LFC Set-Piece Defending Analysis: Making Sense of the Chaos

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At the end of the season, for a Liverpool supporter, it is time to look forward to a busy transfer summer and a few months without worrying that your heart might explode in stoppage time. But it is also time to look back at the aspects of the game when the team excelled; and those that were the biggest hurdle to a truly successful season. Getting top 4 is a good stepping stone but Liverpool Football Club should always aim for trophies and there were none this season. The 2016/2017 league campaign was a huge improvement over the last couple of seasons and we saw glimpses of what a finished Jurgen Klopp team will look like. However, some old unresolved problems came back to haunt us: set-piece defending (and some cases attacking) being probably the most frustrating one for the fans. Now that the emotional times of the season are behind us we can have a calmer look at the problem.

How does LFC do compared to the rest of the league?

One of the few things the whole Liverpool fan base can agree on is that the team is poor at defending set-pieces. Jurgen Klopp explained that he uses zonal marking because the team isn’t tall enough for man marking. The German even joked that the main thing about improving our set-piece defending is making the team taller. He has a point though – Liverpool are the shortest and second lightest team in the league this season as illustrated by this graphic by the Tomkins Times:

Premier league height vs weight
Premier league height vs weight

Given those numbers we should have expected problems when it comes to defending and even attacking set pieces. So what do the numbers say when it comes to set pieces?

Rank Team Set piece goals scored % of total Set piece goals conceded % of total Net gain Set pieces effect
1 West Bromwich Albion 20 46.51% 8 15.69% 12 30.83
2 Swansea City 17 37.78% 10 14.29% 7 23.49
3 West Ham United 16 34.04% 10 15.63% 6 18.42
4 Hull City 14 37.84% 21 26.25% -7 11.59
5 Burnley 12 30.77% 12 21.82% 0 8.95
6 AFC Bournemouth 12 21.82% 11 16.42% 1 5.4
7 Chelsea 22 25.88% 7 21.21% 15 4.67
8 Watford 11 27.50% 17 25.00% -6 2.5
9 Arsenal 12 15.58% 6 13.64% 6 1.95
10 Middlesbrough 7 25.93% 13 24.53% -6 1.4
11 Leicester City 10 20.83% 15 23.81% -5 -2.98
12 Stoke City 9 21.95% 14 25.00% -5 -3.05
13 Sunderland 5 17.24% 14 20.29% -9 -3.05
14 Crystal Palace 12 24.00% 20 31.75% -8 -7.75
15 Everton 12 19.35% 12 27.27% 0 -7.92
16 Manchester City 11 13.75% 9 23.08% 2 -9.33
17 Manchester United 7 12.96% 7 24.14% 0 -11.17
18 Tottenham Hotspur 13 15.12% 7 26.92% 6 -11.81
19 Liverpool 13 16.67% 12 28.57% 1 -11.9
20 Southampton 7 17.07% 17 35.42% -10 -18.34

Stats courtesy of whoscored.com  The bold percentages are above average. Set-piece affect is the goal difference between set-piece goals if a team scores and concedes 100 goals. For example, if at this rate Liverpool score 100 goals, 16.67 of them will be from set plays and if we concede 100 goals, 28.57 of them will be from dead balls, making the goal difference between the two -18.34.

I’m taking a bit of a detour to look at attacking set plays. The Reds scored 13 set-piece goals this season. Only 5 teams scored more goals than Liverpool but given than we are one of the teams with the most possession (57% – second to Man City per squawka.com) and have taken 249 corners (3rd to City and Spurs) we can expect some good total numbers. In reality we are 16th in corner conversion rate (2,4%) and if there was a stat about crossing free kicks it’s safe to assume we will be at the bottom. Most top teams are way below league average in terms of set-piece goal rate and corner conversion rate, with Chelsea being the only exception – 6% corner conversion rate, second to West Brom with 10% and 16 goals. This LFC squad is not designed to heavily rely on goals from set plays and as far as offensive output is concerned I don’t think the fans should have any complains.

