War and Set Piece: Brighton’s outstanding ability to create - but not convert - from set pieces

Dead-ball situations have always been alive as a method of chance creation for teams, particularly for those at the wrong end of any table; despite perceptions around their archaic nature, they brought nationwide joy last summer with England scoring half their goals from corners and indirect free-kicks en-route to a memorable World Cup semi-final (FIFA Technical Report, 2018).

Brighton are actually a more clinical Premier League side from set pieces than open play attacks, which is unusual for a side in a league of this calibre. Just under 9% (27/302) of shots from Brighton’s set pieces have returned goals, whilst just 7.7% of open play shots (61/792) have been converted (@UnderstatXG). Last season, 40% of Brighton’s goals were set pieces, the highest proportion of any Premier League side, whilst this season they have created the third highest xG from set pieces — 12.65 — and have the second best xG per set piece at 0.143. What makes these figures more impressive is that 7 other sides have had more set pieces this season than the Sussex side. Only Everton, Chelsea and Leicester have created more chances than Brighton’s 57 from all dead-ball situations this season (fbref).

Yet, Brighton’s Achilles Heel of chance conversion, which was covered in a recent twitter thread, remains in set piece scenarios — they’ve underachieved set piece xG by 4.65, the fourth highest underachievement in the league. Therefore, from an external perspective, the 8 set piece goals scored seems far from sensational — 11 other sides have scored the same or more — though the reality is Brighton are amongst the league leaders in attacking set piece threat.

Whilst there’s no evidence directly correlating height to aerial ability, surely the abundance of it within Brighton’s back line is more beneficial than detrimental? Dan Burn towers above the rest at 6 foot 7 inches, whilst Webster, Dunk and Duffy are all well over 6 foot. With typically 3 of these 4 on the field at any one time, Brighton have multiple set piece targets whom are likely to be a similar height or even taller than the opponent marking them, instantly increasing the likelihood of goal-scoring.

Most importantly, Brighton’s deployment of these aerial threats, in terms of their set piece patterns, is key in chance creation. As you’d expect, Graham Potter adopts a modern approach with patterns, and from visual analysis appears to tweak them for each opponent in order to attempt to exploit weaknesses.

Brighton set up for set pieces in packs, utilising England’s popular ‘love train’ tactic. Such a tactic makes it more difficult for players to be marked tightly by opponents, allowing for more unopposed movement and better runs. Archetypal of this is Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s wonder goal against Chelsea in January. Albion have 4 in the ‘train’ with Jahanbakhsh at the end; Alzate sits on the edge of the box to prevent a Chelsea counter-attack and Neal Maupay takes up his usual position in close proximity to the opposition goalkeeper. This provides psychological and physical pressure should they exit to deal with the cross, whilst also increasing the distance of the route the ‘keeper would have to take to exit to claim the ball.

Brighton’s ‘Love Train’ against Chelsea

Though, more important is the starting depth, with the most advanced of the ‘train’ — Bernardo — around the penalty spot. This leaves vacant the entire second-six yard box area (between the penalty spot and edge of six yard box), which according to historic academic research by Charles Hughes is part of the ‘Prime Target Area’ whereby around 80% of all goals from crosses are scored. Creating space is an underpinning attacking principle in football, and Brighton use diagonal runners towards the front and back posts to draw players away and create more space in central zones.

Webster and Jahanbakhsh make runs towards Trossard (the corner taker), dragging defenders out to create more space centrally and importantly leave Bernardo and Dunk 2v2. When Dunk makes first contact on the ball, 5 Chelsea defenders have already been bypassed as a result of the cross location and false runs from Jahanbakhsh and Webster. Fewer defenders competing for the ball, by default, increases the likelihood that a Brighton player will win the first header.

Lewis Dunk wins the first aerial duel

These false runs put players in a position to compete for second balls/knockdowns, with Dunk heading back across goal to Jahanbakhsh, and the rest is history. Additionally, false runners provide a greater width of coverage in zones across the penalty area, and should a corner be over/under hit — which they often are — then there is still the possibility of making first contact on the ball.

In-swinging corners carry an innate threat of danger, given the curve of the ball trajectory is likely to already be going in towards the goal. Whereas out-swinging corners are naturally harder for goalkeepers to exit and claim as they are curving away from them, in-swingers are psychologically more difficult to deal with, as any attempt to influence the cross by the man between the sticks must do so, otherwise the ball will likely end up in the net.

Given the favourable trajectory of in-swinging corners, they also make it easier to score directly from them, as a wider type of finishes are available since the trajectory of the ball is already goal-bound and doesn’t require redirection. Naturally, finishes aren’t required to be as precise here either, again thanks to the favourable trajectory. Lewis Dunk’s goal at Manchester United, assisted by Pascal Gross, demonstrates this:

Brighton’s set piece set-up against United, enabling Dunk to score

United’s zonal defensive set up close to the goal allows for Brighton to exploit the six-yard box; March and Alzate take up, what become, false positions to draw United wider and create more space around the goal. Murray steps forward as the ball comes in to be a screening player, which drags McTominay a step forward. Dunk and Duffy both make diagonal runs in between the two central zonal markers, with the former rising highest to score.

