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In Defence Of Reading’s Corner Defence

An in-depth look at how Reading defend corners, how they’ve done it in the past, and why ‘zonal marking’ isn’t the problem.

Reading v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium Photo by Kieran Cleeves/PA Images via Getty Images

With Reading struggling to get off the ground this season, complaints have been flying about various aspects of the team and their execution on the pitch. Rightfully, most of the complaints have targeted the defence. Reading Football Club have given up five more goals than any other team in the Championship and more goals than in any five-game span since conceding 14 in a one-point haul from Coventry away to Millwall away last fall (if you back the window up to Blackburn away game, the goals against number is 15). The start to the season has been, to put it succinctly, Not Good.

Among the complaints about Reading’s defence have been calls to abandon so-called “zonal marking”. Indeed, the calls have been so adamant as to cause me to question just what was meant by the term, thinking maybe fans wanted more man-marking in midfield or something similar, but whenever I have asked, I have been told that, yes, the cries to end “zonal marking” have been about set pieces and Reading’s defence of corners.

While Reading’s defence of set pieces would also be rated Not Good thus far into the league season, the attacks on the corner defence confuses me. One reason for this is that, of the league-leading 13 goals Reading have conceded, none of them have been scored from a corner. (The only opposition goal scored on a corner came in the League Cup against a young team that may never even play together again.)

But I get it: Reading’s defence of corners so far this year does not feel good. It feels iffy. It feels as if it is always about to break. It feels as if a goal is always coming. (Hate to tell you this, but that’s always the case. Even when it doesn’t feel like it.) So I do not mean to say that Reading have not had issues defending set pieces or even corners. I’ve written about them. I’ll continue to do so. But the team’s biggest issues have come on indirect free kicks above the box, which do not include zonal marking in defence. Hence my confusion every time fans, or the voices on the game broadcast, lament Reading “zonal marking” a corner.

Let’s back up a bit: Reading have been using the same basic structure to defend corners since it was implemented by Jose Gomes. I’ve been tweeting about it under #Readingdefendcorners since the beginning of the 2019/20 season. You can hear Liam Moore talk about it at the 1:04:55 mark of this Elm Park Royals’ podcast with the captain. There have been tweaks to the set-up since its inception, both week to week and from manager to manager, but the concept and structure are the same: zone the six, block a couple runners, guard the short, and as Moore says in the interview above, “attack the ball when it’s in [your] area”.

This season, it typically looks like the picture below, with Paunovic and staff’s main tweaks to it being the addition of a hard back-post defender and giving short responsibilities to the near-post defender.

They have also tweaked things for individual games. For instance, in the most recent match, they dropped John Swift from his top box position into a frontside shield on the second level, as indicated by the arrow on the diagram above. (Personally, I don’t think it addressed any of their ongoing problems to start the season, so I’m hoping it was an opponent-specific move.)

It is a hybrid set-up designed to defend against opposition movement and guard against individuals within the team getting beat. Because the fact all defences must face is just that: someone in your team is going to get beat. Someone is going to make a mistake, sooner or later. So how do you best minimise the opportunities those mistakes will present to the other team? This is the question that has wrought the current panoply of hybrid defences that seek to blend the resilience of zonal marking with the combative nature of man-marking.

As Moore told Elm Park Royals last year, Reading’s particular hybrid set-up has been “positive”. Yet I have not been able to convince people of that with reasoning alone. So I decided to test my thoughts against past results. Over this international break, I watched the highlights of every Reading game in the Championship from the previous three seasons and for 2015/16 and 2016/17 (I did not watch 2017/18 because it wasn’t one of the “playlists” on Reading’s YouTube page).

While doing so, with an occasional assist from WhoScored’s match commentary, I charted all goals scored from the following set pieces: corners, free kicks (direct and indirect), goal kicks and throw-ins. In my charting, I gave one point for every goal scored in first phase and half a point for every goal scored in second phase (after initially cleared outside the box) and for every penalty won.

Here is how the table ended up, including the five games of this year so far:

Green = good, red = bad

One thing you should know before we go any further is that 1%-1.5% of corner kicks end up directly in a goal. Indirectly, that number expands to 3%-3.5%. Using that prism to look at both sides of the corner lines, the simple takeaway is this: Reading were bad at corners in 2015/16, pretty good in 2016/17 and 2019/20, disappointingly average in 2018/19, and excellent last season.

