Taking the long view on short corners

Swindon Town Corner Flags 17

Many Swindon fans loathe them as much as substituting Alan Connell but short corners deserve their place in Town’s armoury, says Alex Cooke.

We should blame Shaun Taylor. From the 1992/93 season onwards, when that slab of Devonian muscle piled in 13 goals, mostly off his Neanderthal brow, Swindon fans have expected – no demanded – that Town should score from corners.

It looked so simple back then: Bodin, Taylor, goal! So why do the team now bother with all these mimsy, complicated, wasteful short corners?

The truth is that we hark back because we only remember the corners that went in, not the hundreds that were too deep, too high, hit the first man or dribbled out for a throw-in. The reality is that short corners as much part of a corner taking as Shaun Taylor and his smashed headers, and we need to embrace them for six good reasons.

1. Swindon aren’t very effective at corners

Pre-Gillingham it had taken Paolo Di Canio’s team 265 corners to score just 6 goals in League Two – that means a remarkable 2.3% of Town corners result in goals. Or to put it another way, just 9% of our league goals this season have come from flag kicks.

So far the six corners converted in the league have been against Southend (a), Dagenham (h) and two each against Rotherham (h) and Torquay (h). Five have come from direct balls lifted into the box, only one (against Southend) was from a short corner. So 16 % of Swindon’s goals from corners have come from short corners, but that is only part of the story…

2. No one is very good at corners

Look at Opta’s stats from the Premier League last season: Blackpool were top scorers from corners with 12 goals – 6.5% of their goal total. At the bottom of the table came Wigan with just 2 goals in 38 games from corners (1.2%). Or to put it another way the Lactics scored from a corner every 28 and a half  hours. Which makes Swindon’s goal from a corner every 11 and 1/4 hours seem at least slightly better. If hammering corners into the box worked, we’d surely see a far better return than this.

3. Defences now have the upper hand at corners

The vast majority of corners, long or short, don’t end with a shot on goal, let alone a goal. Data from the 2010 FIFA World Cup proves that even at the very highest level just getting a shot away after a corner is rare. There were 145 goals scored in the 2010 tournament and of the 627 corner kicks taken, with just 271 reached an attaching player (43%). Of those, a lowly nine goals were scored. That’s a ratio of one goal scored for every 70 corners taken or 1.44%.

There a have been many reasons proposed for the growing ineffectiveness of corners over the years: ‘keepers are taller and fouls more easily drawn, defences are bulkier and better organised, and side at all levels have become willing to pull the entire team back to mark up. The move to mix zonal – and man-marking has also helped – making defending proactive, rather than just reactive. Gone are the pointless ‘men on the post’ to be replaced by aggressive, zonally positioned players, such as the way Chelsea use Didier Drogba, who attack the ball as it enters the box without worrying about having to react to someone else’s run.

4. Swindon aren’t a big team

Town do have some tall players but not enough of them, especially compared to other sides in League Two. Only Aden Flint, Oliver Risser and Jon Smith are tall enough to loom over others but they aren’t physically imposing or aggressive to fill the Shaun Taylor role. So when Swindon swing the ball in they are looking for the heads of just one or two players, when sides such as Southend and Macclesfield have seven or eight players well over six-foot.

It isn’t just in the basement league in which teams have given up hammering the ball into the area in hope, Michael Cox of Zonal Marking.net estimates that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona take around 70% of their corners short.

5. Swindon’s delivery of ‘long’ corners isn’t very good either

Without height or power on their side, Town have to rely on the accuracy of their delivery – and you only need to see some of Swindon’s direct freekicks to realise they don’t have that.

In-swinging corners – reported as the most effective of all by Ken Bray in How To Score – demand precise delivery. In his book, Bray highlights that at the most statistically effective in-swingers need to arc no more than 2.3 metres away from the goal-line before they bend back in enter the six-yard box. This ensures that the ball is far enough away from the ‘keeper to prevent them claiming it easily but close enough to the goal to make sure near-post flick-ons and carry a real threat.

The problem is that when Town attempt to deliver such a ball it is easily cut out, just as it was against Plymouth when Simon Walton, their Machiavellian number 8, positioned himself on the near-post edge of the six-yard box. From here it was easy for him to attack the ball before it could reach the on-rushing Town players and clear the in-swinging corners of Ronan Murray and Raffa De Vita.

