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Women's Euro 2022: Corners Giveth and Corners Taketh Away
Yash Thakur looks at Portugual's, well, mixed record at set pieces.
Hi, Grace here. This is another terrific guest post on the Women’s Euros from the brilliant Yash Thakur. If you liked this, you should definitely subscribe to his newsletter Dribbles and Nutmegs. Substack is flashing up the “Post is too long for email” warning, so if you’re having trouble viewing it or it’s cutting off before the end, I’d recommend switching to reading the article either on the web page (just click on the headline and it’ll take you there) or in the Substack iOS app rather than as an email.
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Women’s Euros have been a spectacle of epic proportions. There have been golazos, jaw-dropping saves, comebacks, late winners and so much more.
Set-pieces have again taken centre stage, as is the case for most international knockout tournaments. 25 goals have been scored from set-pieces at the EUROs so far and 16 of them have come from corners. If you dig a little deeper, four of those 16 corner goals were scored against Portugal.
We need to talk about Portugal.
Portugal's route to the EUROs was atypical. They weren’t supposed to be here directly but made it through after Russia’s suspension. They were sort of the wildcard team of the tournament and they lived to that billing. Having received only five-odd weeks to prepare coming into this tournament, Portugal focused on areas that would be effective and reap the highest rewards, such as set pieces.
Francisco Neto’s side scored four goals in the tournament – two of which came from corners, one of the biggest threats in their attacking arsenal. They were creative with their routine and knew how – despite not having a clear height advantage – to get on the end of deliveries by manipulating the opposition’s defensive shape.
On the flip side, six out of the eight goals Portugal conceded came from a set piece or corner. Their defensive setup on dead-ball situations, and in general, left a lot to be desired. What was their biggest strength was also arguably their weakness (among other things).
Let’s look at some shots and goals they conceded from corner situations to understand their sub-optimal defensive setup in these situations. To read about what they did on attacking corners, you can read this.
Game One: vs Switzerland
The opener against Switzerland was the roaring introduction they would have hoped for.
The start wasn’t according to plan as Portugal conceded twice inside five minutes, but they recovered and came to dominate the rest of the proceedings. They gave up just two corners in the entire game, with the first coming in the 80th minute. Switzerland’s poor offensive structure shares the blame for this. On the attacking side, Portugal were able to flaunt their strengths in attacking set-pieces.
The two corners, although they didn’t result in a goal, give us an idea of Portugal’s setup on these defensive corners. Let’s start by looking at them and understanding how Neto set up his side on these.
Example One: 80th minute, right-hand side, Corner | Result: Shot on crossbar
Here we can see the schemes of either team during a corner.
Switzerland’s (in white) attacking corner setup has a short passing option, an option at the edge of the 18-yard box, one player inside the six-yard box and four runners at the far post area starting from the penalty spot.
Portugal’s (in red) setup seems odd at first glance. There are two players on the near post, another three players at the far post and one player committed to the short passing option. There are three players marking the one attacking option inside the six-yard box.
The main takeaway from this corner is Portugal’s inclination towards defending zonally on the defensive corners rather than taking a player-marking approach. Most teams today utilise some hybrid form of player-to-player plus zonal marking system. The zonal marking system has some flaws, the primary being that forwards get the opportunity to attack the ball, which becomes a big problem in cases where there’s a significant difference in player heights, as is the case here. The distances between the players and forwards need to be small to maintain access to close down the shot-taker in case of a cutback. The communication between defending players needs to be excellent, hence it takes time on the training ground to implement
The result in this case? Portugal did manage to get the first contact and half-clear the ball, but it fell kindly for a shot that hit the crossbar.
Example Two: 81st minute, left-hand side, Corner | Result: Ball Cleared
The second corner gave us another glimpse into Portugal’s setup. We can notice four players on the near post and one player blocking the short-passing option. There is one player at the far post and two players near the penalty spot to try and block off the runners.
One can start to notice the ways this could be exploited. For example, the far post remains very easy to overload and the runners at the far post will be difficult to pick up.
Switzerland failed to capitalize on either of those things, with a near post delivery, even failing to win the first contact in this case. We can however notice the overload at the far post, with two Swiss players (in white) for one Portuguese player (in red). There were warning signs.
Game Two: vs the Netherlands
The second game against the Dutch saw them exploit some of the aforementioned potential problem areas in Portugal’s scheme. The Dutch scored two of their three goals from corner situations, with one coming directly while the other came in the second phase of the corner.
Example One: Sixth minute, left-hand side, Corner | Result: Cleared
Let’s focus on the setup used by both teams. Netherlands (in orange) have one short passing option, two players at the edge of the box, two or three players at the near post and two runners at the far post.
Portugal, on the other hand, are once again in their zonal marking system, having committed five players at the near post and one player each defending the far post zone and the central zone inside the six-yard box.
The Dutch were set up well to exploit the weakness at the far post with two runners towards that zone. They used one of their tallest players in Stefanie van der Gragt (#3) as the runner at the far post. The delivery on this occasion is aimed at the near post and Portugal manage to put it out for another corner, but the ideas from the Dutch are very sound.
Example Two: Seventh minute, left-hand side | Result: Goal
Both teams used the same setup on the corner but issues with Portugal’s zonal marking became very clear. Despite having numbers at the near post, it was far too easy for the Dutch player to create separation. Portugal are hesitant to move from a zonal to a player-oriented scheme and this allows for a free header at the near post despite having bodies.