Offensively, last season’s success will only be a surprise to you if your memory is stuck on one instance when the pass did not accomplish “has get past the first man” without remembering all the times it did. (In fact, according to WhoScored, Reading had more assists from set pieces last year than any year since 2013/14. Also, I wrote a long thread about this last year.) Defensively, it will only be a surprise to you if you have a hang-up about “zonal marking”.

But, as the basic current set-up has been in place since December 2018, what about the results from those previous years, with 2018/19 being the worst in terms of corners and 2019/20 only matching 2016/17? Well, let’s dig into this.

2015/16

2015/16, Jake Cooper zone added on R (fuzzy screenshots from YouTube)

In 2015/16, Steve Clarke and Brian McDermott (and Martin Kuhl) played a heavily man-marking system, with each putting one player on a post and employing a minimal zone. Clarke put one man in a front-side zone, while McDermott sometimes played a two-man zone, adding Jake Cooper onto the middle six. They also, in a nod to another of a certain radio station’s complaints, generally left a man upfield on corners.

You can get a good look at Clarke’s set-up here in a 2-0 loss at Cardiff at the 1:05 mark and McDermott’s here, at 1:44, giving up a 2-1 winner to Middlesbrough. The 2015/16 team and structure combined to give up nine goals from corners at a 4% clip (three under Clarke, six under McDermott). And, even more notable, this squad only racked up 1.5 goal points from their own corners, going -7.5 over the season just on corners.

2016/17

2016/17 saw the arrival of Jaap Stam and a very MAN-MARKING! defensive set-up for opposition corners. This is actually what I imagine is the ideal for those who yearn for what they think is classic defence on corners: men on posts, all man-markers, one man left up the pitch.

2016/17, sometimes they would only have one on a post

Here, at 1:31, is a good look at the defence in a 3-2 win away to Blackburn where both of their goals came from corners. You can see how the man-marking even included players lingering outside the box and how the players tried to watch both ball and man in how Tyler Blackett peels off his man to try for the ball. (You can also see how men on the back post still give up goals, but that’s a pet issue of mine, and I’m digressing.) One thing I found interesting was in how Stam and staff had Yann Kermorgant play the post, as he seemingly was given a lot of freedom in attacking forward off of it along with moving side to side. (The earlier goal is 0:47 if you want to watch it.)

The 2016/17 man-marking dream of oh so many gave up 7.5 points in my charting, tied for the second best of the five years I charted, and I can hear the cheers and applause for the concept erupting from Berkshire and its arm of the British Broadcasting Company all the way from here. I would offer one note of caution here, however, that those 7.5 points came on nine events (including second phase and pens), which is a draw with 2015/16.

Of course, we know Stam managed another year at Reading, and while I have no chart for it, WhoScored tells us that the 2017/18 team scored 12 set-piece goals (down 5.5 from my charting for the previous year) and conceded 14 goals from opposition set pieces (even with my 2016/17 charting), which would obviously net -2 in total.

The irony in Stam’s Very Man-Marking system is that, at the other end of the pitch, he was running man-beaters to get looks at the opposition goal. Here, in the first game of the 2016/17 season, John Swift scores on his debut from a corner kick by Garath McCleary that hardly ever leaves the ground. The goal comes because Reading started Swift low by the back post, ran three men and the men marking them down across the goal, and used their traffic to occupy the one-man Preston North End frontside zone and block Swift’s man-marker.

It’s unlikely (maybe?) that the fall in the middle was planned, but its success is independent of that action because all that player has to do is get in the way and then Swift is left with only the keeper to beat to the near post. Everyone in Preston’s set-up is doing their job. And because of that, McCleary is able to make an easy pass to an open Swift where he has a clear path to goal in the middle of the box. Because no one was positioned to make up for anyone else getting beat.

Plans like this in attack helped Stam’s team to 9.5 goal points from corners, the most of the years I charted. Much of their success also came from second phases and rebounds, as they took 13 events to reach that 9.5 number. Here, in a corner-heavy contest, Reading beat Burton Albion on the last day of the season 4-2, with three of Reading’s goals coming from corners - two from second phase and one after a rebound from the crossbar and then a block by a defender and then the keeper not being able to grasp his save. More to our point, Burton Albion’s corner goal came on a short corner using the corner taker who had no man to mark him and the disarray that caused to ripple thru the defence.

