There have been a number of features that have become synonymous with Premier League teams in recent seasons.
When you think of cutbacks, Manchester City, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur spring to mind. If it’s combinations down the right wing, your brain automatically moves to Newcastle United and Liverpool’s previous iteration. Counter-pressing? Liverpool, Arsenal, City and Tottenham. Build-up patterns and passing combinations? Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton & Hove Albion. A high offside line? Villa and Tottenham.
As for set pieces, there are probably too many clubs to list. However, two sides who have specialised in two types of set pieces are Burnley and Everton under the management of Sean Dyche.
The first is lumping deep free kicks — which are taken between their own third and the halfway line — towards the opponents’ penalty area, and into the “Dyche Zone”. The other is in-swinging corners towards the back post.
In simple terms, the corner is played towards the back post where Dyche’s players are aiming their runs, while another player tries to disrupt the goalkeeper to prevent him from claiming or punching the cross.
Here’s an example from Dyche’s last win with Burnley, in April 2022. Against Everton, Nathan Collins, James Tarkowski, and Wout Weghorst (all yellow) focus their movement on attacking the back-post zone, where Maxwel Cornet is targeting his cross. Meanwhile, Josh Brownhill (red) is blocking Jordan Pickford to prevent the England goalkeeper from defending the cross.
Considering the profile of the players who have played under Dyche at Burnley and Everton, mastering this routine makes complete sense. The aerial ability of Ben Mee, Chris Wood, Tarkowski, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Amadou Onana makes them a threat in isolated situations at the back post, and the delivery of Ashley Westwood, at Burnley, and Dwight McNeil for both clubs means the ball can reach its destination accurately.
The beauty of this corner routine lies in its simplicity, but there are principles which are guiding it to be this effective. In addition, Dyche and his coaching staff introduce minor tweaks from one game to the other depending on the availability of the players and the opponent’s defensive setup.
In this example against Aston Villa in January 2021, Mee equalises from a corner before Burnley add two other goals to win 3-2. Here, Villa’s defensive setup is mainly zonal except for Jack Grealish, who is defending the short corner, John McGinn man-marking Wood inside the six-yard area, and Douglas Luiz and Ross Barkley, who are supposedly keeping an eye on Tarkowski and Mee.
On the other side, Burnley have two runners in Tarkowski and Mee (both yellow), with Jack Cork and Jay Rodriguez (red) acting as blockers in front of them.
As Westwood crosses the ball towards the back post, Cork (red) stops goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez from claiming the cross. Meanwhile, Rodriguez blocks Ezri Konsa — Villa’s zonal defender at the back post — to create space for Tarkowski and Mee (yellow).
The delivery from Westwood is on point and Mee heads the ball in.
The difference between this corner and the previous example is Rodriguez’s role. Against Villa, his task was to block the zonal defender towards the back post to create space for the back-post runners. But in the first example, he was a dummy runner moving towards the near post, which brings us to the next part of Dyche’s plan.
Along with disrupting the opposition’s goalkeeper, blocking players who are defending the back-post zone, and attacking that area, Dyche and his staff use dummy runners towards the near post to further vacate the back-post zone.
In this example against Everton in October 2019, Westwood is preparing to deliver the ball towards the back post as Jeff Hendrick makes a run into that area.
Everton’s lack of a man-marker on Hendrick is peculiar, but they are relying on zonal players across the six-yard area to protect all zones, in addition to Morgan Schneiderlin man-marking Tarkowski at the back post.
Mee and Wood (both white) fake near-post movements, while Ashley Barnes and Tarkowski (both red) are blocking Pickford and Schneiderlin…
… to prevent Pickford from claiming the cross, and to vacate space for the arriving Hendrick (yellow) at the back post…
… who connects with Westwood’s cross to score.
Looking at the above image, Barnes, Mee and Wood are positioned inside the goalmouth when Hendrick is striking the ball, which readies them for the second ball in case Hendrick plays it across the goal or if his shot is parried by Pickford. This is another feature of Dyche’s back-post corner that is visible once the cross reaches the back-post zone.
