We need to talk about corners: A change in style could have a profound effect

One tidbit to monitor as Liverpool move on from Manchester United and prepare for Burnley on Thursday: the profile of Liverpool’s attacking corners.

Last season, Jurgen Klopp’s side had a very specific profile. Klopp likes outswingers. And he likes outswingers that specifically target the near post. In 2019/20, Liverpool finished second in the Premier League in the propensity of deliveries targeted at the near post — there was a tight race between the top-three and then a cavernous fall to the fourth spot.

Hitting the near post was the aim of the game. And almost always it was delivered as an outswinger. Although that did change as the season progressed. In fact, Klopp had a pretty clear split: before the pause in play, Liverpool took almost all outswingers; after the pause in play, they shifted to a majority of inswingers. And they changed up the predominant taker, too. Trent Alexander-Arnold was the team’s main set-piece man before the lockdown. But post lockdown, more of the burden was handed to Andy Robertson.

Some of those trends have stuck around this season. Robertson has taken 53 corners this season to Alexander-Arnold’s 29. Alexander-Arnold’s injury accounts for some of the difference, but not the full thing.

The makeup of the deliveries are different, too. Klopp and co. have reverted back to out-swinger corners as their genre du jour. Right now, the team is running at just over a two-to-one clip on inswingers to outswingers: 47 outswingers to 21 inswingers. And the splits follow the same trend regardless of which player is taking the corner — Alexander-Arnold is at 18-to-8; Robertson is at 29-to-13.

And it’s been a success. Liverpool have scored six times from corners this season: Mohamed Salah vs. Crystal Palace; Roberto Firmino vs. Tottenham; Joel Matip vs. Wolves; Johnny Evans OG vs. Leicester; Roberto Firmino vs. Leicester; Virgil van Dijk vs. Leeds. The same style as last season has been evident: Fizz the ball with a ton of pace at the near post; put some arc/curve on the ball; let the big fellas climb the ladder and try to attack the thing at pace.

The loss of Virgil van Dijk and the intermittent appearances of Joel Matip has stymied some of the success, though. Klopp’s group still churns out 6.7 corners per game, the second-highest mark in the league behind Aston Villa. Yet the volume of shots on targets from corners has dropped off a cliff. The loss of height and some iffy deliveries have combined to limit some of the side’s efficiency.

It was evident against Manchester United that Klopp decided to switch things up.

With no Van Dijk or Joel Matip, Klopp settled on short corners as the answer.

And here’s the other thing: the Klopp/ Pep Lijnders/whoever’s plan was a slightly unusual one. The team tried to get the ball back into play really quickly. In and of itself, that’s not unusual. Possession-based sides are typically smaller. They like to feed the ball back into possession ASAP before the opposition can set-up defensively. Ideally, there’s some kind of confusion, and amid the matchup chaos, the team can carve an opening just as they could in the flow of the game.

So the speed itself was not wild. But for Liverpool, the kind of corner was a little different. Typically, teams take short corners in order to change the angle. They want to get a more diagonal look at the goal before ripping an inswinger directly towards the six-yard box. The theory is simple: Get the ball traveling towards the goal, rather than away. That’s easier to do with a more vertical site of the goal rather than from the corner flag. Whip the ball into the six-yard box with fizz and dip and even the tiniest deflection could carry the ball into the net. And they do so by having a non-traditional corner taker roll the ball to a traditional corner take — or a quality crosser — in order for them to have the time to deliver the ball from a specific location before they’re closed down.

We’ve seen Klopp toggle to such designs before. Against Wolves’ tall and stingy backline, Klopp settled on a move-the-angle and flood-the-back-zone style that was the antithesis of anything the club did the season before. And it worked, Joel Matip cruising in at the back post to poke home a Mohamed Salah delivery — pulling Salah himself out of the box was a bold call:

Against United, Klopp juggled the style again. Instead of the change-the-angle approach, Liverpool just reset the delivery point for the original corner taker. The ball was rolled out to a player near the edge of the box or shuffled a little closer to the corner flag, and then the ball was given back to Trent Alexander-Arnold, roughly on the same angle, still on his dominant right foot, but just a couple of yards closer to the box — often in motion.

The plan seems pretty clear: Liverpool’s attacking mobility down the right-hand side has been limited since the losses of the team’s starting centre-backs. Getting Alexander-Arnold in-behind the defensive line has been a slog all season within the flow of a typical possession. And, ordinarily, Alexander-Arnold is fine with that. He likes to set-up in the inside-right pocket or parallel to the edge of the box; from there, he can deliver those trademark whipped deliveries that flash across the face of the goal.

By using a quick, one-two, pre-ordained corner routine, Klopp and co. were able to change things up. They could get Alexander-Arnold on the move, in the final third, behind the defensive line. They could manufacture a position that hasn’t been arriving organically.

