I am really excited to be bringing you this piece. I enjoy every piece I write but this one has got me especially pumped. Why? First because I feel set piece analysis is an area of football analysis which is majorly overlooked (aside from TV pundits mindlessly lambasting zonal marking). This is despite the fact that set pieces account for between 20-25% of all goals scored in football matches and can have major impact on who wins or loses a football match, and a side’s long term success.
Teams have also won promotion on the back of the strength of their set plays. In the 2017/18 season Cardiff City won promotion to the Premier League. 243 (37%) of their total shots came from set pieces, as did 21 (30%) of their goals. Both numbers ranked first in the Championship table for shots and goals from set pieces. By contrast Cardiff ranked 16th for shots from open play and 12th for goals from open play, hardly promotion form.
Posh, on the other hand, appear to rank poorly in terms of percentage of goals scored/conceded from set pieces. They have conceded 12 (32%) of their goals from set pieces, whereas just 8 (14%) of the goals Posh have scored have come from set plays. While the 14% of goals scored may be at least partially explained by Posh’s threat and league leading numbers for goals from open play, the number of goals conceded from set pieces will be of some concern.
Second, I recently had the pleasure of communicating with the fantastic Stuart Reid (twitter handle @From_The _Wing), who is an expert on all things set plays and helped inspire this piece. I learnt a lot from him and am excited to combine some of what I learnt to some of my own analysis of set pieces and bring it to you.
Posh Set Piece Goal Breakdown
During Posh’s recent poor run of form Fergie lambasted Posh’s failure to defend and score from set pieces. His criticism was understandable as Posh conceded four set piece goals in three games (Doncaster (H), 2x Rotherham (A), Lincoln (A)) over the festive period. Since then Posh have both scored (Wycombe (H) and conceded Rotherham (H) one goal from corners).
In League One, only Tranmere and Southend, two sides near the bottom of the table, have conceded more goals from set pieces than Posh’s 12. Moreover, Posh’s record from attacking set pieces is average, their eight goals would place them T12th in terms of most goals scored.
To further understand where Posh’s issues lie when defending set pieces it makes sense to break down which situations (corners, direct free kicks, and indirect free kicks) the goals have arisen from. We can see this breakdown in the table below.
I am going to primarily focus on Posh’s record from corners in this article as corners account for half of all of the goals scored/conceded from set pieces this season. Let’s compare Posh’s record from corners to average numbers across the professional game. Depending on the source/sample numbers can vary, however in England’s top five leagues football roughly 20% of corners lead to shots, with approximately 3-4% of corners resulting in goals.
For example, this season in the Premier League, where data is more readily available, there have been 94 goals from 2670 corners, meaning that 3.5% of corners have resulted in goals. The table below shows how Posh stack up compared to the average in terms of goals scored/conceded for corners.
So we can see that Posh score from a lower percentage of their corners than the average side. Conversely their defensive record is not awful, but it is on the higher end of acceptable and something that Posh would like to get down. So can we nail down why Posh have a below average record from such situations?
In addressing this question we will mainly focus on defensive corners. However, a rather simplistic explanation of Posh’s failures from attacking corners can be loosely put down to: a) inconsistent deliveries meaning many are wasted and b) a lack of creativity and variation in setup/delivery.
Posh’s Defensive Corner Setup
Let’s first understand how Posh setup for corners. Posh setup with a zonal front marker and zonal central marker inside/just outside the six yard box. The rest of Posh’s players go man to man with players in the box.
Posh’s setup is a fairly common one amongst clubs and is not without its strengths. Defensively, it gets Toney into a position whereby he can attack a high proportion of balls. He is Posh’s best player in the air and a key feature of Posh’s defensive corners has been how often Toney has won the first ball and cleared. Indeed, Posh have been almost impenetrable from central positions when defending corners (more on this later).