Back to defending. We are by far the worst side from the top 6 in terms of defending set-pieces – 12 goals conceded. The next closest is Man City with 9. Only Southampton have a bigger percentage of set-piece goals conceded. Teams converted 5,3% of corners against the Reds – the league average is 3,5%. Given how the team is built we should have expected such problems but conceding at a 50% higher rate from the league average is not acceptable. Even if the Reds are the shortest team in the league the defending on some of the goals we conceded this season had nothing to do with getting out-muscled. Our central defender got a lot of criticism and deservedly so some times but the 30 open play/penalty goals conceded are 4th best in the League and just 4 more than the 26 Chelsea conceded. Set-piece defending is a team effort and more often than not it is not the centre-backs that make the crucial error. Additionally 2 more goals can be added to the total even though the official stats have them as open play/penalty goals – Defoe’s second goal in the 2-2 against Sunderland (the penalty came after a handball in the wall from a free kick) and Drinkwater’s strike in the loss against Leicester (came after a couple of failed clearances after a long throw). For the purposes of the article I will only review the official ones.

The goals

Let’s have a look at every set-piece goal we have conceded this season. This might be painful and frustrating to watch. I will try to quantify exactly how many points were lost due to goals conceded from set-pieces this season and analyse who made the crucial mistake that lead to the ball being in our net.

Arsenal 3 – 4 Liverpool (Callum Chambers 75′)

Our abusive relationship with set-piece defending started on the first match-day of the season. Callum Chambers scored Arsenal’s third goal after a brilliant cross from Santi Cazorla:

A foul by Nathaniel Clyne led to a free kick on the right hand side of Liverpool’s defence. Santi Cazorla produced such a peach of a cross that I can’t really blame the goal on the defence. Even if a defender got his head to the ball first it would have most likely resulted into an own goal. Klavan and Can were close to Chambers but this is just brilliant from Cazorla. Credit is given when credit is due – we can live with conceding such goals.

Liverpool 3-1 Hull (David Mayler 51′)

A corner from the left hand side of the defence. Gini Wijnaldum loses an aerial duel with Harry Maguire. The ball bounces in the box – Clyne and Henderson are late for the second ball and Mayler fires it in. Clyne should have really done better in this situation – at the time of the initial header he is too far away from Mayler and doesn’t have enough time to react once the ball is loose. It is interesting to note that there are 10 Reds (including Karius) defending the corner against just 5 Hull players and yet somehow the goal is conceded of a second ball on the edge of the six yard box with no one even challenging the goalscorer.

Swansea 1 – 0 Liverpool (Leroy Fer 8′)

A corner from the right hand side of the defence. The ball is crossed to the far post where Clyne loses an aerial duel, Lovren fails to react to to the second ball which leads to the easiest goal Fer has ever scored in his career.  At the time of the first header all 11 Liverpool players are in our box against 5 Swansea players. Clyne needs to do better with the first ball as he barely contests Borja’s header. Lovren is put in a very tough position and doesn’t cover himself in glory and also covers the offside. Milner is close to Fer but at this point he is trying to play the Swansea player offside, so his positioning is not necessarily bad.

Liverpool 2 – 1 WBA (Gareth McAuley 81′)


No surprise here – the kings of set-pieces managed to score a set-piece goal against Liverpool – a corner from the right hand side of the defence. The ball was crossed towards the edge of the six yard box and four West Brom players attack it and it falls to McAuley, who finishes it. In this case it is more a failure of the zonal marking than an individual error, even though Wijnaldum could have done a better job tracking McAuley. West Brom managed to put a cross in a very dangerous area and had more more people attacking the zone than the Reds had defending it. Given West Brom’s  stats this is still a goal we can live with – at the end of the day it was just a consolation for Tony Pulis’ side.

