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Did you know that West Bromwich Albion, a side managed by Tony Pulis, are quite good at scoring goals from set pieces? In other shocking news, water is wet.

As Craig Dawson rose above his teammates, clambering over them like a litter of hungry piglets trying to suckle a teat, to score his second against Arsenal, he took his team’s total of set play goals to 18 for the season, with 14 of those coming from corners. Given that West Brom have only scored 39 goals in total, it’s a remarkable figure.

In an insightful article for uMAXit, Alex Stewart outlined just how effective Pulis’ side are from these situations. Prior to the game against Arsenal, WBA had created more chances from set pieces than any other team this season. They’d manufactured 45 chances (four more than Watford), which constituted over 20 percent of their total chances created (with a league average of just over 15 percent).

Stewart goes on to point out that West Brom score around 27 percent of the chances they make from set pieces, compared to just 15 percent of their non-set piece chances; considering the high proportion of their total chances that come from dead balls, that 11 percent conversion rate makes a significant difference in their overall goal tally, as well as in their league position. Essentially, WBA create a lot of chances from set pieces and are very good at turning them into goals, much more so than other types of chances.

If you require a demonstration of the value and influence that goals from set pieces can have, you need only look at Sunderland. Moyes’ team have only scored twice from set plays this season despite generating a league average amount of chances from them. Compare that with last season when, under the purview of both Sam Allardyce and Dick Advocaat, Sunderland scored 11 goals from crossed free-kicks and corners (as well as four direct free-kicks) as they avoided relegation. Losing that number of goals could well be the difference between staying up and being relegated this time round.

There’s a perception that focusing on scoring goals from corners and free kicks is a sign of a desperate team employing a regressive brand of football to compensate for their technical inadequacy – an image that’s not helped by its major proponents in the Premier League. Even a brief look around the rest of Europe’s top divisions helps dispel that myth:

League

Club

Number of Set Piece Goals

Current League Position

Bundesliga

Hoffenheim

14

3

Bundesliga

Ingolstadt

13

17

Ligue 1

Monaco

20

1

Ligue 1

Marseille

14

6

Serie A

Torino

16

9

Serie A

Juve/Atalanta/ Inter

14

/ 5 / 7

La Liga

Real Madrid

19

1

La Liga

Barcelona

15

2

As you can see, with the exception of Torino and Ingolstadt, the most effective teams from set pieces are either challenging for Champions League places or in a title race.

Meanwhile, in a piece for StatsBomb, Twitter’s resident set piece evangelist, Ted Knutson, highlighted how peak Pulisball Stoke City managed 53 shots and eight goals from throw-ins: the equivalent of 1.5 shots per game, just from Rory Delap. He points out that “set piece goals typically account for between 25% and 33% of all goals scored in the course of a season”, that most clubs average about 0.3 goals per game from set pieces, and that elite clubs can push that figure up to 0.75 or 0.8 goals per game, which would work out as a difference of somewhere between 15 and 20 goals a season.

Put another way, West Brom have now scored almost as many league goals from set pieces as Alexis Sánchez has in total (18 vs 19) – more than Diego Costa, Zlatan Ibrahimović or Sergio Agüero. Imagine how much Sunderland would have to spend if they wanted to add an extra 20 goals per season to their team by signing a striker. Being efficient from set pieces is a smart, cost-effective way of increasing your goal tally.

So, we know that West Brom score a lot of goals from set pieces and we also know the value that set pieces can have on a team’s fortunes. But what are they doing in particular that makes them so effective?

Craig Dawson’s brace against Arsenal was striking because both goals essentially followed the same routine. For Dawson’s first goal, West Brom set up with two players packed in the middle of the six-yard box, a player pinning himself against the goalkeeper, two players located in the centre of the penalty area, a player lurking beyond the far post, and a player on the edge of the box.

