The news that the Thorns had hired yet another Canadian coach wasn’t exactly a shock. We’re South British Columbia now, and sonewhere ol’ Doc McLoughlin smiles benevolently knowing he was a man ahead of his soccer time.
What made it interesting is that the coach, a Newcastle lad (and as such, probably another sad NUFC sufferer. Sorry, boyo…), is listed as a “set piece” coach.
And that made me think about the Thorns and 2021 and how my first thought was “gee…we’re not really that dangerous on set pieces anymore, are we? WTF happend with that?”
Because it felt like whereas once opposing coaches shrieked “OMFG do NOT forget to mark Lindsey Horan on setpieces! Mark her! Mark or die, mes enfants!“ now our opponents lolled about carelessly letting the corner kicks fall where they may, unafraid of Portland setpieces.
Is that true? Specifically, was that true last season? Because the good part about that is that last season I kept track of Thorns corners, so there’s actual data there!
And since we have a couple of days before either the camps open or the players strike, why not spend some time looking at the data and talking soccer?
I mean…I’m heartily sick of the FO-versus-107ist drama, aren’t you?
OK! So…let’s talk soccer!
I started out with the hypothesis: “The Portland Thorns had issues getting good looks at goal from their corner kicks in 2021”, and began to analyze the information I had from tape review to test that hypothesis.
First, though…we often assume that winning a corner is a good thing for the attacking team, sign that the opposing defense has been put in danger and cleared over the byline for a dangerous corner rather than risk facing a dangerous shot.
How dangerous is that corner?
Welll…actually, not that dangerous. Several studies of corner kicks – mostly from the English Premier League – suggest that the typical corner produces a shot about 17-20% of the time and a goal somewhere between 2% and 3% of the time with the goal range running from a low of barely 1% to as much as 6% to 7%.
So, given that? How did the Thorns do in 2021?
Here’s the corner kicks and results in tabular form:
That’s kinda hard to read, so the tl:dr version is that I kept corner kick records for 19 of the Thorns 25 matches. Those matches generated a total of 140 corner kicks.
From those corners the Thorns produced 74 shots, put 27 on goal, and scored 5 goals (Six if you count the Rodriguez foul in the box on Matchday 8 that led to a penalty kick goal against Louisville, but I didn’t count in that as a goal for this study, placing it in the “dangerous chance” category, below).
When a Thorns attack either generated an almost-or-actual-goal-scoring opportunity (I counted the Rodriguez foul there) or a what as a high xG chance that was only snuffed out by aggressive goalkeeping (including a scrum in front of goal around Kelli Hubly in that same match, and an earlier pointblank take against Kansas City on Matchday 6) – that was a dangerous chance.
Overall, the Thorns created a shot a little more than half the time off their 2021 corner, a shot on goal about 19-20% of the time, and a goal on 3.6% – almost 4% – of their corner kicks, so within or well above the minimum rates produced in the EPL studies.
(You knew there was a “but”, right?)
If you split the season into “early” and “late” halves…
…you get a different story.
The Thorns ran kind of wild from Matchday 1 to Matchday 12, winning 83 (almost 60%) of their corners and generating 63% of their shots, 60% of their shots-on-goal, and 100% of their corner kick goals.
You can see the drop on all metrics after Matchday 14 to the semifinal, so here’s where I think my “oh, shit, we can’t score off setpieces anymore” comes from – the result of a huge recency bias.
The Thorns didn’t score off corner kicks late in the season, not the season overall, so the late-season futility is what stuck with me.
(And this is a different “but”…)
It’s worth noting that the early season successes are directly related to just five matches; Chicago on Matchday 1, Louisville on Matchdays 5 and 8, and Kansas City on Matchdays 6 and 12.
These were bad teams last season (well, Chicago was a bad team on Matchday 1, anyway…) and here’s what happens when you isolate just on those five games:
Those crap teams allowed almost 10% more corner kicks, 14% more shots, 7% more shots on goal, and allowed four of the five goals scored off corner kicks in 2021.
My guess is that this isn’t an outlier or a unique-to-the-Thorns -2021 thing. Crap teams give up crap goals, and when you play decent teams:
You find yourself on the low end of the stats.
Note, though, that the shots generated from the 2021 corners are well above the 20ish percent in the EPL studies. The SOG, though, are within that range and the goals scored are near the bottom of that study’s findings.
So do the Thorns need a “set piece coach” to make them dangerous on dead ball situations again? I think it depends on how you look at the 2021 data.
Certainly nearly all the good opportunities off corners came in five matches against three bad teams. But, again, I suspect that most set piece goals are scored against those sorts of teams. Good opponents are good for a reason, and one of those reasons has to be solid defending on “standard” dangerous opportunities like free kicks and corner kicks.
But bottom line? The record from 19 of 25 matches in 2021 suggests that the Thorns produced dangerous opportunities from corner kicks at a historically normal rate. Hypothesis disproven.
There might be a place for a “set piece coach” to help get marginal gains. But overall? The kids are alright.
One thing about this study I did notice; we talked about the Horan Quandry during the season, and Horan has been a fairly critical part of the Thorns set piece delivery over the past five seasons.
She was barely there.
Horan had the sweet bike on Matchday 5 against Louisville. She played well on Matchday 18 in Cary, again on Matchday 20 here against Houston (her only “Great Horan” – i.e. positive PMR over 20), and scored from the run of play in Houston on Matchday 23.
But on corners?
Aside from the bike, my match notes include a scattering of stuff like “Horan strong header but well wide” and “Long service to Horan’s head but no shot”. Her previous scary-good-level effectiveness at getting free inside the box and scoring just wasn’t there.
I have no idea why. Bad luck? Tactical choices? Loss of interest?
Whatever the reason, she’s Aulas’ problem now.
I write this on Sunday January 30th. There is one working day left before the players’ CBA strike deadline. Will the camps open on Tuesday?
We can only wait and find out.