Last season was a weird one for many reasons, but what did seem normal was Arsenal’s inability to defend set pieces. More “functional” opponents have been taking advantage of the Gunners’ seeming lack of organisation to routinely score from corners and free kicks over the years, so much so that, even in seasons where they have performed quite well in this area, the reputation still lingers like a bad smell.
The general rule is that about one-third of goals are scored from set pieces. Over the last five seasons in the Premier League that figure has been 30%, including direct and indirect free kicks, penalties, corners, and throw-in situations.
Last season the Gunners conceded the highest proportion of goals from set pieces in the top flight.
Proportionally that’s bad, and it’s also bad in absolute terms. Only Watford (24) conceded more in total. This wasn’t helped by the Gunners conceding seven penalties, with five of those given away by David Luiz, who set a record for conceding the most spot-kicks in a single Premier League season ever by a single player. But even if you discount penalties Arsenal still fared badly; only Everton (six) conceded more from free kicks and only three teams conceded more from corners than Arsenal (five and nine respectively). Only Man Utd conceded a higher proportion of goals from set plays excluding penalties.
As you can see over the last 10 seasons, Arsenal have mostly been worse than the average, with the odd exception where they have hit the dizzying heights of being league average.
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And then you see that last number for 2020-21 and you have to double-check.
In the summer, Arsenal took action and recruited set piece specialist coach, Andreas Georgson from Brentford. Social media has been alive with comment ever since as strange things have happened like Ainsley Maitland-Niles being asked to lie on the floor behind the wall at direct free kicks or the sight of 5’ 10” Hector Bellerin marking 6’ 6” Dan Burn of Brighton at corners. This caused much agitation among the usually calm and measured (not calm nor measured) Arsenal fanbase.
In writing this article I spoke with the head of Stats Perform Team Performance, Ben Mackriell, about the prevalence of set piece coaches in the game:
“I didn’t know of any when I was working in clubs”, (he joined Opta in 2016 after working for several years at several top English teams), “so I feel like it’s a relatively new phenomena and I actually think most of them are still largely part-time or even freelance”.
Clubs clearly work on set pieces but with the announcements of specialist throw-in coaches at clubs like Liverpool, it seems that this is something clubs believe is worth some focus. When I asked him about how much time clubs spend on set plays, Ben told me:
“In terms of open play versus set play I’d say about 80%/20%. It depends on the coach obviously but it’s generally a lot quicker to pull together clips and data on all set pieces in different situations and players involved to review, rather than going through all of the varying content you would look at for open play. I wouldn’t say this differs between top/lower teams as it really depends how much the coach values it and how much of a threat you are from attacking set pieces and week to week whether it’s a big strength of the opposition or not.”
Goalkeeping coaches are nothing new. Even “defensive” coaches (and I’m not talking about Jose Mourinho at press conferences here) seem to make sense. After all, it’s hard to imagine any other business where you’re expected to be an expert in all aspects. So if 30% of goals are scored from set plays and 20% of coaching time is dedicated to rehearsing in both attack and defence, we shouldn’t therefore be surprised that teams are considering hiring specialists for these roles.
And Arsenal have done just that. And the impact has been marked! It has to be said it’s early days, we’re less than half a season in, but right now, the Gunners have conceded fewer goals from set plays than any other team and the lowest proportion in the top-flight.
Could this be an anomaly, borne out of low numbers? Perhaps, but deeper investigation shows that in fact, the Gunners are limiting the chances of opponents at set play situations.
Only Manchester City have allowed fewer shots per game against them from set piece situations.
And when it comes to attempts on target by opponents, Arsenal are out on their own as the best team in terms of limiting the chances afforded to other teams.
The Gunners have allowed just four attempts on target, though it should be noted, one of the goals they conceded came from a corner which isn’t counted in this table as it was an own goal by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, against Burnley.
And if you look at a comparison season on season, it’s clear to see that so far Georgson and Arsenal have found a way to reduce the number of attempts generated by their opponents.
There’s a decent reduction in the number of corners that Arsenal have conceded leading to shots, which so far has led to a reduction in the chances of them conceding. While on free kicks, the drop has been even more substantial with free kicks about half as likely to result in a shot than last season.
As with many things, it’s early days, but the signs are promising that after conceding 150 goals in the last three seasons (51 of them from set pieces) that Arsenal are heading in the right direction.
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