Moreover, as front post deliveries are typically low it allows Posh to utilise a shorter, or less aerially dominant, player to defend the near post zone without weakening their defensive set up. Typically we have seen either Reed or Ward defending this zone. Furthermore, by going man for man in the remaining areas Posh can match their tallest players against the biggest threats posed by the opposition.
Finally, it allows Posh to maintain a counter attacking threat. The player on the edge of the area (above Boyd, but also Reed and now Brown) is always one of the best passers in the side, and is located there not only as a defensive player but also as one who can quickly release a counter attack. As sides don’t tend to attack corners with more than six players it also allows Posh to leave two players high up the pitch for counters. In recent games this has been Szmodics and Dembele, two skilful and pacey attackers who carry a huge threat on the break.
Obviously however, as Posh have a below average defensive record, there are flaws in their setup. Firstly, the back post area is left unguarded and has been an area that sides have looked to exploit. We can see in the clip that Rotherham have two players lined up to attack this area of the box.
Moreover, at times the front marker has positioned slightly deeper, freeing up the space on the front corner of the six yard box for the opposition to attack. We can see this in the clip below taken from the home game against Doncaster, where Posh conceded a goal to a low, whipped front post delivery. Posh also conceded a near identical goal in the home game against Ipswich. The blue rectangles demonstrate the two key spaces sides look to attack.
So then, theoretically, I would argue that Posh are most susceptible to either low, whipped deliveries to the front post, or high, inswinging/driven deliveries to the back post. Let’s analyse the six goals Posh have conceded from corners to see if this pans out in practice.
Corner Goals Conceded Analysis
First, the table below tracks the types of deliveries, first contact and shot locations of all goals conceded.
We can also plot a visual version of this data:
Red – Rotherham (A) 1 Orange – Rotherham (H)
White – Doncaster (H) Black – Rotherham (A) 2
Blue – Ipswich (H) Yellow – Fleetwood (H)
What interpretations can we make from this? All four direct goals scored from corners fit the expected pattern of being either whipped into the near post (yellow in table) or sent high to the back post (green). Moreover, for the second goal conceded against Rotherham (A) the first contact is at the back post. Only for one goal, the first corner goal against Rotherham (A), is the first contact central. There is also a quirk in the data that all the near post goals have originated from left sided corners, and back post right sided corners. While this may be significant, I suspect it is most likely at this is coincidental at this stage (although if I were an opposition analyst for a League One club I would definitely factor this in just in case it is of relevance).
Opposition sides, who do their homework, know that Posh are incredibly strong in central areas and therefore try to capitalise with front and back post deliveries. Next then, let’s take a look at if Posh could become better at defending these areas of the box.
So are there better defensive corner setups that other sides use which Posh could attempt to replicate or adapt? Well, let’s analyse the defensive corner setup of three of the sides with the best defensive corner records in England’s top two divisions.
First Liverpool, who have a remarkable record of conceding just one goal from a 118 corners (0.85%). Let’s look at their approach:
Liverpool setup with six deep zonal markers (highlighted black). Two cover the front post area, three the width of the goal and Trent Alexander-Arnold is just wide of the back post. The further from the ball the zonal player is, the further they edge out as they have more time to react to the ball which has to travel further and will likely be higher to reach those areas.
The two blockers (yellow) are positioned to stop opposition getting a clear run to attack balls in and around the six yard box while also defending deeper crosses. The player (orange) can cut off lower balls aimed into areas where Liverpool do not have zonal markers, press second balls that come back out that side while also pulling wide to offer an out ball in transition. Salah (blue) offers a counter threat while also in a position to disrupt cutbacks.
Now zonal marking has a bad rep in the press but Liverpool’s approach has been hugely successful and logical. There are few weak points in their setup as the front post and central areas close enough to the goal to score from a direct header are locked down. Opposition sides could target deeper areas (around the penalty spot), however a direct header would be unlikely to score while a knockdown will be going into a melee of eight Liverpool players. The back post area is another potential weak spot, however this could easily be corrected by the back marker(s) dropping deeper should a team place a player to threaten that area (although in practice this doesn’t tend to happen).