In another example against West Ham United, Burnley benefited from having players inside the goalmouth after the first contact.
West Ham’s defensive approach on that day consisted of three players defending the edge of the penalty box, four zonal markers inside the six-yard area (all dark blue), and Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell and Issa Diop (all red) man-marking Tarkowski, Mee and Wood.
Here, Burnley have two players attacking the back post in Mee and Tarkowski (both yellow), Barnes (red) focusing on blocking the goalkeeper, Cork (white) in a fake position closer to the near post, and Wood (white) moving away from the back-post zone to drag Diop out of this area…
… which McNeil is playing the ball into. Now the pieces are in place: Barnes is disrupting West Ham’s goalkeeper, Diop is moved out of position, and Mee and Tarkowski are in an isolated two-versus-two situation at the back post.
As the ball is nearing Tarkowski, the roles of Cork, Wood (both white) and Barnes (red) switch from dummies and blockers to players positioned inside the goalmouth, who are ready for the second ball. Burnley’s centre-back heads the ball towards the dropping Barnes, who scores to make it 1-0.
In summary, Dyche’s back-post corner focuses on emptying the back-post zone for the runners to attack it by blocking the opponents’ players defending that area, disrupting the goalkeeper, and making dummy runs towards the near post.
All of this is complemented by the non-back-post players positioning themselves inside the goalmouth to be ready for the second ball, which could be a rebound from a shot on target or a header across the six-yard area.
Last Saturday, Everton’s first goal against Tottenham had all these features. Tottenham have seven zonal markers: four towards the near post, Timo Werner near the penalty spot, and Destiny Udogie and Richarlison (both white) defending the back post. The remaining three players (red) — James Maddison, Rodrigo Bentancur and Brennan Johnson — are man-marking Jarrad Branthwaite, Calvert-Lewin and Tarkowski.
Initially, the roles of the Everton players aren’t obvious. James Garner, Jack Harrison and Ben Godfrey (all blue) are positioned inside the six-yard area in front of three runners (all white)…
… but the picture becomes clearer when McNeil is about to take the corner. At this moment, Branthwaite and Calvert-Lewin (both white) move towards the near post, while Tarkowski (yellow) attacks the back post…
… with the help of Garner and Harrison (both red). The former adjusts himself to block Udogie, and the latter moves towards Guglielmo Vicario to disrupt the Tottenham goalkeeper.
The result is an isolated two-versus-two situation for Godfrey and Tarkowski (both yellow) at the back post, where the Everton centre-back easily loses Johnson…
… and frees himself of any marking. Meanwhile, Harrison’s block on Vicario affects the goalkeeper, who flicks the ball towards Tarkowski.
Now that the ball has reached Tarkowski at the back-post area, Calvert-Lewin’s role changes from a fake near-post runner to a player positioned inside the goalmouth, who is ready for the second ball. The centre-back heads the ball across the goal…
… and Calvert-Lewin attacks it, with the equaliser going in via a slight deflection off Harrison.
“We want to be competitive on set pieces,” said Dyche. “The staff and analysts spend a lot of time to make the best chances we can from set pieces. But, delivery is massively important, and the intent and desire to score a goal — that’s a large part of what we keep drumming into the players.”
One of the reasons why Dyche’s back-post corner is hard to defend is that it plays to the strengths of the Everton players — whether that’s McNeil’s delivery or the aerial threat of Tarkowski or Calvert-Lewin. Tweaks are made from game to game to make the routine unpredictable.
Looking at the Premier League’s corner stats this season on a per-corner level — which allows us to level the playing field when comparing across teams, because one team could have more corners than the other — Everton have the best goals-per-100-corners rate in the league (7.9), while also creating the highest quality chances on average — 7.1 expected goals (xG) per 100 corners.
After Dyche’s first game with Everton, when they beat Arsenal 1-0 using his trademark back-post corner, he said that his team believes in their set-piece setup. “It’s another valuable weapon for the team to use,” said the Everton manager.
This season, Dyche’s back-post corners will come in handy with Everton in another relegation scrap.
How mastering set pieces can be crucial to Premier League survival
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)