Arsenal, meanwhile, set up with their usual mix-and-match man/zonal marking hybrid: two players guarding the front post zone, two guarding the middle of the goal, one guarding the far post, one player prepared to close down a short corner, as well as having two players man marking inside their own six-yard box. They also position a man further out (Aaron Ramsey in this scenario) who acts as a blocker for runs from deep. The six-yard box is heavily congested:

The blue line signifies the primary interactor with the ball. As the corner taker delivers the ball, the two West Brom players inside the six-yard box dart forward. Salomón Rondón and Gareth McAuley both run beyond the front post, with Rondón continuing his run to the corner of the box. This causes both the Arsenal players marking the front post zone, in addition to the man markers, to follow them forward under the flight of the ball, thereby creating a pocket of space inside the six-yard box for the deeper WBA players to attack.

Dawson evades the attentions of the Arsenal blocker Ramsey and runs directly into the vacuum previously occupied by Rondón and McAuley. His fellow runner from deep, James McClean, splits towards to back post, drawing another Arsenal player with him, helping to create more space at the front post. Jonny Evans then drifts inside the back post on the blind side of Sánchez.

Nacer Chadli crosses the ball with pace into the area vacated by Rondón and McAuley for Dawson, who timed his run perfectly, to comfortably head the ball in. Note that Theo Walcott, who had been tasked with stopping Darren Fletcher from obstructing Petr Čech, is actually the one who gets in his goalkeeper’s way.

Dawson’s second goal was practically a mirror image of the first – a left-footed inswinging cross from the right rather than a right-footed inswinging cross from the left – with a slight variation. The initial positioning of the West Brom players is broadly the same: three close to goal, two deeper, one at the back and two on the edge.

Hal Robson-Kanu, subbed on for Rondón, takes up the Venezuelan’s role in running the furthest from goal to drag players away, while the taker of the previous corner, Chadli, takes up the position of the current corner taker, McClean. Arsenal also adopt a similar shape (although they’ve shuffled player roles around a lot) but have shifted one the players who was previously zonally marking the six-yard box forward to act as a second disruptor (a duty carried out by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain here).

The corner is delivered with a similar shape and pace to the first, but towards the back post this time. West Brom’s players make almost identical runs and the Arsenal defenders completely fail to learn their lesson. Rather than simply sweeping up the area at the far post, Evans (pictured slightly off screen above) runs inside Hector Bellerín to contest the ball along with Chadli and Dawson, all of whom attack the gaping chasm created by the front post runs of their team-mates.

The Arsenal blockers aren’t really there to engage their opposition physically; they’re an obstacle designed to disrupt their opponents so they mistime their runs. Both of them fail miserably: Ramsey remains flat-footed, while Oxlade-Chamberlain gets sucked towards the ball and loses track of Dawson who is on hand to score once again.

It’s also worth noting how Claudio Yacob dashes in from the edge of the box to the penalty spot, ready to score from a knockdown or to stop a counter-attack before it can get going.

This last angle gives a better view of just how much space West Brom create for their deep runners, in addition to highlighting the function of the player shielding the goalkeeper.

Allowing a team to score twice like this within the same game is truly unforgivable from a defensive perspective and Arsenal were poorly equipped to deal with West Brom – both systemically and in terms of personnel. Still, if they had been caught out by a clever piece of unexpected planning then it would at least be tolerable and they could grudgingly accept a bit of one-off invention.

However, a quick glance back at WBA’s performances this season makes one thing immediately clear: almost every goal they’ve scored from a corner has come from a variation of this routine.

The two Dawson goals against Arsenal act as templates for a successful Pulisball corner and include some recurring elements. The corners themselves, taken by Brunt/McClean from the right, or Chadli/Phillips/Morrison from the left, depending on team selection, are executed the same every time: inswinging crosses curled in with pace (rather than being drilled or floated) into the six-yard box within the frame of the goal.

Likewise, the starting position of West Brom’s players matches how they set up against Arsenal, with a cluster of larger players standing close to goal, two or three runners from deep to attack the ball, players to sweep up at the back post and on the edge of the box, and occasionally someone obstructing the goalkeeper. The runs these players make follow the same pattern as well – the mass of players close to the goalkeeper run towards the corner flag, drawing defenders away to make space for their teammates (who are generally the most aerially proficient players) to run onto the ball. While the constituent elements might change, the fundamental principles remain the same.