Bournemouth 3 – 3 Liverpool (Steve Cook 79′)

Liverpool’s first major collapse this season saw them concede an equalizer after a free kick cross. The first ball was dealt with brilliantly by Lovren, who managed to head it clear towards Origi. The Belgian lost a challenge to Jack Wilshire, which caught the Reds flat-footed. A pass to Ryan Frazer on the wing followed by a cross and a tidy finish by Cook erased what was left of Liverpool’s lead. After Origi loses the 50/50 with Wilshere, Milner tries to cover which leaves the right side of the Reds’ defence exposed. At the moment of Frazer’s cross you can see there is no Liverpool player in the area around the penalty box and Can is left between Afobe and Cook. The German stays with Afobe while Firmino runs towards the ball. The Brazilian however fails to make a challenge whatsoever and allows Cook to control the ball, turn and take a shot. Several players made crucial mistakes in the situation – Origi needs to get to the cleared ball, Firmino needs to show more awareness and at least make it more difficult for the Cherries player to taking the shot.

Liverpool 1 – 1 West Ham (Dmitry Payet 28′)

A direct free goal. Lallana committed the foul, but the goal lies solely on Karius. After this match he was dropped by Klopp and has not started in the league since.

Liverpool 0 – 1 Swansea (Fernando Llorente 47′)

Liverpool’s first home loss of the season. Swansea opened the scoring after a corner from the right hand side of the defence. The ball was crossed to the far post where Lovren and Henderson lost an aerial duel to Federico Fernandez, the ball bounced around LFC’s box while Wijnaldum was covering the offside and after the scramble ended up behind Mignolet, who dived way too early. This is the kind of goal that makes supporters go crazy – yet again 11 Red shirts in the box against 5 in white, yet Swansea managed 3 touches before scoring. One can argue that 5 Liverpool players made a mistake: Lovren and Henderson lost the initial ball, Firmino lost Llorente on the edge of the six yard box, Wijnaldum was covering the offside all the time and Mignolet dived without the ball being shot at the goal. One word is enough to describe it – CHAOS!

Liverpool 1 – 1 Chelsea (David Luiz 24′)

Possibly the cheekiest goal the Reds conceded all season. A perfect shot by Luiz, even in normal circumstances Mignolet most likely isn’t saving this. However this goal yet again shows a lack of focus when the team is defending set pieces – the wall doesn’t really react to the shot and the keeper takes too long to get ready after the wall is set.

Hull 1 – 0 Liverpool (Alfred N’Diaye 43′)

Yet another goal in the build up to which the ball bounces around the Liverpool penalty area. A corner from the left hand side of the defence, the ball is crossed to the penalty spot. Henderson initially covers Harry Maguire but for some reason doesn’t challenge the initial header. The Hull defender didn’t really connect with the ball but still managed to put it in a danger area. Simon Mignolet was too weak when attempting to clear the second ball which led to yet another tap in. At the time of the initial cross there are 8 Red shirts in the box against five attacking players. The Reds were let down by two very weak challenges.

Liverpool 1 – 1 Everton (Mathew Pennigton 29′)

A set-piece provided false hope for Everton at Anfield. A corner from the right hand side of the defence, the ball was crossed to the near post, bounced around the six yard box and was tapped in by Pennington. This goal illustrates some of the problems with zonal marking and is yet another example of Liverpool players losing focus when defending set-pieces. At the start of the play there are two Everton players near Emre Can – Jagielka and Williams. The German follows Jagielka and leaves Williams left unmarked. The Everton number 6 starts his run towards the near post and enters the zone guarded by Lucas. However at this time Lucas is busy with Pennington. Matip is way too far away to provide any help. The ball is crossed and Jagielka has a free header. In the meantime, at the back post, Williams is starting a run towards goal. Because of his starting position the Everton defender manages to get in front of Lovren. The Croatian still manages to get a foot on the ball and denies the Welsh international a tap in. Emre Can is supposed to be guarding Pennington but you can see him switch off as soon as Jagielka heads the ball – the Everton youngster just runs by Can and scores his first ever goal. Pause the video at 0:03 and look at Can’s body language – no urgency, no awareness. This is a reoccurring theme in a lot of the videos in this article.

