Arsenal and the art of blocking at corners

Nicolas Jover (right) is Arsenal's set piece specialist

Nicolas Jover (right) is Arsenal's set piece specialist

Arsenal's two goals from corners against Tottenham on Sunday saw them equal a Premier League record.

They have now scored 16 goals from corners this season, tying a record set by Tony Pulis’s West Brom in 2016/17. In his Set Piece Masterclass in March, former Newcastle United Analyst Billy Coulston outlined the four key components of an effective attacking set-piece routine. Arsenal seem to have them all signed off.

First off was numerical superiority. The Gunners pack the six-yard box more than any other Premier League team, as Opta explained in an article in February. They had put an average of 3.31 players in the box for each of their corners, when no other team averaged more than 2.93.

This then combines with the second of Coulston's components: technical quality. Arsenal have had excellent delivery from corners and they are very clear about what they want to do, namely take an inswinger.

The Gunners almost always whip in fast inswingers, with just 0.7% of their deliveries having been outswingers at the time of that Opta article, which was the lowest in the division.

Then there was physical dominance. Arsenal have tall, powerful headers of the ball such as centre-backs William Saliba and Gabriel, and newcomers Kai Havertz and Declan Rice, who were added to the squad in the summer.

The fourth of Coulston's components was ‘the dark arts,' which is what this article is about. This is where Arsenal have again excelled. We saw this again in the Tottenham game, with Ben White distracting and then blocking Tottenham keeper Guglielmo Vicario at a corner, which was headed in by Havertz for Arsenal's third goal.

In the Set Piece Masterclass, Coulston looked in-depth at what Arsenal do with their blocks - much of this orchestrated by their Set Piece Coach Nicolas Jover - and used the example of their first goal against Crystal Palace in a 5-0 win in January.

This article is taken from Billy Coulston's Set Piece Masterclass. His 2-hour+ follow-along session covers:

  • The 14 different types of set play.
  • The importance of set plays.
  • Incorporating sets plays into your game model.
  • Analysing, planning and executing set plays with an elite team.
  • How to create set piece routines and visualise them as still diagrams and moving animations.

You will also get:

  • Free Creative Set Plays Template (Powerpoint and Keynote) to design your own set piece routines (we will email these to you).
  • 30% discount on 50 Creative Set Plays to take your learning further.

Things had looked ok for Palace as Rice shaped up to take the corner from the left-hand side, as you can see from the still below.

“We can see Palace have quite a traditional English set-up, with two zonal markers, one at the front, one in the middle, and they seem to be man marking everywhere else,” Coulston explained. “Joachim Andersen is their main aerially strong defender and is in a position where he thinks he is free to attack the ball.”

Things soon changed though, as you can see below.

“The first run from Saliba (2) across the front is a decoy run,” Coulston said. “He’s making a run across the front and Arsenal are going to deliver the ball to the back."

As a result, Marc Guehi (6) followed Saliba out of the box, vacating space. Then Arsenal's blockers came into action (below).

“Keep an eye on Leandro Trossard and Ben White, working blocks,” Coulston said. “Andersen is in the middle of the six-yard box and thinks he’s free to attack the ball, but Trossard makes a really good late block on him and White blocks the keeper.

“The keeper can’t come and get it and Andersen can’t come and head it. Now Andersen is starting to panic, because Gabriel has a free run against his man.”

Rice whips in an excellent inswinger and Gabriel advances from deep in the area to head into the net, without having really been challenged.

“It’s an unbelievable delivery from Rice and a really good example of how Arsenal have used the dark arts on set plays,” said Coulston.

There was even more detail in the blocking than that though. First off, timing.

“Arsenal work their blocks,” Coulston said. "So Trossard starts behind the player he’s going to block, meaning Andersen can’t see him until the last minute. Instead of standing on him, which would have meant he knew he was going to be blocked, there was that late movement from Trossard.

"Anderson can’t complain to the referee before the corner is taken, because he hasn’t got anyone on him at that point."

Then there is body shape.

"Look how low Trossard gets in to block him - he’s almost bent down leaning into him," Coulston said. "He’s not the biggest and Andersen is a lot bigger, but by getting lower and giving himself a good base he’s able to block him off. “

So what can the defending team do to counter Arsenal's blocking?

“A great one is making the referees aware of it,” Coulston said. “I think it’s really hard for defenders to deal with blocks and I’m surprised we don’t see more fouls with the use of VAR, but at the minute the referees tend to let them go.”

There are other things defending teams can do, however.

“At Newcastle United, we used to traditional man mark and you would follow your man everywhere. I can remember one game when we made a slight adjustment though, as we knew the opposition were going to work some good blocks.

“We still man marked, but our starting positions were in a straight line of four or five making it harder for them to block us off.”

And you can block the blocker.

“I saw it the other day - the attacking team had a blocker trying to block the blocker," Coulston said. "Then you get into, ‘Well, if you’re going to block our blocker, we have a spare man somewhere else.’ It’s a continual game of cat and mouse.”

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