Take, for instance, Evans’ late equaliser against West Ham, which broadly replicates Dawson’s second goal:

With the game in injury time, Ben Foster has come forward but, rather than challenge for the ball, he simply helps to create a second line to cover any loose balls. Rondón and McAuley once again make the front post runs which effectively distract Michail Antonio (number 30), one of West Ham’s most dominant players in the air. West Ham use a man marking system on the deep runners, but James Collins is unable to get close enough to Evans to stop him from using his momentum to gain an advantage with his jump.

Meanwhile, McAuley’s goal against Hull is more reminiscent of Dawson’s first, as it revolves around a near post delivery:

There are some slightly different aspects here – no player starting at the back post; a different starting position for the second near post runner; someone offering a short option who then runs inside to form the second line – but the general movement is the same.

This isn’t a recent development, either. This McAuley goal against Everton took place at the end of August and it follows the template. Jonas Olsson fulfils the Rondón role and Phillips hits a big looping arc to the back post:

Bonus points to Saido Berahino for doing a superb job of impeding the goalkeeper, ending up in a heap on the floor with him while his teammate scores.

It’s not simply that this routine is the most effective amongst a myriad of options – this is a general pattern they adhere to for almost every corner. In this game against West Ham from earlier in the season, we can see all of the familiar aspects: Phillips attracting Manuel Lanzini and Antonio (once again) away from the zone they’re guarding, so McAuley and Dawson have room to converge on Adrián, who on this occasion does well to get a strong fist on the ball under pressure.

Part of what makes it so effective is that’s difficult to distinguish which variant is being used based on the starting position of WBA’s players; there’s no way to pre-emptively protect the area the ball will be delivered into when you can’t predict where it’s going.

As well as switching between attacking the near and far post, there are other slight alterations West Brom make. When they’re faced with a goalkeeper who is particularly tall (such as Maarten Stekelenburg of Everton or Čech of Arsenal), or otherwise is fond of attempting to claim crosses (Adrián of West Ham), they’ll use either Fletcher or Morrison as an obstruction to keep them pinned to their goal line.

However, against goalkeepers who are less aerially capable, such as Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet:

Here, McAuley’s initial header is blocked, but he manages to prod it in at the second attempt.

Or Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc:

They forego the screening player in favour of having an additional body challenging for the ball. Boruc made a good save from Evans’ header here, so getting in his way might have actually been useful.

WBA have been less successful from free-kicks, scoring four goals from crossed dead balls (fewer than Swansea and Bournemouth and tied with Watford) and no direct ones. Given that free-kicks are taken from a wide range of angles and distances from goal, perhaps they are more difficult or too complex to prepare for or to deliver consistently.

Pulis’ side incorporates elements of his corner template, including equal spacing of runs across the width of the goal frame and the creation of an extra line to contest the second ball, but with a major difference: his free-kicks are usually outswinging. Early on against Middlesbrough, Brunt chucks one in from the left wing:

The usual culprits, Dawson, McAuley and Rondón, all run from the ‘D’ into the heart of the box. Meanwhile, Fletcher initially starts in an offside position but remains static, allowing the defensive line to drop past him so he can take up his position of the edge of the box.

Bernardo gets to the ball first but can only clear it into the air. McAuley holds off his marker and nods it down to Fletcher. The skipper cushions the ball into the path of Morrison …

… who rifles the ball into the back of the net.

Later in the same game, WBA have an almost identical one. ‘Boro are nearly punished a second time:

Brunt’s delivery is better this time as he drops the ball almost exactly onto the penalty spot but Álvaro Negredo does quite well to challenge Dawson. The Spaniard’s presence is enough to stop the WBA defender from generating enough power on his header and Victor Valdés makes the catch.

It’s a similar story from the right flank, as Phillips’ dead ball against Leicester demonstrates:

Once again, the Baggies have evenly spaced runs across the width of the box that begin on the edge of the area and end roughly in line with the penalty spot. This time Rondón is the one who holds his position. Phillips’ delivery is poor and Huth uses his granite forehead to boom a header up towards the half-way line and Morrison has to battle with Vardy to halt the counter.

