Manchester United are finding that corner kicks are delivering discouraging returns
Sir Alex was most likely joking when he claimed that Charlie Adam is worth £10million on his ‘corners alone’. That evening, however, he witnessed two fine deliveries from the Scottish midfielder – both from the corner flag, both found the net. It outlined United’s apparent frailties and inability to defend them and perhaps, most importantly of all, contrasted with their attempts at the set-piece, which has brought diminishing returns in past campaigns.
Take last season, for example. An astonishingly low 2.5% of all corners taken had found the net (a modest success rate of 1 goal every 40 corners – in total, 6 from 240). This year has seen a slight improvement; the success rate stands at just above 4% at the time of writing. But there is still more to uncover; goals do not tell the whole story. 47 attempts have come out of the 197 corners taken so far in this campaign, a percentage of 24% compared to that of last years which is slightly better at 27%. Statistics can sometimes be deceiving but what these figures do suggest is that a large chunk of corners materialise into nothing – just as many Manchester United fans have suspected.
However, that does not mean that blame should entirely rest on United’s players and their corner kick takers. That begs the question; does anyone really need to be blamed? Perhaps yes, to an extent. Some have grown frustrated at the sight of a cross not even beating the first man. It has happened on several occasions this season, but that only tells part of the story.
Manchester United have scored more headed goals (16) than any other team in the Premier League. What that might implicate is that United’s players seem to have no trouble, then, in the air. It is also acts as a compliment to United’s wide men who have obviously contributed to a large chunk of those headed goals. But, having scored so few from corner kick suggests that there is more to than just having players who thrive in the air or players who can deliver a good cross.
Tony Pulis once said without any conviction: “I think people are now coming to realise that you can use set-pieces to your benefit. Especially the top clubs who have got more quality players – that means more quality free kicks and corners.”
It’s a logical argument. But an ultimately flawed one. Barcelona’s European-conquering side of 2008/09, easily one of the most gifted teams to ever play the game, did not find much success from corners despite having several players who were (and still are) renowned as being the masters of the pass. That year, they had a success rate in the Champions League of one goal out of 82 corners taken. Pulis’ argument should thus be deemed unfounded, shouldn’t it? Wealth of talent doesn’t always bring about ‘quality’ results. That applies to United, too, and the man given the responsibility to deliver the cross – be it Ryan Giggs, Nani or anybody else. The notion that a player should be automatically able to find a good cross, one that eventually finds the back of the net because he is able to deliver a good ball in open play can only be dismissed as a limited argument. There are other factors that decide a good or bad corner, more of which we’ll find out later.
United and Barcelona are not alone in failure of the converting from a corner. In an article for Uefa’s magazine Champions, Paul Simpson and Sheridan Bird discuss the apparent ‘rise and fall’ of the set-piece, a point that was well-backed by statistics indicating that the success rate of the corner kick was indeed declining:
“On average, it took teams 54 corners to score a goal in the UEFA Champions League. Just 23 of 320 goals came from the set-piece. Andy Roxburgh, UEFA technical director, says: ‘The success rate from corners has declined by 46% in just three seasons in this competition.’”
Those dwindling numbers are perhaps a touch concerning. But if Roxburgh’s comments are anything to go by, it is not just Manchester United who have struggled to convert from the set-piece. It is a problem shared by many teams and there are many reasons as to why. In some cases, teams might be susceptible to counter attacks and so might not commit many players forward especially if their opponents are a so-called bigger team. More crucial to understanding why numbers might be decreasing is that teams are believed to be spending more time in training preparing for them and defending them. And then, secondly, more often than not, the box is usually swamped with defenders. Rob Bagchi, of the Guardian, recognises this: “Usually it [corners] ends up as a simple equation of being outnumbered and unless an extraordinary cross or slackness opens up an avenue to score it becomes a routine defending exercise.”
Perhaps the signing of Adam (we wouldn’t recommend it, Fergie) wouldn’t see the disappearance of United’s corner curse – he might well be able to clear the first man, but what’s to say that he will find great success from it if teams continue crowd the penalty area?
The corner kick is still to be feared; goals will be scored, posts will be hit and crossbars rattled. But what we will find is that less and less, as the numbers suggest, will find the target. That has much to do with the opposition defending in numbers, and so all must not be put down to the fact that some do not beat the first defender. Nor should we conclude that United do not possess enough competent takers; that may well be true, but when good deliveries come about a successful result is not always assured. Fans mustn’t fret if a corner comes to nothing. Manchester United are a team who thrive when the game is flowing, and anything that comes about from a dead ball is a bonus. We must also recognise that United are not alone and that we are seeing a rapid decline in this particular set-piece.
Statistics of Manchester United’s successes (or failures) from the corner kick are courtesy of OPTA sports. Statistics of successful corners in Champions League courtesy of UEFA.