The height of the goalkeeper is another relevant factor here. Inês Pereira, the Servette goalkeeper, is just 1.68m (5’6) which severely limits her aerial reach. Portugal’s squad lacks the profile to play the game they aim for. Ideally in a zonal marking system, you need an aggressive goalkeeper who is great at coming out and claiming crosses.
Example Three: 31st minute, left-hand side, corner | Result: Shot on goal
After exploiting the space at the near post, on their initial two corners, the Netherlands frequently targeted the weak far post area during the rest of the game.
The runner Mark Parson’s team deployed at the far post went completely unmarked on most occasions. On top of having light cover in that area, the two runners put their movements to good use to exploit the space at the back.
The second goal, although it wasn’t a failure of defending the corner directly, resulted from losing sight of the marker at the far post. Portugal did well to have three players contesting against two Dutch players for the initial contact but a failure to clear their lines and losing sight of the far post resulted in a goal.
There were no Dutch corners in the second half. Portugal managed to swing the pendulum again in their favour.
The thing that stood out about this Portugal side in the opening two games was their resilience. Again despite going two goals down, they recovered and once again almost played an even game in the second half, exchanging blow for blow with the defending champions and an inspiring strike from Lyon midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk to seal the game. Neto’s side accumulated 1.49 xG compared to 1.78 for the Orange Lionesses.
Game Three: vs Sweden
This game was just an exhibition of the poor defensive structure with Portugal. Four of the five goals scored in this game came from a set-piece situation (if we consider the penalty to be one). If we dig deeper, the reasons are partly the poor marking and partly the physical shortcomings.
Where the Netherlands were able to exploit the space at the far post and Portugal’s hesitancy to leave their marking scheme, Sweden’s approach highlighted how Portugal’s zonal scheme created an easy path for cutbacks to players at the edge of the box. This also highlighted deficiencies in the squad in order to play the required system.
Example One: 21st minute, right-hand side, Corner | Result: Goal
Sweden had seven corners in the game and managed to score two goals from them.
Let’s focus on Sweden’s setup on attacking corners. Peter Gerhardsson’s side frequently try to crowd the near post and the six-yard box to make life difficult for the opposition goalkeeper in collecting the cross. In this situation, Sweden has three players inside the six-yard box alongside having two players at the far post. They have two runners situated at the edge of the box and a short passing option.
The Scandinavian nation has aerial prowess in the side, allowing them to be very threatening in set-piece situations.
The keeper comes out to collect it but a presence of a sea of yellow shirts crowds her out and a very weak punch is directed straight into the middle of the box in the path of an onrushing Sweden player. Portugal haven’t picked out that option due to their rigid zonal marking system.
Poor clearance/cross collection -> Free players from the edge of the box -> Poor blocking -> Goal
Also, notice how Sweden bring their short passing option inside the box as soon as the corner is taken in order to have an extra body picking up on loose second balls like the one in this case.
This wasn’t an isolated incident either, Sweden’s setup and Portugal’s inability to claim and clear crosses almost resulted in an identical situation minutes later, highlighting how Portugal’s squad and setup didn’t exactly agree with each other.
Example Two: 45th (+6) minute, right-hand side, Corner | Result: Goal
Sweden are a tall team as mentioned before. An even remotely sub-optimal set-up is punished by the Scandinavian side. They exposed Portugal’s inability to stick close to the marker at the near post and lack of aerial prowess
Despite having parity in terms of numbers at the near post, there wasn’t enough or any pressure most times on the targets and it made it easier for the attackers to win the headers even at the near post.
Again this wasn’t an isolated incident, it happened most times when Sweden tried to target the near post with their deliveries. It was at times too easy for the Swedes to win the aerial battles.
Example Three: 45th minute, right-hand side, Freekick | Result: Goal
It wasn’t just the corners that caused Portugal problems. Sweden were very adept in exploiting Portugal's scheme on attacking freekicks. Portugal used a hybrid of zonal and player-to-player marking here, but were weak at blocking the lanes due to poor spacing. Look at the sequence of play below.
Sweden brought all but one of their options inside the D, both to crowd the penalty box and potentially cause some problems for the goalkeeper in keeping track of the ball. The resulting freekick is played as a cutback towards the only player at the edge of the box. There is some very smart “soft-blocking” of players, creating the window to shoot for the runner. Due to multiple bodies, the goalkeeper doesn’t have a clear sight of the ball.
Good set-up from Sweden, yes, but Neto’s side has to work better to block shooting lanes when having as many as six players inside the six-yard box
Look at this sequence of play. Another attacking freekick into the box, Sweden won the first contact and all Portugal players were caught ball watching instead of picking up the option at the far post for the ball across. The goal was later pulled back for offside but Portugal made it easy for Sweden in these dead-ball situations with their poor defensive organization to go along with their lack of aerial prowess.
The reasons for Portugal’s weaknesses in set-pieces are two parts. One is obviously structural deficiencies and the other is the lack of footballing development in the country. Women’s football in Portugal is still in its incessant stage, and all but three players in the squad still play in the Portuguese Campeonato Nacional Feminino, so they lack exposure to regular elite competition. The squad isn’t perfect either. The goalkeeper in game one and game two, Ines Pereira, isn’t tall and thus isn’t adept at coming out and collecting crosses despite being a good shot stopper. The goalkeeper in game three, although tall, has very little control over her claims and punches. The zonal scheme mandates having a goalie comfortable in executing these actions and Portugal have to tweak their approach work to better suit their squad.
It will take time for Portugal to go toe-to-toe with the top sides but this tournament should be the spark that initiates that positive development.
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