War and Set Piece II: Analysing Brighton’s dead ball dilemmas
Perhaps football’s biggest source of confusion, innovation, last-minute hope, and supposed source of goals for an underdog side (if you ask any co-commentator ever, that is), set pieces seem to be either an Achilles Heel or a Gold Mine for teams.
Last campaign Brighton were actually really good at creating from these situations, with their tactics in achieving this explained in this piece:
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…
This campaign, Seagulls supporters seem to start shaking as soon as the referee awards an opposition corner or free-kick, and according to some the Albion had already broken the Guinness World Record for short corners in a Premier League season by December. Hyperboles aside, Brighton have become a really interesting case study for the eye test versus analytics under Potter, and set pieces are no different.
Part One: Defending Set Pieces
Albion aren’t the worst Premier League side at defending set-pieces — that title goes to Leicester City, with just over 38% of their total goals conceded coming from set-pieces. Even so, it has been a recurring point of anxiety that coinciding with possession based football and promising performances, Brighton have not looked entirely convincing when trying to defend dead-balls. Let’s look at the instances where Albion have let the ball in the net, and identify the trends, errors and varying factors that lead to a goal conceded.
The basic set-up
Firstly, what do the underlying numbers look like? Not especially bad from an xGA perspective; Albion are actually bang on average for the average quality of shot from corners. To match their endearing trend with their general xG and xGA numbers, Newcastle are conceding a much higher quality of chance on average, and yet concede less frequently. I’m not bitter, I’m not.
Numerically, the raw numbers read as 8 goals conceded from 45 free-kicks plus corner shots equating to 5.76xGA. This gives us hope that the unwanted high ranking in the set piece goals conceded table is probably more down to individual errors and clincial opponents than any glaring systematic flaws.
There is a consistent theme with Albion’s approach that makes it easy to evaluate the effectiveness of the defensive set-up. In each of the following images, Albion arrange their defence with a hybrid zonal-blocking system close to goal, accompanied with man-marking the main opposition threats. Many will tell you that using a zonal approach is systematically flawed, though a study from the University of Chichester identified no significant differences in goals conceded from zonal or man-to-man marking when analysing Premier League corners. Admittedly, a more recent study investigating the 2018 World Cup did find zonal marking set-ups to concede shots and goals more frequently than man-to-man set-ups. Bear this in mind though; Leeds utilise the most man-marking approach in the league when it comes to defending set pieces, and they have conceded the second most shots from non-penalty dead ball situations (42) and the most goals (8). It is way more about the execution of the set-up than just how a team organises themselves.
Away from the academia and back to the action, then; the best defensive headers of the ball, Dunk, Webster, Burn etc. are positioned in and around the six-yard-box. Others are situated in a second line higher up, tasked with blocking, slowing, impeding or preventing high momentum runs from attacking opposition players. The example below is from Wolves (H), where Albion conceded not directly from the corner, but from the second-ball subsequent to the original cross.
This generally works. It allows Brighton to defend the most dangerous areas in the box, preventing opposition players from making contact with the ball close to the goal. With this set-up, the opposition are forced to shoot from less optimal positions. The six-yard-box is guarded by Albion’s giant defenders. And thanks to the blockers, their opposite numbers are unable to get up sufficient momentum to beat them to the ball if it’s directed close to the goal. Thus, any attempt likely has to be taken 10+ yards from goal and thus is of lesser quality.
So why, sometimes, does it not work? The first goal shown will be the unluckiest of my examples, in the first game of the season at home to Chelsea. The Blues, by the way, are up there as one of the best teams attacking from corners this season, largely thanks to Kurt Zouma’s power and intelligence when attacking the ball. The fact that some teams are genuinely just good at set pieces is important to remember; Brighton have conceded 8 goals from dead ball situations excluding penalties this season, against Everton, Chelsea, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Southampton, West Ham Wolves. Of those teams, only Southampton sit outside the top 10 for shot-creating actions from set pieces this season.
As the Chelsea corner comes in, you can see the free men in the six-yard-box, and the opposition being attended to with committed marking. So far, so good. When the shot actually comes in, it’s a difficult technique on the volley, with 4 or 5 Albion players in the way to block the shot.