6. Short corners make things unpredictable

Corners are clearly tricky to convert into goals – the evidence is clear – so the need is for something different, and that is precisely what short-corners provide. They stop the opposition relying on the same tactics, the same positioning and the same scouting reports.

Swindon excel in the variety of their corners, and a look at the 11 corners Swindon took in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final reveals how unpredictable they can be.

The team used six markedly different methods to deliver the ten corners from the left in the match: there were short corners played to the advancing full-back to cross or put back to the taker to chip over, deep crosses for a man moving out to head back and driven near-post balls for a trio to rush onto. For each Lee Holmes varied the length of delivery, height and even the speed, chipping some, driving others.

While none resulted in a goal, the variety and subtlety was impressive. Outwardly Swindon set-up each one almost identically; a man on the edge of the six-yard-box, three on the edge of the area looking to run in, another man wide, supporting the corner taker and one other hovering on the far side of the 18-yard box. Only for one corner were Town set up differently with Joe Devera rush out of the box from a deeper position to connect with Holmes’ out-swinger.

However, Town’s variety forced Chesterfield to change their marking slightly: each time they placed a defender to close down the wide player, cutting off the short corner, Town played it long. When that man was pulled back to help mark the trio on the edge of the box, Swindon looked short. Only the most blinkered Town fan could accuse them of not being drilled on corners. Accuracy was more of an issue though…

Whatever the fans’ opinion on the use of short corners, it is the variety that they give which allows any corner to work – short or long. Like the spin bowler who occasionally delivers one that doesn’t turn, short corners make the more obvious, more direct deliveries dangerous.

Short corners draw markers out of the box while longer crosses drive defenders back leaving space for the short corner; it’s set piece tug of way, pulling the opposition this way then that. So whatever the County Ground crowd feel about them, long or driven corners need short corners just as much as Shaun Tayor’s headers needed Paul Bodin’s delivery.

17 thoughts on “Taking the long view on short corners

  1. Just a quick note on problems of methodology…

    The problem is always when does a corner stop counting as a corner? After how many passes is the source of a goal the original corner? Is is after an flick on? Or is after it’s been headed back in or even crossed back into the box. This is part of the reason why there is less convincing data on short corners especially because that is when the definition becomes really blurred.

  2. I wondered if the ‘controversial’ corner taking topic would come under the spot light this season and indeed it has. As with most topics containing statistical analysis to draw a conclusion or make a point, relevance and sample rate is key.

    I think most of the Swindon crowd understands that variety in the way a corner is executed may improve the probability of a goal – as it could introduce an element of surprise.

    When a short corner turns into a throw in for the opposition though, or the ball ends up with Wes, or nowhere near the goal for a goal scoring opportunity, not once, but 2 or 3 times in a row sometimes, then really it should be time to try something else.

    Most of these cases are either due to poor execution or the wrong choice of corner – i.e not enough variety (it’s not just short vs long). These drills should be practised over and over again until they are second nature before they are to be ‘tried’ during a game as it sometimes seems there’s a lack of understanding between the players and a lack of communication when it comes to executing corners.

    So whilst the stat that 16% (1 in 6 – not an overly large sample rate) of corners come from short corners is an interesting, it would be even more interesting to see the effectiveness of the STFC short corner vs the long corner – i.e where there’s an attempt at goal at the end of it.

    We have some good headers of the ball in the team, not many though – but there’s no real correlation between someone’s height and their ability to head a ball properly. Ritchie is a good example who out-jumps many a defender due to his excellent timing – compared to Ferry who, well – still has some work to do.

    The stats presented in the article refer to the World Cup and EPL, where the best in their profession come together. We are in League 2, where the quality of defenders are not of the same calibre and where possibly attackers should be able to punish the defenders’ mistakes or lack of organisation more easily.

    Whilst goals from corners do not contribute much towards the overall tally in whatever league football is played and whatever the type, short, long, pull back, flick on, etc, there can be no excuse for several poorly executed corners in a row.

  3. Completely agree with you. There is no excuse for poor corners or continuing to repeat a failed corner. The problem as mentioned is data – we don’t have Opta stats or even a credible record of all the corners Town have taken this season. Hence the reliance on one televised game and the ones we have scored…

    And even when we do at what point does a short corner become open play again? Opta seem to categorise it as the next touch after the ball leaves the quadrant – hence no data.

    As for lower league conversion rates being much higher I have seen US youth football reporting a higher percentage on average but nothing for league 1 or 2.