Not only did the team pre-set the first move, but they also pre-set the second part, too. Rather than push Fabinho (who is tall and OK in the air) into the box as an aerial threat for a cross or stick Mohamed Salah somewhere around the penalty spot, where he could be ready and willing to pounce on any second ball — as he did against Crystal Palace — the team stuck both in lurker spots at the edge of the box.

Again, it was about injecting some speed into the attack. By knocking the ball short and then returning it, Alexander-Arnold, Salah, and Fabinho were all given running starts.

It should have given the team more chances to beat a United defensive block that is both tall and excellent in the air. Rather than deliver a static deliver, Alexander-Arnold would be able to drill a cross along the floor to the onrushing support players or cut the ball back to Salah or Fabinho if either of those lurkers found a pocket of space.

But it didn’t work. United rebuffed every advance. Of Liverpool’s first four corners, three had a similar get-in-behind design. One was a vintage outswinger — one that was also rebuffed.

So Klopp changed it up — again. By the 60-minute mark, he had seen enough. Time for Plan B.

Plan B looked identical to 2019/20’s Plan B: Liverpool reverted back to fast-paced, dipping, inswingers. Only this time there was a crucial change: The ball was to be hit at maximum velocity. And rather than aiming for a near-post runner, Liverpool planted a bunch of players inside the six-yard box, standing on the goal-keeper, and aimed for something in that area. In other words: Whip the ball in at maximum pace and hope that all hell breaks loose, that the ball hits someone or something and finds its way into the back of the net.

The old model, whether in-swinging or out-swinging, was about good deliveries giving good headers of the ball an excellent chance to climb the ladder and score. The ball will be there, go and attack it. Sunday’s model was about the deliveries themselves being the threat; the deliveries leading to a deflection or scramble in the box, with a whole load of junk used to clog up the sightlines in front of United goalkeeper David de Gea.

The honours were turned over to Xherdan Shaqiri on the right-hand side and Alexander-Arnold on the left. And the deliveries were un-be-liev-able. As in, astonishing. As in, you couldn’t have asked for much better. Pace, swerve, dip, all of it.

United matched it (the other team has good players too!). The first ball, Shaqiri’s delivery, was more troublesome. The second, United dealt with okay. The height advantage proved to be decisive.

But the change was a smart one. The formula is there. A blend of the two styles — the on-the-run short and the inswinging dippers — is the right idea moving forward, particularly when Matip is still out of the lineup.

Statistically speaking, inswingers are always the way to go. In 2018, Paul Power, a Stats Perform AI scientist, co-wrote a paper featured at the Sloan Sport Sports Analytics Conference called “Mythbusting Set-Pieces in Soccer.” In it, he found that teams have a 2.7 percent chance of scoring from inswinging corners compared to a 2.2 percent chane on outswingers. Outswingers, Power concluded, led to more chances as they naturally arced away from the goalkeeper; but inswingers, due to towards-the-goal angle are significantly more likely to lead to a goal. (10.8 percent compared to 6.5 percent)

“Inswingers would generally be preferred over outswingers due to their trajectory,” Euan Dewar, an analyst with Statsbomb, told ESPN in 2018. Dewar. “They’re curving in toward goal and provide multiple points along said trajectory at which runners can get to the ball.”

And then there’s the target part. “Aiming for the near post is generally going to be better,” Dewar said. “For the simple fact that far-post corners are in the air for longer and thus give the defence more time to read and react.”

As Liverpool shapes up to play the most consistent set-piece side in the Premier League, even more focus will be placed on their corner routines. Given the volume the team is amassing as opposing sides sit in deep defensive block, it’s not an avenue of the game that can be ignored, even with Van Dijk or Matip out. Rather than worrying about what Van Dijk or Matip would do, Klopp has sort to find solutions; he has made a pair of significant changes to the team’s set-piece profile in order to accommodate the losses.

(Burnley, by the way, aims almost exclusively for the far post. They want the ball to hang in the air. In a league built around possession and near-post corners, being the direct time that hangs the ball up at the back post has proven to be a true market inefficiency.)

Sprinkling in some of the ‘reset’ style should open up opportunities for Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to deliver uncontested crosses in the final-third, even if it’s not in their preferred on-the-run style. But the move back to inswingers is more significant. Without size and individual excellence, Liverpool need to work smarter.

In switching to crowd-the-six-yard-box-inswingers, Klopp and his staff proved that, once again, they’re ready and willing to explore all options in order to uncover an advantage — doctrine be damned.

As Klopp’s side continues to desperately hunt goals, it’s a change that could have a profound impact as early as Thursday.

Originally published at https://www.liverpool.com on January 19, 2021.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.