From Set Pieces to Strategic Artistry: The Evolution of Corner Kicks in Modern Football

How many countries can you think of where a corner-kick is treated with the same applause as a goal? One. It only ever happens in England,” says Jose Mourinho, puzzled by the excitement that Premier League fans express when their team wins a corner.

In some ways, Mourinho’s puzzlement is well-placed. In the last decade, only 3% of the corner-kicks taken in the top five European leagues led to a goal. The feeling that teams aren’t making the most of the opportunity isn’t a new one. Back in the 1990s, Liverpool fans produced a fanzine called Another Wasted Corner. When 97% of corners fail to result in a goal, “another wasted corner” is still a common feeling.

Corner-kicks can be the most frustrating set-piece to watch, but, when they go right, they can create some of the most memorable moments in the sport. In May 1999, Carlisle goalkeeper Jimmy Glass came up for a last-minute corner. His team were drawing 1-1 with Plymouth Argyle and they desperately needed a win to avoid relegation from the Football League. The ball was crossed in and the keeper scored. Later that month, trailing 1-0 to Bayern Munich, Manchester United famously scored from two corners in injury time to win the 1999 Champions League and clinch a unique treble.

It’s moments such as these that make fans excited at the prospect of a corner-kick and why its worthwhile for teams to work hard at improving their corner-kicks. A well-taken corner can change a game.

The Early Days of Corner-Kicks

The English FA introduced the corner-kick in 1872. At first, a corner-kick was awarded to the attacking side if the defending side touched the ball last, or to the defending side if the attacking side touched it last. This meant that, unlike today, a team would sometimes have to restart the match from the corner of their own half. The only time a goal-kick, as we know them today, would be awarded was if the ball went over the crossbar. Whenever this happened, a goal-kick was awarded to the defending team, regardless of who touched the ball. This meant that a defender could kick the ball over his own goal and his team would retain possession. Players were also permitted to dribble the ball straight from the corner-kick without having to pass it to another player.

In 1873, the rules about the awarding of corners were changed to those we know today. In 1875, the rules were further tweaked, forbidding players from touching the ball more than once when taking a corner.

Although it was never a mainstream part of the game, there was a period when corners were used in some cup competitions and charity matches as a tie-breaker. Penalty shoot-outs weren’t introduced until the 1970s, and so, in the event of a draw, both the Dublin City Cup and the Dublin and Belfast Inter-City Cup used the number of corners each team had won to decide the winner. In these games, winning a corner wasn’t just about creating a goal-scoring opportunity, it could keep a team in the competition.

In these earlier yars, the typical corner-kick was lofted into the box with the aim of getting a header on goal. Lofting the ball meant that the cross couldn’t easily be blocked at the near post and it was an easier technique with the old heavy leather ball than putting swerve and bend on the cross. In the past, goalkeepers were also given less protection by the referee, making it easier for players to jump alongside them and compete for the ball when it came into the box.

The Olympico Goal

When the corner-kick was first introduced, there were no restrictions on scoring directly. Three years later, this was banned. The ban stayed in place until June 1924, when the International Football Association Board (IFAB) altered the rules to once again allow a corner-kick to be scored directly.

On 2nd October that year, Argentina’s Cesáreo Onzari scored straight from a corner against Uruguay. Uruguay had recently won the Olympic title and so this type of goal became known as the Olympico. A few days later, on 11th October 1924, Huddersfield Town’s Billy Smith scored the first Olympico goal in English football.

Because the goalkeeper is normally able to reach the ball from any corner that is aimed close to the goal, Olympico goals are relatively rare. Only one has ever been scored in a World Cup match. In 1962, Marcos Coll’s corner for Colombia against the USSR snuck in at the near post after a defender failed to block the ball, much to the frustration of the legendary Russian keeper Lev Yashin. Similarly, only one player has scored an Olympico goal at the Olympics, although unlike Coll, she managed the feat twice. Megan Rapinoe scored for the USA straight from a corner in both the 2012 and the 2020 Olympic games.

Paul Owens is the only player to have scored two Olympico goals in one game, scoring twice from the corner spot for Coleraine against Glenavon in the Irish Premiership on a very windy day in 2012. Former Turkish international Sükrü Gülesin, who played in the 1940s and ‘50s for teams such as Beşiktaş, Lazio and Galatasaray, scored 32 Olympico goals in his career, setting a record that is unlikely to ever be beaten.

Dribbling

When the rules were changed in 1924 to allow a goal to be scored directly from a corner, the ban on dribbling straight from a corner was also lifted as an unintended side-effect. This accidental change in the rules was spotted by Ernest Edwards, sports editor for the Liverpool Echo.

Edwards highlighted the rule change in his weekly column and when the story failed to gain enough attention, he offered to play Everton winger Sam Chedgzoy £2 if the player would attempt such a corner in the forthcoming match against Arsenal. Edwards instructed Chedgzoy to do it within the first 20 minutes to give him time to get the news out to newspapers around the country.

