It started with a poor corner kick. Trent Alexander Arnold’s out-swinging effort barely left the floor and was easily cleared at Arsenal’s near post. Danger over. Yet, ten seconds later, Sadio Mane was off celebrating at the same post after volleying past Bernd Leno for Liverpool’s third on the night.
That was at Anfield a month ago. Liverpool would run out 5-1 winners, but it’s a goal sequence that’s been a recurring theme of Liverpool goals this season: set piece delivery cleared, goal scored from the second phase of attack.
It’s happened so frequently now that the cynic in me wonders if Jurgen Klopp sends his team out to intentionally send in poor set pieces. It sounds crazy, right? But think of how disorganised most teams are once a set piece is cleared; think of that “danger over” feeling once the initial delivery is cleared.
You’ve surely heard of how teams are most vulnerable after they score. It’s the same principle: teams are more vulnerable when they think they are not vulnerable – “danger over”. It would certainly explain a recent Liverpool game I watched in which corner kick after corner kick failed to even clear the first line of defence. How could astute set-piece players – guys who routinely whip in accurate crosses even from open play – suddenly forget how to cross a dead ball?
Crazy or not, by design or otherwise, Liverpool have scored no less than eight goals from similar scenarios this season – even if I’ve generously included Divock Origi’s winner in the derby, which followed a free kick from deep. On the other hand, that might be the perfect example: conceding a goal must have been the last thing on Jordan Pickford’s mind – danger over – as he tracked Virgil van Dijk’s wayward effort.
This crazy theory would all make perfect sense but for one thing: Liverpool are pretty good at scoring from set pieces. They lead the Premier League with 14 goals scored from set pieces this season – three more than any other team. (According to whoscored.com).
Now, some of those second-phase goals are probably included in this total – I’m not quite in the know about their methodology – but the point stands. I can still count eight goals scored directly from set piece routines. The question then is: would a team that good at scoring set pieces intentionally miss them as a ploy? Wouldn’t they just focus on perfecting their delivery?
I did say it was crazy, right? Then again, so is hiring a throw-in coach. What the heck do I know?
One more thing about Liverpool and set pieces: they are just as likely to score when defending opposition set pieces. Just ask Crystal Palace; they were pushing hard to equalise from a late corner kick at Selhurst Park in August when Liverpool streaked down field to set up a Mane goal.
It wasn’t a one-off either. Liverpool have scored five goals from counter-attacks this season – only Leicester City (6) have scored more. What’s more fascinating is that all five goals have come right after opposition set pieces. Mo Salah’s goal against Brighton came from a high-press recovery following a free kick just outside the Brighton box, but the other four goals came from corner kicks for Palace, Fulham, Watford and Burnley.
A big part of that is down to the raw speed of Mane and Salah in transition – Liverpool also led the Premier League in counter attack goals last season – but just as important is the addition this season of Alisson Becker in goal. Not only has the Brazilian ‘keeper helped transform Liverpool into the league’s best defence, his quick thinking and accurate distribution have also proved quite the attacking asset – as the likes Fulham, Burnley, Arsenal and Palace have found to their cost – turning defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
How crazy is that?