Admittedly the quality of the cross in is absolutely Hollywood; Pascal Gross has created 20 chances from corners this season, the 7th most of any Premier League player and with the lowest minutes played of any of the top 10. Whilst Mooy and Trossard have created another 10 chances combined, Gross is the main threat in these scenarios; he boasts an impressive accuracy of 51% and over 30% of his corners have led to shots, the highest proportion of the 20 most frequent corner takers in the league (WhoScored).

Furthermore, of the 20 most frequent corner takers in the Premier League, Gross has the lowest minutes needed to create a chance from a corner; it takes the German, on average, less than 80 minutes to deliver a corner leading to shot, with all other players needing over 90 minutes to do so (WhoScored). With a set piece creator of this quality, it becomes less surprising to see Brighton score so highly from set pieces scenarios. Naturally, this threat is often missed, due to Brighton’s repeated wastefulness in-front of goal this season. Alas, Pascal Gross has assisted just once from set pieces this season, with Trent Alexander-Arnold leading in this metric with 5.

Likewise, a good creator is reliant on good converters. Shane Duffy had the joint-most goals of any central defender in the Premier League last season — only Virgil Van Dijk could match his 5 goals. Lewis Dunk has scored in every season for Brighton since 2014–15, including two headed goals in one match against Charlton back in the Championship. Summer signing Adam Webster has the most goals of any Brighton defender this season — all three from set pieces.

Interestingly, despite the two goals above demonstrating the threat of in-swinging and out-swinging corners, Brighton have used straight corner kicks the second most of any Premier League side this season — only Arsenal have exceeded 24 straight corner kicks (fbref).

Corners of this type can be extremely favourable for aerial threats. To prevent opposition goalkeepers coming and claiming, often these corners are a slower pace, looping and into deeper locations in the box. Typically achieved by applying backspin when striking under the ball, this corner type makes the ball ‘hang’ in the air for longer, giving players a greater amount of time to react and time runs correctly. Naturally, this would equally make it easier to defend against, though as was mentioned already, Brighton have considerable firepower in the attacking set pieces department.

Of course, corners aren’t the only method of dead-ball chance creation; there’s free-kicks too. Brighton’s set piece goal creation is perfectly balanced in this regard, creating 4 goals via each method. Two goals which stand out have utilised the same cross delivery type — the straight cross. Brighton overload back post areas well from free-kicks, with Burn providing excellent decoy movements. Against Villa he screened Webster’s back post run, preventing Mings from getting to him, and against Sheffield United he was able to stretch the Blades’ defensive line horizontally by positioning himself out wide:

In an interview with The Athletic, Adam Webster spoke of the tactical underpinning which went into creating Brighton’s first set piece goal under Graham Potter.

“We knew that Mings is the last man and drops deep early, so we had two on the ball, made him drop early, which kept me onside. It was something we worked on”

Brighton have also benefited from the Marmite modern invention of high defensive lines from set pieces. In theory such a move is genius — they attempt to catch opponents offside and as of this season are assisted by VAR, meaning any opponent who is even a millimetre offside will be caught. In reality, however, this method is equally as dangerous as it is rewarding; opponents are offering a huge zone of space which the ball can be crossed into. Not only does this then present a horribly difficult challenge for goalkeepers to enter ‘No Man’s Land’ in an attempt to claim the cross, it means that any players who can escape their marker have a genuinely good chance of scoring.

Back post free-kicks are typically met by headers back across goal, with Adam Webster delivering these against Villa and Sheffield United, with the header against the former going all the way in, and the header against the latter finding Neal Maupay who converted from close quarters.

Given the dead ball quality that Brighton have — rivals Palace are the only other teams to have 3 players in the top 35 dead ball chance creators (fbref) — it is no surprise they’ve been able to exploit these high lines. Fittingly, all three of the Albion’s creators have assisted from indirect free-kicks; Gross, unsurprisingly, leads the way with 2, both for Adam Webster away at Aston Villa and Tottenham. Mooy supplied Webster to assist Maupay at Sheffield United, whilst Leandro Trossard demonstrated his set-piece threat as a super substitute against Norwich.

Duffy’s blindside run allowed him to meet the Belgian’s ball in-behind the Canaries risky high defensive line. The danger of offering space through this approach was reflected in Duffy’s distance from goal when he poked home — he was just 8 yards out. Not that they need it, but the return of Alexis Mac Allister from his loan at Boca adds another player to the set piece arsenal; The 21-year-old Argentine has averaged 2.8 free kicks per 90 and 3.24 corners per 90 this season (Wyscout). When football does finally return, expect to see Brighton firing on all set-piece cylinders.

Twiter — @AlbionAnalytics

Written articles for the twitter page @AlbionAnalytics — focusing on Brighton & Hove Albion through tactical and data analysis.