Could Corners Prove to Be a Dangerous Weapon for Leeds against Liverpool?

In this piece, Joe Morgan takes a look at Liverpool’s setup at corners and wonders if Leeds could generate dangerous chances from the corner flag in Sunday’s fixture…

In the first three games of this season, Liverpool have faced only 10 corners in total. But in the last game, Chelsea were able to find some joy from the corner and were the first team to score from one against Liverpool this season, courtesy of a Kai Havertz header.

In that game, Liverpool faced only three corners likely due to the fact Chelsea had to change their playstyle after Reece James’ red card in the first half. Chelsea delivered all three corners whipped to the front post area and were able to get shots off from two of them. In the previous two games against Norwich and Burnley, Liverpool only conceded 2 shots from 7 corners both from corners delivered to the middle of the box.

When defending corners Liverpool have set up in pretty much the same way in all three games with four — or sometimes five — men playing zonally within the six-yard box and the rest of the defenders man-marking the opposition runners.

For the corner that brought Chelsea’s goal, Liverpool set up like this before the corner was taken:

You can see how Liverpool were set up to defend corners into the front post with three men (Robertson, Matip and Henderson) in that area to deal with the ball and runners into that space.

The far post area is occupied by Van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold and Mane, while Firmino and Fabinho are responsible for the centre of the goal.

Elliot and Salah have less defensive responsibility and are there to pick up any second balls. It’s not necessarily reflected well in this image but Liverpool are committed to their zonal assignments in the six-yard box, so much so, that they ignore marking Lukaku and Jorginho who are there too.

The moment Havertz makes contact with the header that results in the goal, the situation looks like this:

Havertz has been able to get across Robertson at the front post and beat him to the ball, while Lukaku and Jorginho have made movements out to the edge to occupy two of the defenders. Harvey Elliot, marking zonally at the corner of the six-yard box, does very little to help out.

Azpilicueta, at the back post, doesn’t have much involvement here but he finds it easy to get into space between Alexander-Arnold and Mane, and the back post unopposed. Fabinho, in the middle of the box, is tasked with dealing with Rudiger’s runs into central areas.

It has to be said, the Havertz goal comes from a very unlikely header, but by delivering the corner with pace to the front post, Mason Mount gives the attacker an option to shoot or attempt a flick-on. The Havertz effort seems like a bit of both which results in a goal this time.

In the first corner of the game, Chelsea used a similar attacking plan:

We can see from this how Havertz makes the same run to the front post but Robertson wins the header on this occasion. Azpilicueta also makes his run to the same space at the back post so he can attack any flick-ons or if the ball isn’t met at the front post.

This example also shows the runs that Lukaku and Jorginho make from behind the defensive line on the defender’s blindside. This allows them to possibly get a yard on the defenders if the ball comes into that area, but if it doesn’t, then they are occupying defenders and making their job harder.

We can also see how Rudiger (at the front of the queue of three) makes a direct run into the middle of the goal which forces Fabinho to collapse into the six-yard box and also forces Mane to move over to try and defend him. Rudiger’s run creates more space for Azpilicueta at the back post but also clears the space outside the six-yard box which means that Mason Mount has time to collect the clearance and get a shot off in this instance.

After James’ red card, Chelsea had one more corner that looked like this (with the ball coming in from the other side):

Liverpool set up defensively pretty much exactly the same despite having the man advantage. The ball was delivered to the front post where it was cleared by Matip. Chelsea made two runs to the front post and still managed to collapse the defence quite well considering the numerical disadvantage. In the end, Mount was nearly able to get another shot off from within the box.

Chelsea targeted the front post with their corners and identified Havertz vs. Robertson, or maybe Henderson, as a potential mismatch which they were able to exploit.

Despite not being involved, Azpilicueta was also able to find space at the back post against Alexander-Arnold which may have been another area Chelsea identified as a possible successful area. In combination with this, there was also a repeatable opportunity for shots after the clearance as they created space with their runs into the box.

Against Chelsea, Liverpool defended a bit more zonally than in previous games, perhaps because Chelsea were quite dangerous from corners at times last season and they wanted to try and control the most dangerous areas of the box. Against Norwich and Burnley, they used four men zonally in the six-yard box with the rest picking up and trying to control runners into the box.

Combined, Norwich and Burnley put five of their seven corners into the middle of the area to be attacked and they were able to generate two shots from them. As a result, corners could be a dangerous opportunity for Leeds when Liverpool visit Elland Road on Sunday.

Looking Forwards

How could Leeds go into the game on Sunday with a gameplan from the corner flag?

Match-ups from corners depend a lot on personnel. Last season, it was well documented that Leeds were not the strongest from set pieces. Only three players won over 60% of their aerial duels (per FBref): Liam Cooper, Robin Koch and Diego Llorente. The latter two had half as many duels in half as many 90 minutes as the Leeds United Captain.

NB. The figures for aerial duels won does not distinguish between open play and set-piece play so bear that in mind.

It seems safe to assume that Koch is unlikely to start against Liverpool at the weekend. The lineup will probably read something like this:

There are a few question marks over players’ fitness post-injury and Covid so it’s not particularly clear about who will start where in the midfield.

In this possible lineup, the strongest in the air per aerial duels won are Cooper (66%), Llorente (61%), Struijk (53%), Dallas (52%) and Ayling (51%). Behind Cooper and Llorente, it’s practically a coin flip whether the others might win their header or not. Outside that group of five, nobody else won more the 47% of their aerial duels last season.

Firpo, in his limited time at Barcelona, has had about a 50% win rate in the last two years. He was strong in the air for Betis during the 18/19 season and has looked decent in the air for a Premier League full back.

