Thursday, April 21, 2011

Converting A Corner

Converting A Corner

By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 20, 2011) US Soccer Players -- Your team is down a goal and putting the pressure on its opponent as the minutes tick away. Just when the game seems lost, your team is able to win a corner kick. With the exception of being awarded a penalty shot, getting a late corner is a solid scoring opportunity. The chance to freely cross the ball into an opponent’s penalty box is indeed a tantalizing prospect. Bring everybody up including the goalkeeper and take advantage.

More often than not, however, teams fail to score a goal. The ability to effectively put the ball past a goalkeeper from a play that initiates from the corner flag requires a combination of size, speed, and positioning. There was a time when coaches and players believed that what separated great teams from good ones was the ability to take advantage of such chances. That may no longer be the case.

Corner kick success has been hard to come by – whether it’s the UEFA Champions League or the World Cup – over the past few years. It took teams competing in the Champions League, the world's best club competition, an average of 54 corner kick attempts to score during the 2009-10 season for a total of just 23 out of 320 goals. That translates to roughly 7% of all goals. UEFA says the success rate from corners has declined a staggering 46% over the past three years.

The Barcelona team that won the Champions League in 2009 - one of the best club sides in modern history - had a poor corner-kick success rate, finding the back of the net just twice in 82 attempts taken. It’s not surprising to learn then that defender Rafa Marquez, a member of that Barcelona team, has done a poor job this season taking corners for the Red Bulls. Marquez has attempted 29 corners over four games and New York has scored off just one of them – a goal by Luke Rodgers to open the scoring in this past Saturday’s 3-0 home win over the San Jose Earthquakes.

Of Barcelona’s 36 goals scored in the Champions League that season, 20 came during the run of play (mostly give-and-go situations and crosses), six from shots made from outside the box, and five breakaways. Set pieces in general were not relied on too much – only two penalty kicks and one free kick resulted in goals.

Rob Bagchi, writing for The Guardian, noted in a February 2010 blog post that taking corner kicks has become a dying art, adding that for defenses it has become nothing more than a routine exercise in clearing balls.

Defensive tactics are indeed to blame. I witnessed the trend in South Africa at last year’s World Cup. There were 145 goals scored over 64 matches. Of the 627 corner kicks that were attempted, FIFA said 271 connected with an offensive player (about 43% of the time). Of those, only nine goals were scored – equal to 6.2%.

For MLS, the focus is rightly on New York’s Marquez and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s David Beckham. After all, they are the only regular corner-kick takers in Major League Soccer who have played at the highest levels in Europe. So far this season, Beckham has taken 18 corner kicks in three games (he was suspended for this past Sunday’s game against the Chicago Fire for yellow card accumulation), and while he is known as a master of the set piece, his attempts have resulted in just one goal – the opening goal in the Galaxy’s 1-1 draw two weeks ago at DC United.

In MLS last season, 7.6% of all goals scored during the regular season came off corner kicks. The League has maintained records on goals that have resulted from a corner kick since 2003. Over the past seven seasons, the percentage has spanned from a low of 6.5% in 2005 to an all-time high of 8.1% in 2007. Five weeks into the season and the League says the percentage of goals scored off corner kicks is 12% (14 out of 116 goals). Last year at this time, the number was at an above-average 9.3% before it began to decline.

The key to a corner kick is the service. Any coach will tell you that the better the ball is served into the box, more likely a team is to convert. An accurate passer like Bobby Convey, who finished last season with 10 assists, took 92 corners over 28 games for the San Jose Earthquakes. The result was the Quakes leading the League in goals resulting from a corner with seven.

Overall, MLS production is a bit higher than in the English Premier League. The EPL averaged about 5% last season. Manchester United, which finished second in the standings in 2010, tallied just six times as a result of 240 corners for a success rate of just 2.5%. A League like MLS has seen a higher-than-usual amount of goals resulting from corner kicks because coaches continue to stress the fundamentals, particularly early on in the season. It’s not a knock against MLS coaches. Clubs like Barcelona rely so heavily on creative players to move the ball forward, that something like corner kicks suffer. In MLS, an opportunity like a corner kick is not to be wasted.

Since corners are one of those few situations that can be practiced over and over, it is critical for an MLS team to convert whenever it gets the chance. Last season, DC United and Kansas City Wizards failed to make the playoffs and both scored no goals as a result of a corner kick.

It is telling when a club like Manchester United, playing in one of the best leagues in the world, struggles to regularly score from corner kicks. So don’t get too excited the next time your favorite team earns a corner kick. Chances are they won’t score.

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