Liverpool 2 – 2 Bournemouth (Joshua King 87′)

Bournemouth managed to stay unbeaten and claim four points against Liverpool – no other team has done better against the Reds. This is the second set-piece goal the Cherries scored against us. A long throw from the right hand side of the defence. Two defenders in Red shirts lose the initial ball, Emre Can manages to get his head to the second cross, and the ball is cleared to the edge of the box. Wijnaldum can’t get to the Bournemouth player quick enough and allows a long shot. The shot turns into a pass and Klavan is left against King. The Cherries’ striker manages to turn and finish. Two failed duels/clearances led to this goal. And while Klavan should have done better the Reds had more than enough chances to deal with the danger before that.

Liverpool 1 – 2 Crystal Palace (Christian Benteke 74′)


Another scrappy set-piece goal saw the Reds lose to Crystal Palace at Anfield. A corner from the left hand side of the defence – the ball was poorly crossed to the near post and yet found it way to the back post from where Benteke didn’t miss (unlike on several occasions last season to make things even worse). The first mistake is by Firmino – he has to get his foot to that ball. The Brazilian is the first man and this cross should never make it past him. Benteke is initially guarded by Emre Can who stops tracking once the Belgian makes a run towards goal. No one from the defensive line is there to meet him, Lovren was the player closest to him. All 11 Liverpool players are in the box defending the cross against just 5 Palace players. There are 7 Red shirts around the line of the six yard box and yet there is no one within a metre of Benteke.

Too long didn’t read

Liverpool conceded 12 set-pieces goals this season. 7 from corners, 2 direct free kicks, 2 from crossing free kicks and 1 from a throw-in. Out of all 12 goals only 3 were direct (the two free kicks and Chambers for Arsenal). All other goals were 2nd, 3rd or even 4th balls that the defence couldn’t clear. That looks like an established trend and something Jurgen Klopp and his team needs to address in the pre-season. Liverpool didn’t win 7 of the matches in which a set-piece goal was conceded, dropping 18 points (Liverpool finished 17 points behind Chelsea). Only one of those matches was lost by more than one goal (2-0 at Hull). And while supporters can’t realistically expect 0 goals conceded from set-pieces, the percentage of set-piece goals conceded is the second highest in the league. Out of the top 6, LFC is by far the worst team in this category, whenever you weight the numbers or just look at the totals. The closest team is Man City with 9 conceded goals from set plays.

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  1. I looked at the first 3 goals. Although several players are at fault, which indicates lack of work on the training ground along with the wrong personnel, there is one player whose name appears in concession of all 3 goals and that is Clyne.

    In the first goal he gives away the free kick that leads to the goal.

    In the second one he loses Meyler after the Maguire knockdown

    On the 3rd goal he doesn’t put enough pressure on Borja at the back post.

    Am not sure how many more errors there will be on the goals that I did not analyse but I do think the evidence rebuts the myth that his lack of attacking ability can be overlooked because of his defensive stability. The evidence suggests he doesn’t provide that stability.

  2. To be honest most of our players are at a disadvantage in aerial duels. What worries me is that very few of the goals are errors from the center backs. VvD is a great additional (finger crossed) but he is not the messiah that will solve this problem – it’s a team issue. Most of the errors came from midfielders and attackers switching off.

  3. Getting in a physically dominant DM (along with VvD) is the best way to make up for the lack of size throughout the team, especially with Coutinho dropping back into midfield

    Having three oversized players through the spine of our defence would provide a good base for the team to play off of, and hopefully would be enough to cope with the aerial threats all throughout the Premier League and likely to be thrown at us all next season until we have proven that we can deal with the issue


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