Have Pompey turned a ‘corner’?

By Sam Stone

This season has certainly drawn out a large range of emotion and frustration. As Pompey have, seemingly, begun to find some form on the pitch there can certainly be some positivity looking forward, regardless of the outcome of this season.

However, one facet of Pompey’s game this season has irritated me more than any other……their inability to score from a corner. Pompey’s first 28 games of the season resulted in Conor Ogilvie’s header against Morecambe (who conceded from set-pieces for fun) as Pompey’s only success from a corner this season. 

Pompey certainly have consistently had the ariel presence to cause teams issues from corners; they relied heavily on set-pieces during the Kenny Jackett era. Rotherham United, serial League One escape artists, are the most clinical and deadly side from set-pieces in the division.

In matches that are decided by fine margins, being a threat from corners and set-pieces can be the difference in gaining promotion or being an average mid-table side. Having watched Rotherham’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday, there was very little to separate the two sides. In a match that should’ve finished 0-0, Freddie Ladapo’s finish from a brilliantly worked corner was the difference.

It’s not just physical and direct Rotherham United who use corners as a key component in making them the best side in League One. Liverpool have currently scored 12 goals from corners this season. This is Liverpool who are known for playing high-pressing, explosive, and attractive football. Yet, one of their key threats to separate them from the rest is their ability to gain the advantage from set-piece situations.

Pompey are a long way from these two examples, however, the last six games have seen a significant improvement in their success from corners. After 1 in the first 28 games, Cowley’s side have managed to net 4 in 6 matches, with Sean Raggett netting 4 times in that period. So why is it that 34 games into the season, Pompey have only just now managed to muster sustained success from set-piece situations?

Initially, let’s look at the player who is taking the corner. In Rotherham and Liverpool’s case, they have Ben Wiles and England’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. Both have superb deliveries for the level they play in. Regardless of who you have in the box and the movement they make, if the delivery isn’t on the money, the chance of a goal dramatically decreases. 

This season Pompey have utilised Marcus Harness, Sean Williams, Ronan Curtis, and Reeco Hackett on corner duties. The ball not making it past the first man, being over hit, or merely floated into the box have been all too regular occurrence’s this campaign.

Yet, in the last six matches, Hackett, Curtis, Jacobs, and Ryan Tunnicliffe have all raised the level of their delivery dramatically. Below are the areas in the box that they have begun to hit on a more regular basis.

All the deliveries above were hit with pace, curve, and had all begun to descend after the near post; making it easier for the likes of Raggett and Hirst to judge the flight of the ball and attack it with force. Furthermore, the pace on the ball meant that the attacking player only needs to contact the ball for it to find the back of the net, leaving any keeper with no chance of saving it.

It must also be noted that there has been a distinct improvement in the attacking player’s technique when heading the ball, Raggett in particular. At prior moments in the season, Raggett has mistimed his headers resulting in them going over, or not troubling the keeper. His recent attempts against Oxford, Burton, and Doncaster have all displayed the art of attacking heading, to a very high standard.

There has also been significant work implemented on the training ground, in regards to Pompey’s movement before the ball is even kicked. Getting the likes of Hirst, Raggett, Carter, and Ogilvie free will radically increase the chances of the net bulging. 

Below are Pompey’s starting positions from their win against Accrington.

The Blues were facing an Accrington side who are generally ‘quite’ successful from set-pieces. Stanley are a tall side, potentially the tallest in League One. It is interesting to see Pompey bunch up on the edge of the box and attempt to attack the ball more forcefully, to gain the run and half a yard on a usually competent Accrington defence (from set-pieces).

Against Fleetwood, the Blues changed up their routine, against a less aerially dominant side, and attempted to flood the six-yard box and allow their bigger players to win their 1 v 1 battles.

Finally, against Burton, Pompey unleashed a basic routine but were reliant on their stronger headers of the ball dominating in their 1 v 1 battles, which saw Sean Raggett add another to his impressive season tally.

Pompey have a crucial run of fixtures coming up with the likes of Plymouth, Ipswich, and Bolton on the horizon. With Pompey’s overall defensive record this season, these matches will likely be tight affairs with very little to separate the teams. If they have turned a ‘corner’ in the set-piece department, it will be the catalyst that sets them apart in these matches that will ultimately define their season.

Main photo: Below 2020 Media

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