Take your mind back to the Summer of 2018. Fulham had just been promoted, memes about Harry Maguire spread virally across the internet, and football was coming home again. Happy days.
Like many others following England at the World Cup, I’d never seen the Three Lions get past the quarter final of a major tournament. I’d learned by now to temper my expectations, after seeing talented English sides crumble ever more embarrassingly every 2 years.
And yet, somehow, something very special happened in Russia. This very young English side, with a relatively inexperienced manager, were boldly going where the “Golden Generation” had never gone before.
What was different this time? Why was this side the closest to ending over 50 years of hurt? In my opinion, it’s down to 2 words: Set pieces. (Yes yes, and a favourable draw, but humour me for now…)
Across England’s World Cup Campaign, England scored 4 goals from corners, 3 goals from free kicks, and a couple of penalties. In fact, we scored more goals from corners than we did from open play. Whilst England were far from being in the top 4 footballing countries in the world, thanks to hard work from attacking coach Alan Russell, England found a niche not being exploited by other teams: being really good at corners. It almost proved enough to bring football home. Almost.
Now, this is hardly the first time where a team has exploited set pieces at the core of a successful campaign. Other examples include Chelsea’s Premier League win under Antonio Conte, Atletico Madrid winning La Liga, and for you footballing hipsters – FC Midtjylland winning the Danish league. A real David vs Goliath story, as a relatively tiny side beat much larger opponents to win their first ever title.
So, surely, after all this high profile success with set pieces, more and more teams are getting better at set pieces? Well, no, not really – and I’m struggling to understand why.
Football is an incredibly expensive business, with fine improvements being very hard to come by. Last year, Fulham upgraded their main striker from Abou Kamara to Mitrovic, buying them around 8 extra goals over a season – equal to the amount a good ‘set piece’ team scores over a poor one. Whilst I agree buying a big scary Serbian is a much sexier option than analysing and optimising set pieces – £20million is a lot of money…
Alright, alright… So how good are Fulham at corners?
Well, if you’ve read the title, or watched a few games at Craven Cottage, it will come as no surprise to you learn that we’re not. Looking at goals scored from corners this season, Fulham have the 5th lowest scoring rate:
To put the above numbers into context, if Fulham scored corners at the rate that Brighton had, we would have another 8 goals to our tally – adding approximately one extra Mitrovic to the squad. A terrifying thought.
I’ve always thought that the steep slope at the Cottage must hamper a taker’s ability to get the ball into the box. However, the data suggests that Craven Cottage is about league average for seeing corner goals – so unfortunately there’s no excuse we can call on there. Consequently, there are clear improvements that we can make – improvements which are within our control.
What does a “good” corner look like?
By taking a look at corners taken across England this season, and using something called ‘kmeans clustering’ (essentially finding common types of corners within a data set), we can investigate whether some corners are better than others.
In essence, corner placement is about balancing two things:
- The likelihood of a shot being generated from where it lands
- The chance of that shot ending in a goal
Therefore, the best corner sits in the sweet spot of being close enough to the goal to create a good chance, but isn’t mopped up by the opposition keeper. Within my data set there are 9 categories of corners, and below I’ve ranked them in terms of ‘goals per corner’, to see which corner type tends to result in more goals.
Now this is a fair bit of data, so to summarise what it shows:
- Inswingers are generally good – especially when hit to the far post
- It makes more sense to land a corner infront of a post, rather than in the middle of the goal
- Short corners are good (so fans – please stop moaning when we take them!!)
Ok… So where are Fulham placing their corners?
By looking at corners taken by English teams, and breaking them down into their ‘corner type’ (and their relative goal per corner ratio), we can see whether Fulham are taking more ‘good’, or ‘bad’ corners compared to other teams.
The graph above shows a distribution of what percentage of corners each team takes – and what Fulham’s distribution looks like. Essentially, if the red line is above a bar, Fulham hit more of these corner types than average. If below, we hit less than average.
The graph suggests that Fulham could improve their corner strategy by:
- Continuing to focus on short corners
- When putting in outswingers, aim for near post rather than the centre of the goal
Clearly, with corners, variety is important. If Fulham start hitting every corner as a far-post inswinger, the opposition will react accordingly. However, by simply using more logic and thought to the corners that we choose to take, we can improve our scoring rate. Fulham will take over 200 corners next year, so improving our efficiency even slightly could result in significantly more goals.
How good are Fulham at converting the corner chances?
So naturally, where you land a corner is only half the battle. You also need someone to put the ball in the back of the net. Are Fulham good at doing this?
Well, yes and no. Looking at the data, Fulham are actually pretty decent at getting on the end of corners, and getting shots on goal. In fact, Fulham have the 4th best ‘shot per corner’ rate in the league, with 28% – a healthy rate. The issue is that these shots are pretty poor quality ones, and they’re not going in the back of the net:
By comparing a basic ‘expected goals’ vs ‘actual goals’ from corners, we can compare Fulham’s finishing rate to other clubs.
It’s quite clear – Fulham don’t score as much from corners as they should. Whilst most teams seem to be scoring less than expected (likely a sign of the xG model being too basic), and there’s an element of small sample size here, Fulham’s scoring rate could be higher than it is.
One for the training ground, and perhaps another article for another day.
And one last thing…
There’s another aspect to set pieces, which is the set piece routine. This how you line players up as the corner is taken, and the runs they make, to help produce ‘free headers’ for your players. If you’re interested in what a good set piece looks like, this article gives a far better review than I ever could. It provides a great summary of how Chris Wilder (Sheffield United manager) has used innovative set piece training to help fashion great chances for his players.
I see no reason why Fulham couldn’t take inspiration from this, and try some inventive set pieces out in both training situations and matches.
By using data to optimise where you place set pieces, and train your side with smart strategies to create high quality chances for your players, you really can add significant goals to a team. With a tough Championship campaign coming up, I’d love Fulham to take this kind of thinking on board, and start championing good set pieces. With the promotion race likely to be incredibly tight, the difference of 5-10 goals genuinely could make all the difference in what league we end up finishing in.
There’s absolutely nothing stopping us from doing this – all it takes is some clever planning, and extra work on the training field. Can Scott facilitate this change? Time will tell…
Data provided by Wyscout – event data of Premier League, and Championship, 18/19 seasons.