So what does Jaap Stam think of man-marking these days? A quick look at some FC Cincinnati highlights tells us Stam has steered away from HEAVY man-marking in recent years. Since 2016/17 Reading, he has hybridised (read: modernised) his set-up, bringing his 10th outfield man back into the box and adding a two-man frontside zone and (possibly) a backpost zone as well.

They have been in the lower third in terms of defending set pieces during his tenure there, but also, they’re just plain bad overall, having the least amount of points last year and the second-lowest this year so far. So, improvement?

2018/19

2018/19 is the worst year I charted for goals against Reading, both in terms of corners and set pieces overall, and we’ve got two managers to look at: Paul Clement and Jose Gomes. Combined, they gave up 9.5 goal points on 10 events, both the highest of the five seasons charted. It is also the second-highest percentage of opposition corners converted at 3.4% opposition success. But 2018/19 needs important context. Paul Clement and Scott Marshall coached a total of 23 games, from the beginning of the season through December 22. In that half of the season, Reading conceded 8.5 of the total charted 9.5 goal points. In the entire second half of the season, Reading gave up one goal from a corner.

So what was different in the set-up instituted by Gomes, the structure of which Reading are still using, from what Clement was trying to do? Other than one having Emi Martinez for most of their games, of course.

Paul Clement: there’s levels to this

Here is a good look at Clement’s set-up, at the 1:47 mark, in a 4-1 loss away to West Brom. Some of it looks very similar to what Reading would do later in the season under Gomes (and do now). There’s a front post, four zoned on the six, three zoned on the second level, and two at top box, with one having responsibilities to the short corner. Where Stam was Very Man, Paul Clement was Very Zone. As you watch the play, the important distinction we’ll see later is at the second level.

That goal was West Brom’s second from a corner in that match, the only other two-goals-from-corners game for the opposition in the five seasons. It was also the middle of a five-game stretch in which Reading conceded six goals from corners, with two of those games being one-goal losses and another being in a draw after the other team had gone down to 10 men. Remember this as you’re tearing your hair out over Reading seeming to be bad at defending corners in this current five-game stretch.

Here (0:24), in the last game of that stretch, a 2-1 loss to Birmingham City, you can see better the passivity on the second level if you missed it the first time around. Clement has three players there to defend, but they are all back on their heels waiting for the Birmingham attackers to run at them, keeping them at arm’s length, or doing naught but ball-watching, allowing a Birmingham player to get free to the penalty spot, adjusting around a six-yard zoner without ever being touched. His header allows the man who beat Tyler Blackett at the back post to put the goal away.

For the time after Clement, you may be surprised to learn this, but highlights don’t often show a corner defence that does a good job, so we’ll look instead at the one corner goal given up under Gomes in this season to compare the posture on the second level to what it had been under Clement.

Here, at 1:39, is Norwich’s game-tying second goal. Who you want to watch is Andy Yiadom and Andy Rinomhota (I think that’s who they are), moving to and engaging with their attacker. This is why Moore said in that Elm Park Royals interview that the “most important role is the blockers”. They are meant to throw off the attack, to force them to detour, to make them late to wherever they want to go. They do this by engaging, not by sitting back.

Part of what they do, also, is try to identify the right players to block. Here, in this single instance, they don’t block the man who scores, and the zone doesn’t get out quick enough to put the Norwich player off enough. This is actually one of Reading’s current issues to solve, and one of the reasons you feel so bad about the corner defence: teams are finding players who aren’t the two being blocked.

It’s why I’ve argued for moving the backpost position into the blockers. But then this goal was scored at the back post, and it’s exactly the kind of goal that makes coaches put someone there, even though five seasons of highlights have plenty of occasions of teams scoring there regardless, as was the case on two of the three corner goals Pauno’s team conceded last year (though, to be fair, one was a bit of knockaround where Omar Richards came up from the post and then couldn’t get back: 1:51 here and 1:22 here).

2019 to present

The set-up from Gomes has carried on to today. In 2019/20, Gomes and Bowen’s team would give up 7.5 goal points on eight events. Again, the team under Gomes gave up only one of those in his 11 games. The other 6.5 came under Bowen, with 3.5 coming just in the nine Covid-summer games. Last year, Pauno’s team gave up three corner goals. The only one not mentioned yet was this long-shot rebound parried toward a rushing attacker.