While Liverpool’s setup appears more comprehensive defensively than Posh’s setup, there is a trade-off. Liverpool bring all 10 outfield players into their box to defend while Posh typically defend with 8. Bringing 10 players back limits the counter attacking threat the defending side can pose, although Posh could play Dembele in Salah’s role and place Brown in the role circled orange to help launch counters. Posh possess an excellent counter attacking threat so that trade-off is something that Darren Ferguson may not be willing to make for extra security from corners.
We can also analyse Sheffield United’s corner setup. The Blades have the second best defensive record in the Premier League, having conceded just two goals from 148 corners (1.35%).
We can see from the above clip that their setup is incredibly similar to the one which Posh use with one key difference being an additional zonal marker highlighted red. By putting a player there it makes the low delivery to the front post much harder to execute, although the back post area remains a place opposition sides may look to target.
A key benefit of the approach above is that it would require little learning curve for Posh. The fundamentals in the box remain the same, they just have an extra player to help shield deliveries into a current weak spot. The drawback is that Posh would have one less player to counter higher up the pitch as they would need to defend with on extra player, although that player would be in a good position to launch counter attacks with balls that broke that side, and would also be in position to stop second crosses into the box.
Although it would have made little difference to the back post goals conceded, having an additional player in a similar position to the one above may have prevented the goals conceded against Doncaster and Ipswich.
Finally let’s consider Swansea City’s approach. Swansea are not a team you typically think of when assessing strong set piece sides but their record this season is excellent. They have conceded just three goals from 145 corners (2.06%) whilst scoring nine goals from 181 (4.97%). Their setup from defensive corners is distinctly old school, as we can see below.
They setup with a zonal marker in line with the front post and on the goal line near the back post. Everyone else goes man to man. Their setup is therefore not dramatically different to Posh’s. The main difference is the location of the back post marker compared to Toney’s central position. This therefore leads to the conclusion that their success is likely down to either a) winning a high proportion of their 1v1 man-to-man battles or b) the back marker has had success in clearing balls off the line or winning first balls at the back post.
Having analysed three different corner setups from very successful sides this season we can see a number of different options available to Posh in order to sure up their defensive record. The two easiest to incorporate adjustments would be adding an additional player to block the near post delivery (like Sheffield United) and/or an additional back post zonal marker (like Swansea). Given Toney’s success at winning first balls in central areas I would not even consider moving him so this would involve defending with either one or two extra players. The trade-off would therefore be a reduced threat on the counter, although moving Brown to the near post blocker role and Dembele to the edge of area role may help maintain some threat.
While Liverpool’s zonal strategy is hugely effective, shifting to a predominantly zonal setup at this stage of the season would not be without it’s teething problems and is therefore not a viable option at this stage.
Finally, I think it is fair to consider one final factor in this analysis. On the training ground coaches only have a limited amount of time to work on things and the more time that is spent working on set pieces means less time spent on other areas of the game. Moreover, at League One level it is very difficult to sign technically gifted players who are also physically imposing (although Posh appear to have bucked this rule slightly with Taylor and Toney). As Ferguson favours technical players, there will always be a trade off in terms conceding/scoring from set pieces when Posh come up against more physically imposing sides. For example, Rotherham, who have scored a quite remarkable 22 goals from set plays, have only scored 24 goals from open play or counters. Posh on the other hand have only scored 8 goals from set pieces, but have scored an outstanding 42 goals from open play or counters, showing that time spent on the training ground in other areas is not going to waste.
That said, football clubs are always looking for ways to gain a small advantage or for marginal improvements in performance. In an incredibly close promotion race likely to be decided by the finest of margins, tightening up Posh’s defensive corner setup could well be the thing that makes the difference in deciding whether they are playing Championship, or League One football next season.