  4. A really thoughtful, interesting blog, as ever. I do get frustrated when repeated short corners fail, but get equally frustrated at a succession of poorly-delivered long corners. I remember Holmes (and Rooney?) being utterly unable to clear the first man for a few corners in a recent home game.

  5. Fantastic article. So that blimin’ Shaun Taylor is to blame, I thought as much.

    I think the majority of fans get annoyed with short corners when the ball is knocked to a player who is very clearly marked.

    Fine if the player is free of cover, but on a few recent occasions Rooney has passed short to McEveley – who’s too busy to control it as he’s trying to speed dial the hospital before a lunking great defender lunges in with his studs out.

  6. Thanks for posting this… so glad someone did it!

    I can’t remember which game it was, a few weeks back, we wasted two or three short corners in succession. The crowd quite rightly got frustrated. We’ve always had the odd moaner when we go to take a short one, but since that game, I really think the moaning has got far more noticeable and seems to be the default position for many people – in both the last two games, the person behind me has moaned about us taking a short corner before we’d even taken it, and they were different people! It does seem that we’ve got a few wrong in the past few games, passing it to someone who is clearly marked, which we need to cut out – but overall the short corner has served us pretty well this season, especially between Ritchie and Caddis. It’s got to the stage where I’m hoping that Ronan Murray will score from a short corner to shut the boo boys up!

    I actually viewed the goals myself this past week to count the goals, and I counted two more goals from corners – we scored two from corners in the Southend away game (a long one for Devera, and a short one for Smith), and one of Alan Connell’s goals against Shrewsbury came from a short corner (after Rooney hit the bar). We also scored two other goals from long corners in cup competitions (Flint at Barnet, Murray at Southend in the JPT).

    Top stuff!

  7. My issue with the the short corners isn’t about the short corner itself as when i do play football i’m usually a set piece taker and it gives a much easier, better angle.

    My issue is when we do them when other teams clearly see the threat. No use doing it when you still aren’t going to get the ball in the box. I like the idea, but you can’t do them all the time.

  8. Really like this. Corners are something I’ve been banging on about for ages. The major problem is as you mentioned is the availability heuristic. You only remember the significant events, not the majority.

    You guys won’t know this because you were at the game today (rather than being 200 miles away moaning about your cricket being called off) but Tony Cottee started banging on about not having a man on the post when somebody scored from a corner (“Why oh why don’t they have a man on the post Geoff?”). Because Tony, if you stick that man on the corner of the 6 yard box instead he’ll clear nearly all of them. But you won’t remember that.

    Also I would have loved to have had the stats / inclination to assess Liverpool’s zonal marking at corners. It drove me mad that almost all the pundits had the system at fault whenever they conceded. Yet they never mentioned it when the ball got cleared. They also don’t highlight man marking as an issue when somebody made a great run, lost their man and scored past somebody not using zonal.

    I also read somewhere that Sam Allardyce watched hundreds of premier league corners recording where the ball landed if it was initially cleared. He then just stuck a man on the most common spot. Brilliant really. Especially when you consider people used to go on about his Bolton being brilliant at winning second balls! It certainly helps if you know where that’s going to be!

    As for the availability heuristic and you’ve proved I’ve fallen for this myself – I was going mad about the “predictability” of our short-corners at Wembley. Seems I only remembered the short ones and then only that they where short, not what they differently. I stand corrected and salute you sir!

  9. Was from the secret footballer.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/apr/13/secret-footballer-moneyball-stoke-liverpool

    “A friend in the game told me that at Bolton, Sam Allardyce studied hundreds of Premier League corners to see where the clearing header, on average, would land. Once he identified a pattern (it’s usually a front-post header that is cleared towards the dugout), he placed a man on the exact spot where the ball generally made its first contact with the pitch; thus, the odds of Bolton conceding a goal from the second phase of play were severely reduced.”

    • Just to come back months later – if you happen to read The Numbers Game by Anderson and Sally, they do a great piece on corners and their ineffectiveness. It isn’t about short corners, but the whole shebang and is very detailed.

      It is also a great read too, despite being very stat heavy.

  10. Perhaps our problem with corners this season has been that the player with probably the best delivery, Kerrouche, went and got himself in Paolo’s bad books. Kerrouche to Flint – could have been so easy.

    • True, Kerrouche did have a nice line in slight in-swingers that dropped sharply at the back post. I think it was actually Ritchie who we had on the back stick – good spring for a small man.

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