All together, on a goals-per-game basis, the current structure, over three different seasons and managers, versus the three previous structures in this charting comes out to this (corners in blue and white):

Per game: goals for Reading = left, goals against Reading = right

In case you need help with the math: 0.091 is less than 0.217. Over a 46-game season, the former defences give up 10 goals while the current structure concedes four. And most of those four are from Bowen’s time. Here are how the different managers shake out, caretakers (cruelly, for Marshall anyhow, who kept on with Clement’s system) included:

I’m not sure what else I could tell you to convince of the value in Reading’s current corner defence, or why I’d even care to try anymore if this doesn’t do the job, except to maybe remind you, again, because I feel it’s important even though your feelings might be telling you different: Reading have not given up a goal from a corner yet this year in the Championship.

What everyone should be remonstrating over is the team’s defence of indirect free kicks over the box. Giving up three goals from such situations in only five games has them conceding only one fewer than the four given up all last season. And their defence of indirect free kicks has nothing to do with zonal marking.

On each of the three goals, one defender has played the goalscorer onside. If Reading are going to continue to play high lines, they have to commit to the that line across the team and Rafael has to be more aggressive coming for the ball, or they can drop the line and make the space between the line and Rafael smaller.

They’ve also already matched last year’s totals in goal kicks and throw-ins, an ignominious achievement to be sure. All of those goals, in my opinion, came from players getting out of the jobs they should have been doing within the set-up, not from the set-up itself. Perhaps the argument is then, “just everyone pick up a man,” because that is easier to get across. But then you watch how Reading conceded a penalty from a throw-in because John Swift stopped marking his man, and maybe things just aren’t that simple. Unless you simply want one person to blame when the team get beat.

But getting back to the corner defence I’m defending, Pauno and staff know that it has not been great. They have already made one big change, or - rather - undone one big change. Previously, Reading flipped the zone with whatever side the corner was coming from, so that the same player would always be zone front-six and back through to zone back-six. This year, they began by leaving the line the same when the opposition switched sides.

This meant Tom McIntyre might be back-six one time and then Josh Laurent be back-six the next, which puts Laurent in a position unsuited to him. Here, v Stoke, you can see him stand passive as he waits for the ball, not read the attacker coming down onto him, and be jumped over rather easily. (Also, a good example of the importance of blockers identifying the right attackers to take.) Since then, they’ve reverted to how it used to be, so that McIntyre and then Holmes have been at the back-six, with greater activity and height. (Though this will likely revert back to Ovie Ejaria when he returns to the pitch, a man with a great knack for boxing out attackers before they can get a good jump.)

The biggest threat to break Reading’s so far battered but unblemished record, the lurking threat to all set-ups like Reading’s, is the notorious “different guys in different places”. And Reading have a lot of different guys now that will all need to be coached on where to be and how to play. The record last year suggests that Pauno can do that, but the tenuous start combined with a lot of new blood (and some loud complaints) may also strike him as a good time to switch to a new set-up, possibly to what he used in Chicago. That would have him (I think) remove one of the six-yard zoners and give him to the blocking. Because that back post is needed for the possible one goal a season it can block.

Because that back post is needed for the possible one goal a season it can block

I hope, though, that they will persist with the defence that’s been in play for nearing three years now. Keep drilling it, find the right place for players in it, tweak it to the opposition, bolster weaknesses – yes, all of that. But persist with the defence that, at its worst, was as good as the best of three previous set-ups and, at its best, halved the world average for goals conceded from corners.

Giving up another goal from a corner is inevitable. It is coming. It will happen. It may even happen this weekend. Especially with blending in a bunch of new players. And especially if my jinx has anything to say about it after writing this article.

And when it happens, whenever Reading do next concede a goal to the opposition from a corner, you’ll have the choice to listen to your feelings… or to recency bias or to single-instance eminence or to the voices on the game broadcast… and be mad at a zonal-marking defensive set-up that is really a hybrid and cry to the heavens that Reading will, for the love of God, switch to MAN-MARKING!

Or you can look back on five seasons of results and relax.

Okay, not relax. We’re Reading fans, we would’ve just given up a goal in this scenario. But maybe direct your anger at something other than the defensive structure the team use on corner kicks. Because there’s got to be something else more deserving of it.