This next angle is really telling; it’s a pretty weak effort, Ryan has a clear view, there are many bodies in the way had the attempt been directed towards any of the corners. Frustratingly, Webster dangles a leg out to try and block the shot, which ends up taking the ball away from the goalkeeper. But for me, this is an example of a good set-up — if you can’t win the ball on first contact, minimise the likelihood of the opponent scoring. This was done pretty well here, but for Webster’s misfortune.
Outswinging corners tend to cause more problems with this system. This is because, as with the Chelsea incident, the ball curls away from the more dominant headers of the ball positioned closer to the goal, and into the path of onrushing attackers. This weakness is demonstrated with Vestergaard’s excellent headed effort for Southampton. The header is immaculate, and the Dane is a huge aerial threat, but even so — players of Premier League quality are capable of doing that to you. Here we see the same set-up, with the six-yard-box protected.
As the ball comes in with an outswinging corner, the header is met about 9 yards out. Dunk attempts to rush out to meet it, but can’t get there, owing to his deep starting position.
This is another instance where a high quality header has circumvented a low % opportunity — it’s all very well restricting chance quality, but turns out teams have started trying this thing called ‘overperforming xG’. Maybe we should give it a try.
Mistakes in Black and (Ben) White
Our strategy is, in my view, quite sound. There are quite clearly other factors at play that explain Albion’s generosity at set-pieces. A common criticism of zonal marking is that it diminishes accountability. Let me dispel this myth with a scathing review of individual errors; ‘switching off’ has been rife this season, and whether you believe that responsibility rests with the manager or the players, it’s something that is EXTREMELY frustrating as a fan.
Ben White is a particular culprit. He’s had a good season so far, and stepped up from Championship football admirably. But it’s no coincidence that Leeds rank poorly defending set-pieces this season…a potential weak point in Bielsa’s coaching approach.
White is still young, still developing. He’s not a huge physical specimen either, and doesn’t compete for many aerial duels.
But too many times this season, he has been caught flat-footed, or found himself not paying enough attention at crucial moments. Take this example, away at Everton where Albion conceded twice from set-plays in a 4–2 loss. The first goal was a case of everyone switching off, Everton take a short corner which catches everyone by surprise. In any case, Albion’s central defenders are lined up on the six-yard-box as they should be, but with no one available and aware to track runners. White was clipped inadvertently by Calvert-Lewin as he jumped for the header, but the disorganisation seen is a bad habit to get into.
The second goal is a clearer demonstration of White’s poor concentration. The ball is actually floated perfectly into the near post, and Mina beats Webster to the ball to score. But pay attention to White with Calvert-Lewin at the back post. As the kick-taker approaches, White’s body position is poor, too closed — essentially ball watching. This is problematic for a player who is not aerially exceptional; White wins 58% of his aerial duels this campaign, the lowest of any Albion central defender.
As the ball comes in, Calvert-Lewin’s movement ‘out-and-in’ is clever, but White’s reactions are delayed and panicked. At the point Mina makes contact with the ball, White has lost his man, and if the ball were to have gone all the way through to the back post, or if Mina had flicked the initial cross on, the Everton striker was in for a tap-in. No longer goal-side, White becomes obsolete in the play. Whilst not directly at fault, he failed to carry out his responsibility.
Another instance of slow reactions, this time away at Aston Villa. White (highlighted) is behind the play. Webster is blocked by John McGinn, and thus he cannot affect the ball in any way as it swings in.
Konsa ghosts through, and is allowed an attempt at goal under no pressure whatsoever.
This one, whilst leading 1–2 away at West Ham, is the worst of the lot. Personally infuriating, and entirely inexcusable. The aforementioned set-up is implemented with designated roles in mind, and if one player doesn’t carry out their job, the entire system is ineffective. This example surely does away with the argument that zonal marking absolves responsibility. Here’s the standard set-up; it’s actually one of the best demonstrations of our zonal-blocking system.
White and Soucek are highlighted. The Czech powerhouse runs from very deep, so perhaps there is an argument that White should engage a little higher up. Irrespective of this, what happens next as the corner comes in is unacceptable.
The cross is inswinging, which means it is directed back towards the six-yard area. The tactics Albion employ is designed to mitigate these deliveries; with their best headers of the ball situated in this zone, and blockers preventing runs from deep, we are in a good position to clear the ball. Unfortunately, there is zero attempt from White to disrupt the attacking player. Before Soucek makes contact with the ball, it flicks off Dunk’s head — this poor header is attributed to being unsighted by Welbeck and Webster jumping for the ball in front of his eyeline, as you can see from the image below.