They utilise the same routine to greater success from a near-identical position against Swansea:

Rondón loses his man and powers home the first goal of his hat-trick of headers. Chadli (a bit like McClean in the Leicester example above) begins in the middle of the pack and then peels off towards the back post:

The use of outswinging free-kicks is curious. West Brom’s corners seem primarily designed to get the ball into a crowded six-yard box as close to goal as possible. The offside rule, coupled with the general trend to adopt a high defensive line, means that this is unfeasible from most free-kick locations so maybe that’s why WBA do something different in these situations.

It might be that they want to ensure that their opposition has to take action – an inswinging cross can easily be left to roll out of play or to bounce through the goalkeeper if they’re overhit, while an outswinging ball requires some intervention from the defending team, as it’ll generally stay in play (unless it’s badly mishit or goes out for a throw-in). Outswingers also have the benefit of potentially coaxing goalkeepers to intervene, which can of course lead to opportunities that arise from mistakes. Then again, it could simply be that Pulis wants to give defenders something else to think about by forcing them to contend with a different type of delivery.

So, given their potency, and their adherence to a general pattern of organisation and movement, how do you contain West Brom’s set piece threat?

The answer, of course, depends entirely on what type of marking system you implement. There are some easy ways to combat it, though. First is to recognise the distraction runs as just that: distractions. The biggest problems seem to occur when players who are supposed to be zonally marking the front post leave that area to follow the runs of Rondón or whoever else dashes under the flight of the ball. Defenders panic and feel the need to track the man, which leaves the most vulnerable area of the pitch exposed.

But leaving that space exposed is only half of the problem – it’s what fills it that’s the real issue. Almost every goal West Brom have scored from corners has come from one of the players who start their run from deeper. This makes sense as even if players have stuck to their zone, they can only jump from a standing position against someone with a run on them.

Perhaps an Arsenal-style zonal blocker system could work, if you had attentive and intelligent enough players to perform that role. However, the best way to deal with them seems to be to cut the runs off at source.

Against West Ham, Cheikhou Kouyaté has a hold of Dawson’s arm, Angelo Ogbonna and Rondón are tussling, and Collins has his arm around McAuley’s back:

Dawson and Rondón manage to wriggle free of their markers but, by physically engaging him early, Collins is able to prevent McAuley from building up too much momentum. The Welshman is then strong enough to hold off his opponent and he manages to get a foot on the ball first. A slightly dud cross helps matters – and advocating a tight man marking system using bulky defenders isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel – but as a method, it certainly works.

With access to more game footage, it’d be easier to do a more robust analysis of exactly what they do and find out other ways that teams have stopped them (there are number of games they haven’t scored from a set piece in and there a variety of factors that could contribute to that: good marking systems; poorly executed runs; inconsistent or poor quality of delivery; excellent goalkeeping).

What is clear is that, regardless of which variation they are running, they end up with almost the exact same distribution of players across the width of the six-yard box:

Pulis’ corner routines are predicated on two basic concepts: creating space inside the six-yard box and zonal coverage of the entire penalty area. The run that Rondón typically makes beyond the front post exploits defenders’ tendency to perceive individual players, rather than areas of space, as the biggest danger. Rondón’s movement panics them as they think that he’s going to be the player to receive the ball. In reality, all he is doing is trying to manufacture space in behind him.

The underlying thinking behind the type of delivery is intuitive: by curling the ball in as close as goal as possible, you enhance the likelihood of the ball ending up in the net. The close proximity to the goal line reduces the need for a clean contact on the ball from one of your players, while any deflections off opposition defenders will likely be towards their own goal due to the shape of the cross.

The positioning of players across the six-yard box is a simple case of playing the percentages. If a far post header is nodded back across goal, there are players at the near post to tap it in. If a near post header skims off someone’s head and carries, then the men at the back can try and get something on it. If a defender heads the corner away, the second line of players is there to make the most of the second ball or to mop up a counter attack. All Pulis does is ensure his players are in place to take advantage of any penalty area chaos and, with the sweeping second line, it even has a form of pre-emptive defence built into it.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about all of this, it’s just something basic executed very, very well. What’s staggering is that teams keep getting caught out by this – they’ve been doing it all season long. Perhaps it’s one thing knowing what’s coming but another thing stopping it 

By Tom Mason    @Mase159