Rare corner routine used by Chelsea, Brentford and Fulham

Sometimes in football, you witness a type of goal that you don’t remember seeing before.

Kalidou Koulibaly’s first goal for Chelsea, the first in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham last weekend, falls into this category. Mark Cucurella fired a deep swing angle toward the far serve area – but also toward the edge of the penalty area. Coulibaly responded by swinging his right foot with the ball, cutting it across and sending it straight into the net.

How often do you see a corner of the house that pays off in this way?

Yes, you sometimes see a corner kick floating outside the box and slamming into the net from a distance – Paul Scholes against Bradford City, Jizka Menedetta against Barcelona – but these goals are stunningly unusual.

They also feel like a completely different kind of goal, an ambitious attempt at amazing achievement, rather than something along the lines of Coulibaly, which was expertly beaten but was also about the basics: finding a man in the space in the box and applying it to the finish.

It didn’t take much analysis to figure out what happened, but it’s worth refreshing your memory. Spurs used six outfield players in zone positions to protect a wide post-area, another toward the far goal, and another guard against any low angles cutting toward a runner. This means that they used only two ‘blockers’, Ben Davies and Son Heung-min, circled below, who were tasked primarily with stopping Kai Havertz and Thiago Silva, who also circled, and who were assigned to attack the ball from depth. This means that Chelsea’s third player, Koulibaly, was free at the far post.

Interestingly, Havertz and Silva seemed to really be interested in attacking the ball here rather than serving as only blockers. However, this is not always the case with angles like these.

Indeed, the day before, Fulham had tried something very similar in a goalless draw with Wolverhampton.

The situation is a little different here because it is three-for-three on the edge of the penalty area, so Fulham doesn’t really have an advantage in that area. But the principle sounds familiar. Two Fulham players occupy three Wolverhampton players, allowing Bobby de Cordova-Reed to run around them…

…and before the ball even gets into the picture, it’s amazing how much space De Cordova-Reid has found here. Not only is he lonely at 12 yards, but he has a near-free road to the target as well.

‘Almost’ is the word, though – the header was saved by Ruben Neves.

Fulham attempted a similar move the following week in their 3-2 win over Brentford. This time Aleksandar Mitrovic was the third striker who found space behind two of his teammates whose job was, essentially, to block the barriers. On the one hand, Brentford – like Tottenham for Koulibaly’s goal – appears to outnumber that part of the penalty area…

…even though they had enough manpower to protect from Mitrovic’s exit unchecked. His aerial shot hit the Brentford defender and bounced away – although Fulham scored from the next corner.

But if Fulham had tried that kind of move twice in two weeks, they should have been ready for Brentford’s move after 25 minutes at the other end.

This can be considered a classic of the genre. Brentford has only two players in the six yard area. They also have two players outside the penalty area. They also, unusually, have two players standing over the same corner, forcing one of the Fulham players to come out towards them. Fulham have enough players to handle this situation and they know the risks of a corner routine like this, yet Brentford are still given three for two around the penalty area.

The first players from Brentford in that area, Evan Toni and Pontus Jansson, play the role of the blockers. Christian Norgaard uses that screen and runs around them to the near post…

… and perfectly contacts the corner, resulting in a slight deflection of the defender and bouncing off the post. Once again, Norgaard’s space seems unusual for such a simple routine.

Two goals in two Premier League weekends, then, when corner kicks were taken from positions inside the penalty area. How unusual is this?

Well, very rarely. There were no really comparable goals in the Premier League last season. Micael Antonio (vs Tottenham) and Raphael Varane (vs Brentford) cleverly shot home after sending a dip in the mixer – the area on the edge of the six-yard box. Riyad Mahrez’s goal against Manchester United came from a corner kick that sent her to the edge of the penalty area, more so in the Scholes category. Ole Watkins scored a superb goal against Manchester City from a corner kick heading towards the near post.

But there was no such thing as Coulibaly’s goals or Norgaard’s – coordinated moves to find a deep-space runner in a good position to score. To find something similar we have to go back to football behind closed doors and 2020-2021.

The best equalizer was Stuart Armstrong’s opening goal in Southampton’s final 3-1 loss to Arsenal.

First, it’s worth noting that the players here are all in two very different groups – some on the edge of the six-yard box, others challenging on the edge of the box. There are 17 players in the penalty area here, however there is a huge 10-yard gap between the two sets.

Southampton is effectively taking advantage of a four-on-three situation. Arsenal have three defenders against three Southampton forwards in the shaded area. Arsenal also have Nicolas Pepe there, although he might be primarily interested in shutting down Armstrong if the first corner goes half-empty to the edge of the penalty area. Pepe does not expect Armstrong to be a direct threat to the record.

But he. The three Arsenal spotters were spotlighted to show how they followed the Southampton players to the near and far supports, allowing Armstrong to see a relatively clear goal as he hit the James Ward-Prowse corner. He shot the ball into the net perfectly.

A variant of this approach was used by Aston Villa on the final day of 2020-21, with this goal for Bertrand Traore against his former club Chelsea. This was, coincidentally, more similar to the type of running Didier Drogba used in his Chelsea days, starting with the far post and running to the near. He is effectively the fourth player in position on the edge of the penalty area against three Chelsea players – Timo Werner, like Pepe above, watching over the edge of the penalty area rather than any movement behind him.

Traore makes bad contact here, tricking the ball into the ground, but it bounces up and bounces off the crossbar.

There are also, of course, goals scored from corners when a low ball is cut towards the area and into the net, like this Jenny Wijnaldum goal for Liverpool against Cardiff in 2019. From the blockers…

…and a close run to hit the net, like Teddy Sheringham.

Refer to the pictures from this season’s moves, however, you’ll find that many parties these days have a player stationed in that area to intercept any balls being played on the ground. A deeper driven aerial ball may take this player out of the equation, and while this move needs an expertly delivered corner and relies on superb shot technique, most parties have players who are capable of playing these roles.

Other historical examples of corner kick efforts may exist from “mid-range” positions – that is, not from outside the box and not from the crowd of players close to the edge of the six-yard box. But two in the first two weeks of the season, after not having had anything for the whole of last season, suggest the Premier League set-piece coaches may have found inspiration from a similar place – or perhaps from each other. The growing tendency for teams to use more players in the zone positions in front of the goal, and having only two blockers outside the goal, means there is likely to be more space in that position than ever before.

The District Line trio of Chelsea, Brentford and Fulham have used some variations of this approach so far, with a very good success rate.

Watch out for it this weekend.

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