Referring to White’s starting position, and where Soucek scores from, this goal is the biggest disappointment of the season. It’s the type of goal you cannot afford to give away at this level. I don’t wish to single White out however, others have been culpable over the season. Below, you can see Solly March losing his man at the back post against Manchester United. Frustrating, that after such diligence and attention to detail within our performances this season, basic errors have cost us so dearly.
If in doubt, blame the keeper
My final observation relates to our goalkeeping. I hesitate to go after Maty Ryan too harshly, following his loan move to Arsenal. Clearly his form this season has not been up to standard, and with so many promising goalkeepers on our books, a move away makes sense. The sample size is relatively small, and Ryan has not been directly at fault for any of our set-pieces conceded, but perhaps confidence has been a factor in our set-piece troubles. Ryan’s claims this season, contrary to encouraging numbers in previous years, have been poor — as you can see below:
Ryan conceded 6 goals from dead-balls in 11 games, before fully losing his place. Robert Sanchez in contrast, has conceded just 2 in 8 games. This is by no means a direct correlation; I don’t think goalkeeping has been a dominant factor in our defending of set-pieces. The Spaniard could have done more in the aforementioned Soucek equaliser at the London Stadium; the screenshots above show him vacating his line initially to influence the cross, before U-turning but not dropping in time to save a header that was relatively central in the goal. The margins are so fine, plus Sanchez is young and raw with years to develop, but such is the quality of Premier League sides from set pieces. Maty Ryan made a set piece error himself at the London Stadium last season, exiting to influence a free-kick from deep which Issa Diop beat him to to score. If you want to read more analysis of the ‘keepers, check out a recent Patreon article.
Looking at the numbers, our organisation is not especially worrying — but the evidence shows we remain acutely vulnerable to outswinging corners against opposition who excel at heading the ball. Oh, and if individual players could make sure they’re always paying attention, that would be great. Let’s have some positivity then. In their last 6 games Brighton have conceded 8 shots from dead-ball situations, an average of 1.33 per game, an improvement from the 1.54 per game in the first 13 matches. On top of that, the Seagulls have 10 shot-creating actions from set pieces in their last 6 games, thus they have actually outperfomed opponents in quantity terms across those fixtures.
Part Two: Attacking Set Pieces
The Albion were emphatic from dead balls going forward last season, among the top 7 in the league for shots created from dead ball situations (69), with only Liverpool (10) bettering the number of goals that the Seagulls scored from such situations (8).
Straight Outta Corners (or Outta Straight Corners)
Plenty has changed set-piece wise this campaign, though, even if the takers of them are mostly the same.
It will surprise few that an underachievement in attacking set piece xG last season has remained; Potter’s side scored 10 goals from 112 indirect set piece shots worth 14.35xG last campaign, with this seasons totals reading 3 goals scored from 57 shots worth 5.54xG. Though the contrast looks stark when comparing the seasons, it is worth noting that Brighton’s xG per game average is up this season to 1.43 from 1.26 in the 19/20 season — what they may lack in set pieces this campaign is more than compensated for.
So, what’s changed? Well, last campaign Brighton were devilish from straight deliveries — Webster at Villa, Maupay at Sheffield United — taking the second most straight corners in the league (31). This seems natural given the aerial arsenal of Lewis Dunk, Adam Webster and Dan Burn, who collectively offer close to 20 feet worth of height, thus hanging balls into the area should naturally give them ample opportunity to dominate aerial duels.
This campaign, though, the Seagulls have stopped the straight deliveries almost entirely, recording this corner type on just 3 occasions. The Albion are averaging around 4.2 corners per game this season, almost exactly their 19/20 average.
Tactical considerations and noteworthy numbers
The reduction in straight deliveries has been married with an increase in outswingers, which is actually responsible for their improved set pieces in the second half of the first half of the season — games 10 to 19 as opposed to 1 to 9, if you excuse my over-indulgent journalistic writing. 9 shots created from dead ball situations in the first 10 games was a particularly poor return for a side of this set piece quality, though since the 1–1 draw at home to Liverpool the Albion have created 19 shots from such situations, a return of over double.
