Counter-attacking from corners

Set Piece Analysis
Stuart Reid

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Stuart Reid

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Recently I’ve noticed a trend of how some of the elite teams in the Premier League set their teams up when defending corners – they aren’t only setting up to defend, but also to fashion up counter-attacking opportunities for themselves. Below I examine each team that I’ve observed doing this, and how they do it.

Manchester City

Last summer I wrote a piece looking at Man City’s defensive set-up. They’ve kept the same defensive set-up as last season so I won’t go into specifics again, and it remains my favourite defensive set-up I’ve seen. What I didn’t realise when writing that piece, is that their set-up also serves a dual purpose – it’s perfect for launching counter-attacks.

In the clip above we see 2 “walls” of City players. The first wall (closest to goal) is the main defensive wall, consisting of height and defensive ability. In the second wall – used to help block runners we have Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan with Bernardo Silva on the very edge of the box. This positioning is no coincidence, as we have pretty much all of City’s speed and attacking talent primed in one location ready to spring forward as quickly as possible. It is worth noting that City have all 11 players in the box defending the corner. Not only does this create a defensive overload in their favour – it may also tempt opposition players to venture slightly further forward than they would if they had to mark a lone forward, which opens up the possibility of a chance of a counter-attack quite considerably – especially with the pace and attacking talent at City’s disposal.

We see a near perfect example in the clip above. Bristol City commit 5 players into the box for the corner, with one player taking the corner and the goalkeeper also out the picture that leaves just 4 Bristol City players outside the box to defend. The ball is cleared to the edge of the box where Sterling plays the ball over another opponent, leaving 3 defenders left. By this time the second wall of City players have sensed the chance for a potential counter-attack and pushed out of the box at speed – forcing another Bristol City player to commit. Luckily for Bristol City, Sterling takes a bad touch and the counter attack is halted – if Sterling had managed to take a better touch or release the ball to a team-mate, then there would’ve been a 4 vs 2 (plus goalkeeper) scenario in City’s advantage.

Almost the perfect counter-attack. City press the second ball in good numbers whilst a few players gamble on the press working. The gamble pays off and City work the ball up the pitch at speed and an unusually poor ball by David Silva stops the counter in its tracks, but otherwise, this is a textbook example of how to use an opposition corner to your advantage.

Liverpool

Obviously, the key to any Liverpool counter-attack will rely on Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino so it’s no surprise to see them put into key positions – with Salah the focal point on the edge of the area. Salah is poised and ready for the defence to win the ball so he can begin the counter. He receives the ball and immediately the mentality of the surrounding Liverpool players changes like a switch being flicked and they break at speed.

I am amazed at how slow West Ham are to track back here. They commit 5 players into the Liverpool box, with 3 more poised on the edge of the area. That leaves just one player defending deeper than around 35 yards from the Liverpool goal. Liverpool set up with Salah and Mane in good positions for the counter, poised at the edge of the box. Liverpool clear the ball with little difficulty and break at speed. If you pause the above clip just after Liverpool pick up the ball from Mane’s header you can see 7 West Ham players behind the ball and if not for the tactical foul committed, Liverpool would’ve had a fantastic chance on the counter-attack.

A near perfect example of how to turn an opposition corner into a chance for your team. The ball is played in and cleared straight into Salah. Firmino (guarding against the short) and Mane (a bit deeper than previous examples) are instantly aware the counter-attack is on and break along with the rest of the team creating a 5 vs 4 scenario in Liverpool’s favour that ends up in Salah taking a shot at goal – just 13 seconds after the corner was taken.

Chelsea

The 2 players to keep an eye on here are N’golo Kante (guarding against the short corner) and Victor Moses on the edge of the box. If we watch Kante, as soon as the ball is played in (meaning the short corner is no longer on) he turns around and begins his run. His run serves a dual purpose, firstly he runs back into the box, ensuring that there’s no further danger from the corner, but it’s at an angle – meaning he’s perfectly poised for the counter, with nobody near him (as none of the Leicester players follows his run in) leaving him in space and able to break with Moses. Moses body shape is a clear indicator that he’s there for the counter-attack opportunity rather than defending in the penalty area (this will allow him to leave the area to press at speed if needed as well)

It’s interesting to see that unlike the other teams looked at so far, Chelsea don’t defend with all 11 players in the box with either Eden Hazard or Willian (sometimes both) usually staying a little bit further up the pitch to help provide a threat on the counter. Their ability to drop back, combined with their dribbling ability and pace can also help get counter-attacks started as they drag their markers back – creating space for Moses and Kante to run into as seen in the below clip.

Summary

So after looking at how these teams defend, what can we take away as the fundamentals of counter-attacking from an opposition corner?

Pace is obviously an essential component and is a staple part of all the teams above counter-attack strategy, alongside the pace you need technical ability – it’s pointless being able to run at speed if you cannot control the ball at speed as well, both technique and a good dribbling ability are crucial. You also cannot rely on one player to be able to launch a decent counter-attacking chance by themselves, you ideally need 3-4 players with significant pace in order to cause trouble.

Good Positioning is needed – you don’t want your main counter-attacking threats to be standing on the posts, you need to be able to get them involved as quickly as possible, so positioning is key. Obvious areas such as the edge of the penalty area or pushing out from defending the short corner are vital areas to position players in.

Mind. It’s amazing how quick some of those players react when they realise the counter-attack is on, in many of the clips above you can watch the individual players “switch on” to the chance of a counter attack, suddenly switching their pace up. Not only are their reactions quick – it’s the mindset to go along with that – the desire to attack, even if it does mean running the full length of the pitch in order to do so.

I think we’ll see more and more of teams paying further attention to the benefits of setting up in a way to potentially generate a chance for your own team – every shot counts at the elite level, so every avenue of generating these shots must be explored.

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