Columnist

GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

Having mulled over a stat that proved to be just for Christmas, and did not make it through Boxing Day, columnist Giles Smith was still able to celebrate a Vicarage Road victory, as he details in his fan’s-eye view of events…

Here’s a statistic I hadn’t been aware of – not, in fact, until it appeared in the bottom corner of my television screen during yesterday’s game between Brighton and Arsenal. Which, I suppose, thinking about it, doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility that I dreamed it.

I mean, consider the circumstances. It was Boxing Day afternoon. I was on a sofa. And it was Brighton v Arsenal. Sleep was always going to be a factor.

But let’s assume the statistic that I’m talking about popped up during one of the relatively small portions of that particular televised game during which I was conscious - and that it was therefore true, rather than the product of a typical sofa-based Boxing Day coma, induced by the standard 24-hour seasonal mix of bread sauce, marzipan and Quality Street, plus a further unwise helping of Brighton v Arsenal.

Certainly I can still see, in my head, the figures on the screen, clear as day – or clear as Boxing Day, anyway. The statistic in question related to the numbers of goals conceded by teams this season from corners. And do you know who, at the start of Boxing Day, topped the table of teams who had conceded the fewest goals from corners in the Prem so far?

It was Arsenal.

But only on account of alphabetical order (where Arsenal have historically done well), because joint top of the table of teams who, at the start of Boxing Day, had conceded the fewest goals from corners in the Prem so far was… us.

And do you know, at the start of Boxing Day, how many goals we had conceded from corners in the Prem this season? Exactly none. Zero goals from corners. No goals from corners whatsoever.
 

I’ve got to say, I was quite surprised to learn this. While well aware that we have the third best defence in the league after Liverpool’s and Manchester City’s (and ahead of Tottenham’s), I was equally aware that our team is under fresh management and a work in progress, which is likely to make you vulnerable to the odd moment of vulnerability or occasional teething-issue at set-pieces. Certainly this has not been a season entirely without defensive lapses and, if asked to put a number on it off the top of my head, I would have suggested that we had dumped at least a couple at corners.

Not at all, though. I looked it up, and apparently we concede 4.06 corners per game on average, which is very slightly better than standard: City concede the fewest (2.61 per game), and Burnley the most (7.39), but it’s a fairly narrow band in which nearly everybody concedes somewhere between four or five. And our rock solidity in seeing off the threat from those corners made us table-toppers at Christmas.

An impressive stat, then – and one I wish I had known on Christmas Day. I could have produced it triumphantly as a sure-fire conversation-starter over the bread sauce, the marzipan and the Quality Street.

‘Do you know,’ I could have declared, ‘which Premier League team has conceded the fewest goals from corners in the 2018/19 season to date?’

‘Chelsea,’ I could have announced, resoundingly. ‘Along with Arsenal,’ I could have mumbled.

‘And do you know how many goals Chelsea have conceded from corners in the 2018/19 league season to date? None!’

Cue gasps of delighted astonishment, followed by cheering, the popping of crackers and hours of unbroken hilarity until nightfall.

And then what happens last night against Watford? We go and concede a goal from a corner. Or sort of. Does it count as conceding from a corner if the ball doesn’t get crossed into the box, but is passed out to the edge of the penalty area, where someone gets lucky on the volley and lumps it into the bottom corner of your goal? I suppose it does, although you kind of feel there ought to be an asterisk beside this one in the record books, leading you to a footnote: ‘not really a corner by the standard definition of a corner. And, if David Luiz had stood square, probably not really a goal either.’
 

Actually, with regard to David Luiz’s body-position as that volley whistled past him, I have only sympathy. People, and especially pundits (and especially pundits who used to be defenders) tend to be brutal about the so-called failures of defenders to put their faces directly in the way of freshly fired cannonballs, as if natural reflexes had no part to play – and also as if it wasn’t part of a defender’s duty to avoid causing possibly disastrous deflections, not least on the edge of his own penalty area. (If you’re not confident of getting in the way completely, it would sometimes be better to get out of the way entirely and hope that the goalkeeper deals with it.)

Anyway, it mattered not in the end and, thanks to Eden Hazard and some tidy work elsewhere, we won, partly atoning for the shortfall at home to Leicester. Strange period, though. Only two games in to the schedule, Christmas has already worked its typically disruptive effect on the table. Could we really be facing the hitherto unthinkable prospect of a Liverpool/Tottenham title race? Traditionally, it has been the function of Manchester City (and, going back a long way, Manchester United and Arsenal) to prevent us even having to consider such a thing. But, of course, we’re only half way – through both Christmas and the season - so let’s not jump to any conclusions. On to Palace.
 

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