-20

Liverpool

11

2020-21

Liverpool

11

2021-22

Man City / Liverpool

15

Jover’s departure in July 2021 didn’t affect City immediately as they promoted under-18s head coach Carlos Vicens to work on their set pieces. What they might 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 set-piece specialist last season massively improved their corner output. 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) only behind City and Liverpool. This season, Mikel Arteta’s side sit 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 with 6.61. And on average, they are creating the most dangerous chances from corners in the league with 6.12 xG per 100 corners.

Arteta had 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 (set pieces) are a big part of the game, in the Premier League especially,” 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’ve made a difference there.

“You see in the Champions League it’s happening. You have to dominate every part of the game. Football is becoming faster and more complicated. Everyone is really good and has a good knowledge and we have to find advantages where we can.”

With Jover on the coaching staff, Arsenal’s corner routines have been more clever. 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 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 peculiar position by 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 towards 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 keep their positioning as the corner is being played…

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

All of 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.

That routine against Palace was factored into William Saliba’s opener against Brentford on September 18. To protect against the late runner from outside of 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 towards the edge of the box to defend the short corner.

Arsenal’s setup 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 is preparing to put in the cross, Jesus (red) is near David Raya to disrupt the Brentford goalkeeper and Saliba (yellow) starts his movement towards the edge of the six-yard area, making the run from Ivan Toney’s blindside. The important player here though is Xhaka (red, No 34). The Swiss midfielder manages to block Ben Mee and Pontus Jansson, with the latter unable to leave his zone to track Saliba because of Xhaka’s blocking.

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

They are not needed though because the Frenchman’s header goes straight in, but having two runners in Partey and Gabriel (white) — White failed to escape the Brentford marking — provides another option for Saliba (yellow) when attacking the near post.

This was another well-executed move and the freedom Partey had on this corner could be attributed to Brentford having one player fewer inside the six-yard area because 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 beforehand, 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) are dropping as Martinelli plays the set piece to Martin Odegaard.

In this instance, Arsenal have only two players to defend against the counter-attack, Saka and Zinchenko (out of shot). That’s why Saliba drops 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 towards the edge of the box…

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

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

On the second try, 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 once 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 doesn’t play it because 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 is neutralized. The reason United don’t completely shift towards the ball side is that of the four Arsenal players (yellow) on the other side. Eddie Nketiah, the eventual scorer, is out of shot.

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, which allows the Brazil winger to make a forward run into the space with the rest of the United defenders occupied by the Arsenal players in the box.

Xhaka doesn’t play the ball towards 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 protect against the counter.

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

… who finds Xhaka’s run out wide. On the other side, 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 has 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

Season Goals from corners % 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 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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