In the last 7 domestic games, 31 of Brighton’s 37 corners have been outswinging deliveries. The general notion from footballing fans is that this delivery type is bad, presumably because it curls away from the goal, with inswinging ones — which curl in exactly the opposition fashion — seeming conceptually more dangerous. But as we know, football is not played on paper nor Microsoft Excel, so it is important to consider the type of chances Brighton want to create. Inswinging corners by default have to attack locations outside either post, as they curl in towards the goalkeeper who will likely claim or deal with the ball for anything landing between the posts.
Under Potter, Brighton primarily look to score chances from the first contact at corners — i.e. the player winning the ball is shooting at goal, rather than flicking it on. This makes sense, given that Brighton commit their defenders forward for the attack and — on World Cup average — 15% of corners lead to opposition counter-attacks, over double the proportion that lead to a second corner.
Of course, Albion’s defensive transition worries are well known, so creating a shooting opportunity that leads to the play ending — a goal, goal kick or second corner — is particularly desirable, as an counter-attack launched from the corner is likely to see Albion caught out numerically at the back.
There are serious tactical benefits to outswingers, too, given Albion’s set piece threats. A big caveat here is that Potter and his staff will tailor routines meticulously to exploit opposition weaknesses. For example, they used a short corner to exploit Arsenal’s central zonal marking set-up in the 2–1 win last June.
Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk are Albion’s top players in terms of headed shots this season (10 each), with the two the main targets from attacking corners. Their aerial ability is underpinned by the power they can get behind a header, with an outswinger suiting this as it curls the ball towards them as they run, generating more power on the header.
Albion’s opportunities from outswingers
Take Dunk’s shot on target at Fulham and goal against Wolves, for instance. In both, he and Webster start almost exactly on the 18-yard line.
The preparation of space is essential. Where attackers stand and run when attacking set pieces is typically mirrored by defenders, so starting away from the space you want to end up in should keep it clear of defenders, too.
The importance of the ‘Second 6-yard box’
Against Fulham, they keep the whole second 6-yard box (an imaginary 6-yard box of the same dimensions, but placed between the actual one and the penalty spot) vacant. Ultimately, this is the space they want to attack and keeping defenders out of their gives Albion players an increased chance of winning the first contact, hitting the target and thus scoring.
Note as well, the further from the zonal markers the attacker stands the less likely they are to be in their peripheral vision — this is serious marginal gains stuff, but set pieces are won and lost on percentages. If a zonal marker cannot see the attacker and the ball simultaneously, then they can’t track both the runner and the flight of the ball, giving the attacker an advantage.
The shot occurs with Dunk having made a run of about 9 vertical yards, heading the ball from the middle of that second 6-yard box. Note the role of Ben White here, too — positioning himself on Tosin Adarabioyo and dragging him out of the line of the post to give Dunk a clear shot at goal.
Andi Zeqiri assumes this role for the skipper’s equaliser at Wolves. He initially occupies the second 6-yard box, peeling off to the back post to drag Rayan Aït-Nouri with him.
Dunk heads home from incredibly close proximity to where Zeqiri started, showing just how many components have to be perfect to execute a set piece routine to perfection. Dunk’s aforemention equaliser against Arsenal was evidence of the importance of the secondary targets, in that case Neal Maupay.
Zeqiri is that in this example, though of course he is there to convert and compete for second balls, too — Adam Webster opened the scoring in North London last season when the ball dropped in the box. In fact, the Swiss missed a quality chance to level the scoring before the Albion did through Dunk, firing over a rebound from Webster’s header which struck the woodwork. The deflection on Dunk’s header of course needs addressing, but that goes to show just how much force he has behind the header to still achieve a shot of that power, even if deflected.
If individual examples are not enough, take a look at the corner graphics for Brighton from the draws against Sheffield United, Fulham, West Ham and Wolves. Chances created in every game, with most occurring in that second 6-yard box space.
Mythbusting: Two players on corners
If outswingers weren’t bad enough, some Brighton fans would have you believe that having 2 players on corners is a cardinal sin, so let’s consider the tactical advantages of that before we cast it into football’s room 101. Fundamentally, the main critique — that I know of — is that this takes an attacker out of the box. Let’s take Lewis Dunk’s goal at West Ham. If you haven’t grasped by now, he scores a lot from set pieces.
Firstly, consider West Ham’s aerial dominance, it seems unlikely that the presence of Solly March or Leo Trossard could genuinely add to Brighton’s aerial threat, plus they are the Albion’s top two chance creators this season, with 45 and 44 shot-creating actions respectively.
