Football fans have a curious relationship with corners. For a set piece that, according to Opta, leads to a goal only 3.2% of the time, they don’t half get excited about them. A stadium invariably gets louder when a corner is given and there is a heightened sense of anticipation or fear depending on who you are supporting. Yet, never before has the prevailing opinion on this particular set piece seemed more scathing, with many fans’ forums containing a thread with a title along the lines of “Why are we so bad at corners?” and the phrase “You’ve got to be able to beat the first man” right up there at the top of the co-commentator cliche bingo list. But is it really true that, when footballers’ technical ability has seemingly improved in the past decade or so – particularly from an attacking perspective – their ability to knock a ball 25 yards into the penalty area has deteriorated?
In the past five seasons, the Premier League’s goals-from-corners ratio has barely moved, varying between 0.32 goals per game to 0.38. It’s probably fair to assume that this figure isn’t wildly different across Europe’s leading leagues or in international football. So, if there hasn’t been a sudden drop in the effectiveness of corners in creating goals why is it that we now appear to have such a dim view of them?
A starting point could be that our opinion is perhaps coloured by the volume of football on TV. If a corner only leads to a goal 3.2% of the time it’s inevitable that most corners aren’t going to leave a good impression and the more of them we see the more entrenched that negative view is going to get. And then there is the oft-parroted view that professional footballers trousering loads of cash at the very least should be able to beat the first man. This is where there is a serious misunderstanding by many fans about what constitutes an effective corner. There is a huge difference between phoning one in and delivering a dangerous one.
If you look at footage of corners taken in the 60s and 70s there was more of a tendency to loft the ball into the box. With this method, unless you miskick horrendously, you will almost certainly beat the first man but you will have very little dip or pace on the ball. That was fine in an era when you could put a bit of physical pressure on goalkeepers who still preferred to catch the ball (meaning they could be easily nudged into dropping it), but these days that kind of corner just doesn’t cut it, with keepers preferring to punch to lessen the chance of making a handling error and referees affording them more protection.
This means that for a corner to really cause panic in an opposing defence, one of the best areas to direct it is just behind the first defender usually stationed at the front of the six-yard box. It’s a particularly tight target, similar to aiming for the top corner of the goal when taking a direct free-kick. Not only must they get zip and bend on the ball, they have to make sure they don’t overhit it nor deliver it too close to the keeper. And with the first man usually standing about 20 yards away, to be effective, the ball needs to dip just after clearing this player to unsight defenders and give those attacking the ball the best chance of nipping in front of their opponents to divert it at goal. Nacer Chadli’s delivery for Craig Dawson’s first goal for West Bromwich Albion against Arsenal earlier this month was devastatingly good and Arsène Wenger was right to point this out whatever the deficiencies in his defence. Mastering dip at a specific distance is a difficult skill – it is probably easier on a free-kick when you have a wall close by to help calibrate it. There are so many factors to consider when delivering a corner and a variety of styles that mean some are more difficult than others. A front-post corner is probably more likely to be cleared by the first man than a back-post one, for example, while an outswinger gives a goalkeeper less chance of collecting it but is probably not as dangerous as a fizzed inswinger. Perhaps the pursuit of perfection means that, say, four out of 10 corners don’t clear the first man, but of the six that do the chances of scoring from them are much greater than clipping in 10 safe ones.
There are other reasons the corner is given a rough deal. Considering the amount of money spent by leading professional clubs on ensuring they do everything they can to give their players the best possible chance of performing well, when it comes to making them feel comfortable in their own ground when taking a corner, they still leave a lot to be desired. Beyond the touchlines at Old Trafford the turf runs off down a slope. Corner takers there have to trot up a hill before delivering their kick. Other grounds have similar obstacles and some still don’t have the optimum space for a run-up – certainly not as much as would be afforded on the training ground. In the past decade most clubs have introduced synthetic turf beyond the touchline to prevent wear and tear from assistant referees and substitutes. This means corner takers can often be put off by the feel of the surface changing beneath their feet as they are about to strike the ball. And while it is easy to perhaps hold little sympathy for footballers over what appear to be minor inconveniences, it is odd that there are still improvements that could be made in this area at major clubs who try so hard to make marginal gains elsewhere.
Another factor could be a change in the tactical approach by some clubs towards defending corners. In the past decade, there has been a growing trend towards not putting a player on both posts, with a preference instead to leave one or both unguarded. One of the reasons for this system is to use a corner conceded as a platform from which to spring your own potent counterattack. André Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, both known for bold tactical experimentation (with varying degrees of success), were among those to first use this set-up in the Premier League. They believe opposing teams are at their most vulnerable when taking a corner and there is evidence to suggest they are right. This season, Liverpool have conceded numerous times immediately after their own corner-kicks. So it is little wonder now that many teams are often reluctant to pack the opposing penalty area in the way they would in the past, thus decreasing their chances of scoring.
That’s not to say there aren’t occasions when players aren’t just useless at them. In recent years, a couple of comedic efforts from Wayne Rooney and Iago Aspas have done for the corner’s reputation what Jar Jar Binks did to George Lucas’s as a celebrated director. Taking a good corner isn’t the hardest thing in the world but nor is it as easy as many casual observers assume. Perhaps we should be a little less hasty in bemoaning the state of this much-maligned set piece – and appreciate a good corner a little more than we currently do.