Who wins corners and how are they generated?

Last year one of the first trading pieces I wrote was about corners. I recently revisited it, because at the end I had mentioned about how Stratagem collect detailed data on how corners are won and conceded, and had said that I would look into this when a sufficient sample size was available.

Following Sagar Jilka’s excellent recent post on trading corners in the Premier League it brought my focus back to the detail behind this and I felt it was about time that I followed up on my stated intention to look a little deeper.

My aim was quite broad initially; I just wanted to find out if certain players won more corners than others to see if this could provide a trading edge. I also wanted to investigate if there was a particular style teams had that led to them winning corners and how different aspects of a game could impact on this.

The data I will be using is from the English Premier League, English Championship, Scottish Premiership, German Bundesliga 1, Spanish Primera Division, Italian Serie A and French Ligue (to match up with my earlier blog), and is for the 2016/17 season (up until the 17th of January 2017).

Before diving into the data I want to share with you some preconceived ideas about how I thought the majority of corners were won and lost.

I had a notion that teams playing with direct wingers on their natural side would be likely to win more corners and I had it in my head that players like Zaha of Crystal Palace and Navas of Manchester City would be big corner generators, because both like to attack the by-line and cross. This is as opposed to teams who play without wingers or with inverted wingers, who often cut inside to shoot, or as opposed players who aren’t as quick and direct as Zaha and Navas and who are forced to cross from deeper positions.

Handily the StrataData collected by our analysts allowed me to investigate whether these ideas hold true. We collect layers of data like the name of the attacking player winning the corner, his final attacking action, the build-up action before that, as well as XY Coordinate data. We also collect similarly detailed information from a defensive point of view, though I won’t be exploring that in this particular post.

The initial findings were quite interesting, even at a macro level:

For instance, did you know that Internazionale of Serie A have won the most corners per game in the competitions covered (7.60)? Indeed, their nearest challengers Bayern Munich average 7.06 corners per game in comparison.

Or how about this, that Ligue 1 team Angers have won only 41 corners in the 20 games they have played?

When trading corners pieces of information like this are certainly worth digging into, but first I wanted to investigate if there were any trends in how teams win their corners.

From my earlier thoughts, I would have said that low crosses accounted for a large majority of the corners won. I was partially right with this, especially on a competition level, as low crosses accounted for between 16 and 22% of all corners won, other than in Spain where it was 27%. So around a fifth of corners were due to low crosses, while high crosses accounted for between 16 and 21% of all corners won. However, I was surprised to see that these weren’t the top corner generating actions. This honour goes to shots from open play, which account for between 25 and 28% of corners won this season.

At first this took me by surprise, but the more I thought about it the more I felt that it intuitively made sense. Premier League games in 2016/17 have averaged 26 attempts on goal per match. Between saves, deflections and blocks these can quite easily start to rack up the corner count:


So while corner creation is pretty similar across competitions there are some noticeable differences. Shots from open play create far fewer corners in Spain than in the other six countries, while high crosses create far fewer corners in the German Bundesliga, and, as previously mentioned, low crosses are significantly more corner generating in Spain than in the other competitions.

Looking a bit closer at certain teams then reflects whether they are outliers in their own country.

Starting first with which teams win the majority of their corners from open play shots, most are at the top end of their respective competitions. Intuitively this makes sense, as being higher up the table means they are likely to get into shooting positions more often, and from these positions win more corners via saves and deflections. Manchester United top this list, winning 39.2% of their corners from open play shots. Anybody who has seen their games this season will have noted that they have often applied a lot of pressure, especially at home, only to be denied by a combination of excellent goalkeeping and defending, in addition to some poor finishing:


If it makes sense that better teams win more of their corners via shots, what type of team wins more corners via crosses?

