Opinion

Man United and Barca cut corners for success

SEPT 4 — I will admit to having a specific pet hate in football, a certain tactical element of the game that I really don’t like.

It’s not diving, time-wasting, shirt-tugging or anything else of that negative nature. Those cynical aspects of the game, whilst admittedly not particularly edifying, are inevitable in any team sport with a strong competitive edge.

No. It’s something else entirely: the thing that annoys me more than anything else is short corners.

It seems pretty self-evident to me that corners played directly into the heart of the penalty area present one of the most obvious routes to scoring a goal.

After all, corners provide a rare opportunity for a team’s best dead-ball striker to compose himself and send an unimpeded delivery directly into the dangerous area immediately in front of the opponent’s goal, where the attacking team’s most accurate and powerful headers of a ball are waiting to guide it goalwards.

Even if the defending team succeed in repelling the initial corner, the sheer number of bodies in a small area means that anything can happen: unintentional fouls, fortuitous deflections and defensive errors can easily result in a goal.

Furthermore, even a defensive clearance doesn’t mean an end to the danger: with so many attacking players in the penalty area, if the “second phase” of possession is won by the attacking team, they can easily maintain the pressure by putting the ball straight back into the danger zone.

Finally, corners can be meticulously rehearsed on the training ground, where strategies such as bending the rules by “blocking” defenders to create space can be practised and practised until they are perfected.

Considering all the above, I have never been able to understand it when teams decline the opportunity to deliver a corner directly into the penalty area, electing instead to play it short and try to find a more meandering route towards goal.

Short corners immediately remove one of the biggest advantages enjoyed by the attacking team — the fact that no defender can be within 10 yards of the ball before it is struck. As soon as the corner is played short, it allows the defending team to close down the man in possession, making it much more difficult to deliver an accurate cross.

Most of the time, short corners don’t even result in the ball even reaching the penalty area, with the defending team taking their opportunity to deny space and prevent the cross.

I understand the need for variety, and the fact that a short corner can catch a defence off-guard because they don’t know when to expect the cross to be played, but surely sufficient variety can be provided with direct corners by varying the flight of the ball or the runs of the men in the middle.

Put simply, short corners have always seemed rather pointless to me because they appear to significantly reduce a team’s chances of scoring a goal.

Watching Manchester United’s remarkable late comeback against Southampton on Sunday, then, further strengthened my belief that corners should always be played straight into the middle.

How was Robin van Persie’s winning goal scored? Nani delivered a corner accurately towards the near post, where van Persie had made a well-timed run to find space and glance a header into the net.

Simple: two touches and it was a goal. No need for any tippy-tappy nonsense on the touchline, attempting to change angles and unsettle the defence: just put the ball in the box and get a head on it. Game over, match won.

Then I went to the Nou Camp to watch Barcelona take on Valencia, and I was forced into a rethink.

It wasn’t a great game because Valencia defended well and Barcelona were unable to find their usual passing fluency or accuracy in front of goal, with former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas enduring a particularly difficult evening.

But Barcelona won it by a solitary goal midway through the first half. And how was it scored? Yep, you’ve guessed it: a short corner.

Instead of crossing the ball directly into the box, Barcelona chose to play it back to Brazilian defender Adriano, who was loitering unmarked on the corner of the penalty area.

As Adriano received possession, I tutted in dismay and waited for further vindication of my belief that short corners are an enormous waste of time. After all, why on earth would you give the ball to your full-back when you’ve got one of the game’s great technicians, Xavi, ready and able to whip it under the goalkeeper’s nose? I could see no reason.

What happened next? Adriano looked up, took a small step towards goal and thrashed a sublime right-footed drive into the top corner, giving Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves no chance of seeing it, never mind saving it.

Wow, what a goal and OK then... maybe the occasional short corner is not such a bad idea after all.

But only because it truly was a case of it making the unexpected possible — there was no way the Valencia defence could have prepared for that corner, and little or nothing they could have done to prevent it.

This was not the standard short corner of silly little passes between two players on the touchline who gradually get closed down and end up losing the ball. This was the rare but acceptable type of short corner where the opposing team could never predict what’s going to happen next.

So perhaps the conclusion is this: if you’re taking a corner, just put it straight into the box. Unless, that is, you happen to have a full-back who is capable of smashing it into the top corner from 25 yards.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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