More importantly, placing a left-footer and a right-footer on corners opens Albion up to every corner type available, which gives them more possible routines, makes them harder to predict and also means defences have to set up in a more adapted manner. For a corner from the left, Solly March can curl an outswinger or drive a straight delivery, whilst the Belgian brings an inswinger.
Defences will set up different to defend different corner types, which are more predictable if you only have one taker as this limits options. Defences — and goalkeepers — are likely to start in more aggressive, advanced positions against outswingers since they do not directly attack the goal, plus this brings offside into play for rebounds. Naturally, against inswingers teams will probably defend closer to goal.
By setting up to defend all corner types, teams are incapable of setting up to defend a specific corner type best, which in principle makes it easier to create chances against. Again, it feels imperative to highlight Dunk and — in this case — Burn’s deep starting positions.
Many sides — Albion included — tend to defend corners with all players back, packing the box. West Ham do exactly that, so you can draw an extra player out and lighten the box slightly by placing two on the corner, as is highlighted in the still above. Fewer players demands more man-to-man markers and gives zonal markers bigger space to cover, in effect requiring each player to do their job more effectively as there are fewer players to cover for errors.
As the goal against West Ham above is evidence of, this set-up suits a short corner, which to many appears to be another set piece faux pas. Short corners can be used to let a player dribble in closer, create an angle to shoot or alter the crossing angle — the latter of the three was done here; March would be hard pressed to hit an outswinging delivery onto the edge of the 6-yard box from the corner arc without putting the ball out of play mid-flight, so by moving it inside a few yards he facilitates all sort of new crossing options.
From a coaching perspective, this offers you plenty of new set piece patterns and also provides a trigger — players can start runs when the ball goes short, similar to when the taker raises an arm.
Dunk is already entering into the second 6-yard box before March crosses, which is actually a vacant space. Evidence of the benefits of drawing opposition out can be found here, too. Soucek (28) has been dragged deeper by Welbeck, the unselfish runner in this instance. Though the Czech gets a touch, he does not make sufficient contact to clear the ball, which he may well have done if he had taken a more aggressive start position if Welbeck had not been so selfless. Ironically, the reverse situation happens later in the game for the Czech to score, though we’ve already discussed the defensive set piece frailties.
Brighton’s number 5 may be fortunate in the ricochet, but taking corners with such fine details and tactical nous facilitates this ‘luck’. The finish isn’t too bad either.
Throw-ins (yes, you heard)
A rather niche — but actually the most frequent — part of the set piece playbook, throw-ins are frequently debated and now even coached.
Whether you care or not about these, here are the facts. As highlighted in the piece below, Brighton have taken the most throw ins of any Premier League side this season (at the time of writing).
The Brighton & Hove Albion Stats Collection: Volume I
Very much inspired by @LUFCDATA on Twitter, this piece will be the first in what will hopefully become a collection of…
Brighton have created more goals than you’d expect from such situations, too. Last campaign they netted goals against Tottenham (Connolly’s 1st), Norwich (Trossard at home) and at Southampton from throw ins.
This campaign, Danny Welbeck’s opener at Villa came courtesy of such a situation.
Whilst throw ins will naturally generate fewer oppurtunities to create chances than free-kicks or corners (partially because they happen further down the pitch), teams are likely to try and ‘pen in’ Albion from these situations in order to try and force a turnover. This is exactly what happened against Villa, with Lallana breaking the last line of a Villa defence camped in the Brighton half.
They are by no means a fundamental dead ball tool, but it is yet another desirable string to the set-piece bow.
The Set Piece specialists
As a final point, it is worth remembering the depth of Brighton’s set piece arsenal. Pascal Gross is probably the biggest threat from these situations, leading the Albion pack for dead pass shot creating actions (11) this season.
Solly March (6) is on track for his best return of shot-creating actions from dead balls this campaign, whilst Leandro Trossard (9) has already levelled his tally in that metric from last season. The Belgian’s evolution as a creator was covered over on Patreon, please consider supporting the page!
Alexis Mac Allister can create from these situations too, giving Albion more than ample firepower in attacking set pieces.
A long piece, but many thanks for reading! Be sure to follow Charlie on Twitter as he contributed the defensive set piece analysis, and if anything deserves a follow and recognition having to re-watch Brighton’s corners and free-kicks faced is about as brutal as it gets. Follow the twitter page for more analysis, and subscribe to the Patreon if you would like to unlock exclusive content and support the page.