When Chedgzoy got the opportunity to take a corner he dribbled the ball towards the goal and shot. He hit the side netting. Later in the game, an Arsenal player attempted the same move and was also unsuccessful. Arsenal went on to win the game with a goal from a crossed corner. At the next annual meeting of the IFAB, in 1925, the laws were rewritten to once again ban dribbling from a corner.

Although the ban remains in place, teams have attempted similar corners. In a 2009 encounter between Manchester United and Chelsea, Wayne Rooney took the ball to the corner and then tapped the ball gently so that it rolled slightly away from the corner spot. He walked away from the ball and his team-mate Ryan Giggs slowly made his way over. It looked as if Rooney had simply left the ball for Giggs to take the corner. Instead, when he reached the ball, Giggs began dribbling towards the box and then crossed it in for a headed goal. The referee, Howard Webb, disallowed the goal and ordered the corner to be retaken, although within the rules of the game it should have been allowed to stand. The controversy was lessened by United scored a conventional goal from the retaken corner. A couple of years later, in another Premier League match, Blackburn Rovers scored a similar goal against Wigan Athletic. This time the goal was allowed to stand.

Defending Corners

When defending corners, teams use either man marking, zonal marking, or a combination of the two. In English football, man marking is considered the older, more traditional approach. Sir Alex Ferguson relied on man marking when he was Manchester United manager. It’s a system built on physical battles and personal responsibility: each defending player knows who they are responsible for and can follow the player to prevent them finding space. If a player gets a free header on goal, then somebody has made a mistake.

It’s a style that is very physical, relying on the strength and pace of the defender to get to the ball before the attacker. These physical encounters have traditionally involved a fair amount of illegal contact, such as shirt pulling, something which VAR is making harder to get away with.

Zonal marking is often considered by fans to be the more modern, continental approach. It’s associated with managers such as Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez, and Jurgen Klopp. However, it’s not exactly new in English football: the great Liverpool team of the 1980s also used zonal marking when defending corners.

The advantage of zonal marking is that it allows defending teams to concentrate their best players on the areas of the penalty area that are most dangerous. With man-marking, the movement of the attacking players can drag defenders away from these dangerous zones. Zonal marking prevents this problem. The downside is that when an attacking player does find space in the box, they can often head the ball unchallenged.

A lot of teams adopt a hybrid approach, with some of the players assigned to mark zones, and some to mark players. Since Thomas Tuchel became manager in 2021, Chelsea have assigned their best headers of the ball to zonal mark around the six-yard box and assigned their smaller players to man mark and disrupt the runs of the attacking players. It’s a system that has helped to make Chelsea much tighter at the back than they were under the previous manager, Frank Lampard.

There’s no perfect way to defend a corner. “All the defensive systems have their strengths and weaknesses . . . no system is perfect,” says Arsenal’s former set-piece coach Andreas Georgson. “It’s like a blanket that’s too short: wherever you move it, you’re going to be cold somewhere.

Attacking Corners

The way that teams attack corners has changed a lot since the very early days of lofting the ball into the box. Nowadays, the ball is whipped in with pace and swerve to make the cross harder to defend against.

The cross can be either in-swinging or out-swinging. The data suggests that in-swinging is slightly more effect. Research by Paul Power, who has worked as AI Manager for Stats Perform, found that an in-swinging corner has 2.7% chance of resulting in a goal scoring from in-swinging corners. For an out-swinging corner, this drops to 2.2%.

Perhaps unexpectedly, Power found that an out-swinging corner is 2% more likely to lead to a shot on goal. These shots are less likely to result in a goal, however, as they tend to occur further away from the goal than chances created by an in-swinging corner.

Fans tend to want their team to get the ball directly into the box, but coaches often prefer short corners, especially when their team lacks a height advantage. Short corners may feel like they’re simply delaying the cross, but this delay can disrupt the defensive structure of the defending team, causing chaos as the defending players attempt to transition from their set-piece set-up to their open-play set-up.

Another way in which teams try to disrupt their opponent’s defensive system is through the movement of players in the box. Players have always made different runs to try to get ahead of the defenders and meet the corner first, but increasingly, teams are co-ordinating their runs. The more unexpected the run, the more likely it is to cause confusion. A recent example of this is a corner routine used by German second-division side Karlsruher SC in a 2021 match against Jahn Regensburg. As the corner-taker stood over the ball, only one Karlsruher player was stood in the box. Lined-up along the side of the penalty area, stood seven of his team-mates. As the corner-taker began his run-up, six of these players swarmed into the box. It was a stunning routine, although it didn’t result in a goal.

When done right, corners can have a significant impact on a team’s fortunes. “If you have a very good set-piece regime, that’s basically the equivalent, in terms of goals, of spending £80 million on a striker,” says Paul Power. It’s no surprise, therefore, that teams are looking to make more of corners, whether that involves hiring a specialist set-piece coach, or spending extra time on the training pitch.

Tony Pulis is one manager who has always had the knack of getting the most out of set-pieces. His West Brom team scored 10% of their corners during the 2016-17 season, lifting them up to the 10th place finish in the Premier League. It was a remarkable achievement and shows that there’s no reason for teams to settle for scoring just 3% of corners.

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