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Nov 11, 2011

Coach's corner

In the words of Steve Earle, the revolution starts now.

As some of you will have noticed, a month or so ago we introduced a new regular feature, a concise rundown of the latest Bundesliga action. Since these reports are published mid-weekly, they collided with this column, confusing some readers. Which is why the column has now been moved to a new time slot.

In the words of George Young and Harry Vanda, I'll have Friday on my mind.

Obviously, one should celebrate such a change by introducing the new slot with a truly spectacular piece, the kind that causes a ruckus in the community, triggers heated debates and will see us plastered all over thousands of Facebook pinboards.

I've thought long and hard about this, trying to come up with a claim as outrageous as possible without being totally implausible. (Because, after all, even columnists have to back up their claims with at least a modicum of evidence.) Like I said, it took me a while, but I think I've succeeded. Last week, while watching Champions League football, I decided to shock you with the statement that some coaches might actually have a bit of an idea what they're doing.

In the words of Giovanni Trapattoni: Ein Trainer ist nicht ein Idiot - a coach is not an idiot.

Of course, the vast majority of football fans hold the unshakeable belief that the exact opposite is true. Stand on any terrace or sit in almost any stand in the league and what you'll hear is that the coach has yet again chosen the wrong tactic, is making the wrong substitutions and starting the wrong players. Or, in the rare case that he's starting the right players, he's playing them in the wrong positions.

And it's not just fans who often seem to feel this way. On the last Saturday in October, Werder Bremen played away at Mainz and fell behind after 23 minutes from a set piece. Young Yunus Malli took a corner from the right, Niko Bungert won the aerial duel at the near post and the ball hit the back of the net.

So far, so bad. Goals like that happen all the time. However, in this particular case, there was an element that elicited comments. "The defence isn't ready," said the television commentator before adding: "And the posts are unguarded." On the following day, former Germany international players Thomas Helmer and Thomas Strunz, plus former Hannover coach Peter Neururer, dissected this goal on a different TV station but reached the same conclusion. "There's no one at the post," they said, making it sound as if Werder had committed a primal footballing sin. "I once had a keeper who didn't like it when there was a player protecting the near post and he would send him away," Neururer said, making it sound as if he had committed that goalkeeper to a mental hospital a long time ago.

It wasn't the first time Werder had come under such criticism, as the team often leaves one or both posts unprotected at corners. Back in late February, when playing Leverkusen, the side safeguarded the near post at a corner but left the far post unmanned. Leverkusen scored when Eren Derdiyok headed the ball into that deserted corner.

As I've mentioned above, four days after the Mainz versus Bremen game I was following the Champions League on television and saw Inter Milan take the lead against Lille when Walter Samuel headed a corner into the net right next to the upright, as the French side had no defender standing at either post.

This game was not analysed by Helmer, Strunz and Neururer, but I'm sure their complaint was echoed by many Lille fans watching the match. "Why in heaven's name is nobody guarding the posts?" they will have yelled in anger and looked at Lyon, also active on the night and always protecting both posts on corners. "You learn to do this in kindergarten!" they may have added.

Because that's what we did. We learned very early that you must position one defender at the near post on corners, one at the far post. We never questioned the wisdom of it. Not even the fact that you'd usually put your two smallest players there, which - if you think about it - is a tad counter-productive when you want to defend against headers or prevent goals scored directly from the corner kick, made us wonder.

I'm not sure when I first noticed a team that defended corners differently. It might have been when Jose Mourinho guided Porto to great triumphs, because his name often comes up in this context. Whatever the circumstances were, when I finally saw teams that left one or even both posts unattended, I didn't think they were making a stupid, childish mistake. No, it made immediate sense to me and I shook my head not because I disapproved but because I wondered why nobody had done this before.

First, defending is all about having a numerical advantage. But on corners, many teams voluntarily reduce their advantage by putting two men into spots from which they'll hardly ever get to the ball first but will even in the best of cases only react to what happens.

For example, the reason that this Mainz goal against Bremen should - from the coach's point of view - never have happened is not that the posts should have been guarded, quite the opposite. The fact that the posts were unattended gave Bremen a huge numerical advantage in front of goal, which is why no less than three Werder players went up for the ball together with Bungert. He should never have been to able to win this aerial duel in the first place, that's why the goal was so annoying, not to say freakish.

Second, there's the offside trap. In August, the blog Defensive Minded ran a piece headed "Barcelona's Zonal Marking at Corners". It pointed out, among many other things, that "Barcelona do not put any players on the goal line at either of the goal posts. This is considered heresy in British football but Barcelona do it all the time with success. The reason they don't put any players on the goal line is because it would be very difficult to create an offside trap after the initial ball is cleared."

To illustrate this, let's look at arguably the two most famous corners in the span of only two minutes, namely the pair of set pieces that won the 1999 Champions League for Manchester United against Bayern Munich in stoppage time.

You may recall Teddy Sheringham's equaliser: the corner came in and the ball was cleared by Thorsten Fink, though not far enough. As Ryan Giggs knocked it back into the danger zone, Mehmet Scholl, guarding the near post, was a little slow in coming off the line. As Sheringham made contact with the ball and sent it into the net, Scholl was a half-step behind him.

Bayern's goalkeeper Oliver Kahn immediately raised his hand in desperation to signal that Sheringham had been offside, but the German was wrong. However, had there been no defenders at the posts, Sheringham would have been offside by no less than three yards - provided Giggs would ever have gotten the ball to him in the first place, considering there would have been two more opponents blocking its path.

Now, also consider what happened a few moments later: when the next United corner was taken, Sheringham won an aerial duel and the ball was flicked on to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Norwegian then sent the ball goalwards - to the exact spot where a defender, in this case Michael Tarnat, was standing, his left hand resting on the far post.

Put differently, it was exactly the kind of situation coaches position players at the posts for. But did it Bayern any good? No. Of course not. Because as happens so very often in such circumstances, the ball came at Tarnat from such close range that he simply didn't have any time to react.

So the coaches who commit "heresy" by not putting men into the corners on corners actually have very good reasons for doing so. It's just that of course you never notice all the goals that were prevented by unguarded posts, you only notice those that were scored because of it.

For instance in another crucial game between United and Bayern. Eleven years after the 1999 final, Franck Ribery took a corner at Old Trafford and his cross found Arjen Robben. United were guarding the far post, but not the near corner. And this was the spot Robben volleyed the ball into.

I'm sure there were commentators who said that the goal would've never happened if a defender had been standing on the line. Yet it wasn't a mistake by the United coach or his goalkeeper or whoever had decided to defend that way on corners from the left. Rather, it was a terrible marking error, as the nearest United player was an amazing twelve yards away from Robben as the cross came sailing in.

So I guess I have to conclude that the times have changed and that there are indeed sound reasons to not protect the posts, to not put passive men in the corners.

Put differently, once it was true that, in the words of Cicero, it is the character of a brave and resolute man not to desert his post. But today many coaches prefer the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh: You can't stay in your corner waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

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