It’s no real surprise to see two Spanish sides in here, given that the country data has already told us that they are more likely to win corners via this method than by open play shots. Sevilla are having an excellent season, with their 3-4-2-1 formation allowing for natural width and giving the attacking midfielders license to drift into the channels. However, Atletico Madrid are perhaps a little more “out of place” here, given that their wide players tend to look to cut in a bit more:


The final metric I wanted to look at was high crosses. Upon investigation I was surprised to see that only three teams won more than 34% of their corners via this method (Inverness Caledonian Thistle in Scotland, Palermo in Italy and Angers in France, all of them in the relegation zones of their respective competitions), so instead decided to look at which teams win the fewest corners via high crosses:


The first thing that stands out is Atletico Madrid’s presence in this table, with the second lowest percentage. Is it a clear and deliberate tactic from Simeone to play low crosses into the box instead of swinging in high, looping crosses? Considering that their front line often consists of Griezmann and Gameiro, neither of whom are particularly tall, it makes sense that crosses would be hit lower in order to suit their strengths of speed and movement. Hamburg and Guingamp appear on this list as well, while it’s also notable that five of the 14 teams play in the Bundesliga. It seems that it is generally a clear and deliberate tactic to steer away from high crosses in this competition.

Taking the time to delve deeper into which players are key for their teams should present us with more trading opportunities. If we have a player who generates a lot of corners for his side and he is absent, it makes sense that their expected corners number would drop. Though many teams will keep the same style and play a like-for-like player, this doesn’t always mean that they will be as effective at winning corners.

Again, before looking at the data I would have assumed that natural wingers would have been more likely than any other type of player to win corners. So Navas would win more corners (per 90) than to somebody like Robben, who likes to cut inside rather than cross.

In total there are 13 players who have won 25% or more of their team’s total corners this season. The top three were Grifo (Freiburg), Kostic (Hamburg) and Thauvin (Marseille). While Kostic is a left footed left-winger, Grifo and Thauvin actually play on their inverted side (though both are also wingers). This is a little surprise to me, given what I expected.


Where the data does show some differences between the top three players is in how they won their corners. Kostic, as expected, won just over half his corners through low crosses. Thauvin was much more varied with a roughly even split between low crosses, high crosses and open play shots, while Grifo is even wider ranging, with a variety of different splits between how he has won his corners:


The graphic above gives us help in deciding how to trade when armed with team news. While Kostic creates a lot of corners from low crosses, would his absence reduce the number of corners that Hamburg would get? It would appear to be a style of play that they favour, getting on the outside and getting low crosses in, so the chances are that any replacement would have a similar brief and could be equally as effective.

Thauvin is also generally a crossing player, though with much more variety, but the clearest outlier is Grifo. The sheer variety of methods of corner production means that not only is he clearly a key player for his team but also that he would be incredibly hard to replace. The split between the different types of crossing, shooting, the fact he takes set pieces and can also travel with the ball make him an excellent all rounder. Indeed, a replacement may be superior at creating one type of corner, but if that aspect gets shut down then it would be hard to pick this up somewhere else. So, taking Kostic as an example, he wins a lot of his corners from low crosses, likely by trying to get on the outside of his full back, but if this method is stopped by a quicker and higher quality player up against him, it’s unlikely he could change his style and win corners in another way.

Obviously the main thing to note is that while corners are useful, most players will be looking to create goals rather than to just win corners.

It’s also interesting to look at the players who win most of their corners via open play shots. There are a large number of these, so I’ve narrowed it to those who have won at least 15% of their team’s corners:


It’s no real surprise to see this list dominated by strikers, who would generally have the highest shot volumes per team. The more interesting ones are probably down in the lower reaches of the table, with Calhanoglu and Hazard more in the style of attacking midfielders who would perhaps not be expected to have such a high % of corners won via this method.

I mentioned Zaha and Navas a couple of times earlier, so for the sake of completeness Zaha has won 21 corners (19.09% of Crystal Palace’s total). The majority of these were actually through dribbles and the second highest method was open play shots. Indeed, only 20% of Zaha’s corners won came from low crosses.

Navas has had limited game time under Pep Guardiola and has only won 10 corners, though nine of these came from low crosses, much more like what would have been expected! In fact, of those players to have won over 80% of their corners via low crosses Navas has the most.

So in conclusion, while I was surprised that open play shots resulted in more corners than low crosses, thinking about it does make it start to make sense. In over 2000 words I have barely been able to scratch the surface on what StrataData can offer, having not touched upon the location of the final action, build-up action or not having considered anything defensive. Hopefully it’s fairly clear that this data can be extremely useful in gaining an edge in the often-underutilised corners market and you leave knowing a little bit more about how corners are won (and which players are important for corner generation) than you did before you came!

Dave Willoughby (@donceno)

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