Leeds can probably assume that both of their centre backs will be picked up as danger men in set piece scenarios, and despite a relatively low aerial win percentage, Bamford will also probably be well marshalled because of his movement in the box and ability to score off second balls.

Liverpool have a fair amount of players with a solid aerial presence. Van Dijk and Matip are obviously the standouts but Henderson, Robertson, Fabinho, Thiago and Milner all win a good number of their aerial duels.

We saw Chelsea target the front post area with Havertz’s quick movement and ability to beat Henderson and Robertson so it’s possible that we could see Leeds try something similar using Rodrigo if he plays. We saw Leeds use Rodrigo as a target against Ajax in pre-season and they engineered a 1v1 situation for him in one of these situations. Leeds could try to do something similar and try to get him attacking across the front post.

In this thread, I looked at Leeds’ corners in pre-season. In the main, Leeds liked to try and attack the back post. In the examples, we’ve looked at from Liverpool, Van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold and Mane have been stationed at the back post.

Alexander-Arnold and Mane are among Liverpool’s weakest headers of the ball defensively, along with Firmino and Jota. With Firmino looking likely to miss out through injury, that means that Jota and Fabinho — if the latter is allowed to play — will likely be the ones defending the middle of the area if they keep a similar structure.

This means that if Leeds can get a good delivery to somewhere between the far post and the middle of the six-yard box then they might be able to get match-ups against some of Liverpool’s weakest headers of the ball: the big ‘if’ being if they can avoid the head of Virgil Van Dijk.

If the Brazilian FA get their way and the Brazilian players are banned from playing in this fixture, then that Liverpool would lose another key aerial presence in Fabinho and they will also be without Alisson, a keeper that is reasonably active at claiming corners and rarely fumbles the ball.

This could see a change in how Liverpool set up to defend corners but if it doesn’t then the aiming for that area could prove to be successful. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Leeds attempt a corner routing similar to those highlighted in pre-season, in which they make a number of runs to the front post to draw defenders across leaving space for a potential 1v1 mismatch at the back post. We could see them target Firpo vs Alexander-Arnold in this area or perhaps see if they can free Ayling or a centre back to make this run too.

However, the Brazilian FA ban goes both ways. Leeds themselves may see a bit of a drop off in terms of corner delivery without Raphinha.

Leeds’ Tactics at Corners

In Leeds’ first three games of this season, their first corner of every match has seen the ball played short and worked to the edge of the area to look for a shot.

If Leeds can replicate some of the runs Chelsea made by having one or both of the centre backs making direct runs into the six-yard area, then they may be able to create some space to get a good chance from trying this again. Expect to see Klich receiving the ball for these shots if he’s on the pitch.

Last season, Leeds’ equaliser against Liverpool in the 1–1 draw came from a corner that looked like this:

Before Harrison takes the kick, you can see that Liverpool are set up in a similar way to how they have set up so far this season: five players zonal in the six-yard box with a focus on the front post area.

Alexander-Arnold is in the same space at the back post. Salah is on the edge of the area and then two men are there to mark runners. Thiago has gone out to cover the short corner option.

When Llorente makes contact with his header, you can see that there is a lot of space at the back post where Poveda and TAA are on their own:

Phillips and Ayling have both made runs to the front post which draws the attention of four of Liverpool’s players which gives Bamford and Struijk space to attack the ball in front of the goal. They both narrowly miss making contact but Llorente arrives slightly later so has a run on the defenders and is able to beat Kabak to the ball to score.

This corner took place without Van Dijk admittedly but it shows that Leeds have been able to successfully create space to attack against Liverpool before and so may be able to do so again.

The main problems Leeds will face when attacking corners are keeping Van Dijk away from the ball so he cannot attack it. Then, the problem will be simply earning corner opportunities in the first place.

We might see Leeds try something along these lines:

If Leeds can execute something like this, which isn’t too dissimilar to corners we have seen them try before, then depending on the flight of the delivery and timing of the runs there are potentially four areas Leeds could target to try and win the first contact for a shot, flick-on or knockdown and create a goalscoring chance.

The most space in this hypothetical routine is at the back post where Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold might be. The creation of this space only comes about if the back man in the six-yard box can make their run to tie Van Dijk up and prevent him getting out to attack the ball. This would leave a potential 1v1 against Alexander-Arnold, or if the attacker can get a step on Van Dijk, they might be able to find some space themselves.

The other areas are at the front post, where Chelsea found some success. Here, the timing of the run is key to be able to beat the defenders at the front post. The man on the edge is highlighted as someone who can pick up second balls if Leeds’ runners can clear the area a bit, or possibly if they play short, to the man who makes the run out of the box from the front post he could find a pull-back to him.

The final area is around where Llorente scored his goal from, and again, the timing of the run is key but the runs of other players may cause orientation problems for the Liverpool defenders which might allow the attacker a clearer run into the space if he can get past the defender in the middle of the box.

Defending Corners?

Liverpool have delivered a lot of outswingers from their 31 corners this season and have been able to create 13 shots from them, scoring once against Norwich.

Outswinging corners are slightly less likely to result in goals but are better for retaining possession. The outswinger means that usually there are only one or two points along the balls flight path where an attacker can make interact with the ball for a high-value shot. This means that it will be important for Leeds to get their man-marking assignments right as if someone like Van Dijk can meet an outswinger in one of those moments it won’t take much for him to generate the power to beat Meslier with a header.

The retaining possession nature of outswingers was clear to see for Liverpool against Norwich. The Canaries were poor at picking up second balls after the initial delivery and Liverpool were afforded a number of shooting opportunities by collecting clearances on the edge of the area. It will be important, then, for Leeds to react quickly to second balls, either as individuals to get to them first, or to push out quickly as a team so restrict the space any Liverpool attacker might have to get a shot off.

You can follow Joe on Twitter @JMfball.

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