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“(Still) Hittin’ them corners in them lo-los girl”

From “Still D.R.E” by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg

In their first season in the Premier League for 16 years, Leeds United have been accused of being too vulnerable to set pieces and especially corners. This defensive fragility has been apparent from 20 minutes into the opening game of the season against Liverpool, when the German centre-back making his debut, Robin Koch, lost his man and allowed Virgil van Dijk to make it 2-1. Conceding from corners has continued to plague Leeds until the last game before the international break, when Joachim Andersen got the better of Luke Ayling at the far post and volleyed Ademola Lookman’s out-swinging cross into the net.

Between these two games, Leeds let in another nine goals from corners, bringing the total up to 11 in the first 29 games of the 2020/21 season. During this period, Leeds have given away 160 corners, meaning they have a 6.875% chance of conceding from one, the worst record in the whole league:

TeamGames PlayedCorners ConcededGoals Conceded from Corners%
Leeds United29160116.875%
Brighton & Hove Albion2911986.723%
Sheffield United2917795.085%
Wolverhampton Wanderers2914374.895%
Manchester United2912464.839%
Leicester City2915274.605%
Crystal Palace2916174.348%
West Ham United2914264.225%
Newcastle United2916863.571%
West Bromwich Albion2918742.139%
Aston Villa2813821.449%
Tottenham Hotspur2914821.351%
Manchester City308811.136%
Goals Conceded from Corners

My brother has a theory as to why Leeds are so bad at corners: He conjectures that because Leeds rarely score from set pieces in matches, and especially corners, they also rarely score them in training. It therefore creates the illusion that the defence is amazing when corners are practiced, but it is actually just symptomatic of a wasteful attack that makes them look good.

If this was the case, then Leeds would not only have the highest rate of conceding from corners, but also one of the lowest rates of turning corners into goals. Leeds are actually the fifth worst, behind Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Brighton & Hove Albion:

TeamGames Played Corners WonGoals Scored from Corners%
Crystal Palace2911021.818%
Leicester City2915231.974%
Brighton & Hove Albion2917042.353%
Leeds United2917252.907%
Sheffield United2913143.053%
Aston Villa2816353.067%
Newcastle United2912343.252%
Manchester United2915053.333%
West Bromwich Albion2910143.960%
Manchester City3019984.020%
Tottenham Hotspur2911754.274%
Wolverhampton Wanderers2915274.605%
West Ham United2913096.923%
Goals Scored from Corners

So, while I think the inability to defend corners reliably is partly attributable to this, I do not think it is the whole story.

There is another aspect of training under manager, Marcelo Bielsa, that the players talk about with inappropriate smiles and have nicknamed ‘Murderball’. It involves 11 players against 11, the same as in a normal match, but there are no stoppages. If the ball goes out of play, staff are waiting to throw it or another ball back in. Jermaine Jenas has said he would have loved Murderball because it would have avoided people wasting time arguing whether there was a foul or free kick or not.

Murderball keeps the players extremely fit, to the point where some of the players say that the Wednesday training is harder than the actual matches, but like everything, it has its disadvantages. It does not reflect the reality of competitive matches and may be another reason Leeds concede from corners. I am not saying that Leeds do not also practice set pieces and corners, but part of Bielsa’s philosophy is for players to repeatedly try things that are difficult in training so when they are faced with having to do them in matches, they become natural. Playing a game in which there are essentially no boundaries could, potentially, make something that could not happen in a game the first instinct.

It is also worth noting that the heightened state of fitness that drills like this create, combined with weigh-ins and timed runs, is the great equaliser that got a team mostly comprised of players who finished mid-table in the Championship into the Promised Land of the Premier League, but it is less of an advantage at set pieces and corners.

The above possibilities suggest ways that the whole team is responsible for conceding from corners, but there is also the matter of individual errors. I looked through all 11 goals that Leeds have conceded from corners to see if there was a particular player who was out of position or some other pattern.

I have already mentioned Koch and Ayling’s mistakes against Liverpool and Fulham, respectively. In the 4-1 away defeat to Crystal Palace, Koch and Liam Cooper both jumped with Scott Dann but were unable to stop him from heading it in. When Kurt Zouma scored for Chelsea, Cooper, who was marking him, ended up sitting on the floor with his arms spread out and appealing for a foul because of what I think is a trip by Olivier Giroud. In the 2-1 home defeat to West Ham, Tomáš Souček rose above Stuart Dallas to head in from a Vladimír Coufal corner.

In the 5-2 win over Newcastle United, it was Ayling who lost Ciaran Clark. In the devastating 6-2 loss to Manchester United, Patrick Bamford should have been in front of Anthony Martial and Dallas should also have challenged him before he flicked it on. When Lindelöf came in at the far post, it was Kalvin Phillips who was beaten. In the 3-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Bamford got caught out and Phillips was beaten to it by Toby Alderweireld.

Perhaps the most egregious of the corners was in the 2-1 home loss to Everton, when Ben Godfrey beat both Dallas and Cooper to flick the ball across goal, where Dominic Calvert-Lewin escaped both Pascal Struijk and Ayling to launch a diving header into the back of the net. There were a few more passes leading up to the only goal in the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa, but it was ultimately Helder Costa who lost the scorer, Anwar El Ghazi. For the last corner, it was Diego Llorente, who has only played seven matches this season due to injury, who lost Craig Dawson in the second defeat to West Ham.

The common denominator in all of these is not a player but that each player lost their man at the corner, which makes all the above hypothesising irrelevant. You can make complicated theories based around statistics and training methods all you like, but to paraphrase Gary Lineker, football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball around for ninety minutes and at some point, Leeds United will concede a goal from a corner.