David Beckham was pretty good at the whole footballing lark, wasn’t he? So his dashing blonde locks may not have been to everyone’s taste, but that right foot… Goldenballs could sure caress a ball like a mistress – ok, poor choice of words. But you get my point: 25 yards out, if there was one man you’d want behind the ball it was him.
For all the flash and glamorous lifestyle, the boy was bloody boring as a kid. Hours upon hours upon hours of practice. Relentless determination. Obsessive desire. But hey, it earned England a draw with greece, so it must have been worth it right? In all seriousness, give me his right foot over Cristiano’s any day. I defended the preening Portuguese in a column last month, but his set pieces are, well, shit. Apparently, Messi would have to miss over 500 shots to lower his shots-to-goals conversion rate to his rival’s level. All those ridiculous one-in-a-thousand dipping free kicks you numpty.
It’s not free-kicks that have rattled my cage this week though. In fact, it is a much simpler set-piece – corners. Even goal kicks are more complex nowadays, especially with the obsession with ball-playing keepers, but corners are fairly limited in their scope from the deliverer’s perspective. It was a crying shame that some killjoy decided taking a sneaky corner was against the spirit of the game. You know, the ones where one player disguises the tiniest touch to allow a teammate to dribble away?
Anyway, the point is when you take a corner there aren’t a great deal of variants. Short, curling, looping, near post, far post, or edge of the box to Scholes; that’s about it. The ridiculous pantomime played out in the box itself as defenders and attackers waltz isn’t the fault of the taker. Quite honestly the laughable game of cat and mouse around the penalty spot is a joke. Unfortunately, so is the quality of corners.
One of football’s more common diseases is for fans to think they can do better than the professionals. Why are you still in the stands then you muppet?? The one area where i will whole-heartedly agree with them on is our favourite set piece. Now humour me a moment; conjure up in your mind’s eye all the most criminal sights in football. Don’t for christ sake tell me them all – you should know better than to set me off on a rant by now – but try to collect all that anger, pain and disbelief into one searing point of explosion.
Now play almost every corner ever taken over in your mind – what do you see? Or more to the point, what do you see not happening? CLEAR THE FIRST MAN YOU FUCKING CRETIN! Gah, I’ve just shouted out loud in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (freelancing isn’t *quite* as glamorous as some may have you believe) in frustration merely typing the words. How, in the name of God, Buddha, Shiva and Éric Cantona, is it so hard?
Mistakes are perfectly conceivable. Players are human, of course. But when it is your job to practice and – wait for it – kick a ball, there is no bloody excuse. I’m sorry but there isn’t. This isn’t some deep philosophical tactical nuance; this is I repeat, KICKING A BALL. I’m not looking for perfection every time, but at least something resembling an attempt to set up a teammate.
A few years ago the Washington Post did a little digging into English Premier League stats. From the 10,969 corners taken between 2011-2014, 12% produced a shot on goal, while less than 2% were scored. It is bizarre how excited we often get when our side wins a corner in hindsight really. So what do these numbers tell you? If anything the pressure is not on the taker, but to get any value at all out of the situation their delivery must be honed to an artform.
In an age of statistics and analysis, it is highly unlikely coaches don’t know this. The inability to train players to be able to make it past the first man is therefore inexcusable. Just to clarify, I am not talking about a drilled corner looking for a deflection or flick-on. I fully accept that a hard-hit ball in low and towards the six-yard box can be effective. It’s the bulk of efforts that are simply taken too weakly, as if they don’t even want to score.
Remember how I praised Beckham earlier? Well he represents both sides of this godawful sin. Let’s start with the obvious; Barcelona, 26 May 1999, 91st minute. “Beckham, in towards Schmeichel, it’s come to Dwight Yorke, Giggs with the shot… Sheringham!” Yes I really am that sad that I remember almost verbatim the Clive Tyldesley commentary.
Pay attention though – “in towards Schmeichel”. It’s not the fact that the ‘keeper was up in dramatic desperation, but that Beckham aimed for him. Bayern Munich couldn’t clear easily because the ball arrived in the middle of their area, and a goal arrived. “Beckham, in towards Sheringham, AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT!” Had both corners not been taken properly, United would never have been crowned European Champions that night.
On the other hand, for all his metronomic accuracy, Beckham was in fact strangely poor at taking corners. Whatever your brain is telling you, it’s true. This does highlight how hard it is to be good at taking corners; if even Becks struggled, everyone surely would. Why else did teams use to put the ball out for a corner against Stoke rather than suffer Rory Delap’s Go-Go Gadget throw-ins?
I swear that if you put me on the pitch, I would get at least half the corners past the first man without a sweat. Believe me, I am about as adept at taking them as Phil Jones, so that’s sounds like some statement. Do me a favour though; forget the goals, or even the shots on target. Next Premiership game you watch, just count the number that make it into the box – and try not screaming.