Hold the Door
In an exclusive interview, assistant coach Rob Vartughian spoke with Chris Campbell to discuss corner kick tactics and how he helped turn NYCFC into the best corner kick defending team in MLS.
If you didn’t know last season that NYCFC was one of the best set-piece taking teams in MLS, you found out while watching the MLS Cup.
With the rain pouring down in Portland as the clock hit the 40-minute mark, Maxi Moralez floated a free kick to the back post- a spot that only Valentín Castellanos could reach. Taty’s header slipped past Portland’s Steve Clark into the back of the net as the go-ahead goal that was foundational to the Pigeon lifting the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy at the end of the game.
While NYCFC has been lauded for their set piece production, there has been little public fanfare for perhaps Pigeon’s greatest strength from the corners: defending them.
Across the 2015and 2016 seasons, NYCFC, utilizing a man-to-man approach on corner kick defense, allowed 15 goals from corner kicks, second worst in the league over that span.
In 2017, that system was tossed into the trash can by Patrick Vieira in favor of a hybrid zone and blocking system that persisted with tweaks under both Dome Torrent and Ronny Deila.
The results of the switch are incredibly clear. NYCFC has been the best team in MLS since 2019 at defending corner kicks- allowing the fewest goals per corner kick, second fewest shots per corner kick, and fourth lowest expected goals per corner kick.
The Outfield spoke with City’s set piece architect, assistant coach Rob Vartughian, on his insight into the structure and tactics behind this stunning success and transformation.
How the System Works
Vartughian described the defensive setup as a hybrid system, including players within zone and others responsible for “blocking” attacking players in the box.
The team deploys a zone of five players around the six- yard box. According to Vartughian, these players are typically the best on the field at aerial prowess and their responsibility is to win the ball in their area.
“We always say you got to protect the back of the guy in front of you and you got to win the space for the zonal guys,” Vartughian said.
The remaining five outfield players are responsible for impeding runs in the box by attacking players, making the job for the zonal players as easy as possible.
Vartughian added, “For the blockers, you just can’t let guys have a free run into the dangerous areas. So essentially, allowing your zonal guys the most freedom they can have to go win the ball and win their area.”
Vartughian also noted that the goalkeeper’s most important responsibility is to establish the starting positions for the outfield players based on the scouting report for the opponent and training during the week. Once the ball is delivered, the keeper is responsible for attacking the ball if it comes inside the zonal pocket.
While the system has a solid structure in place, there are small variations based on the opponent.
“There’s a lot of nuances to the structure if a team plays short. If a team tries to play to the back post, or front post. If they start runners inside,” Vartughian asserted and added that there may be tweaks if an opponent has a particular player that’s dangerous in the air specifically noting Walker Zimmerman, Steve Birnbaum, and Omar Gonzalez.
One noticeable change is how NYCFC establishes its starting positions for the zonal players differently for inswinging or outswinging corners, lining up in a manner that mimics the cross’ curve and trajectory as seen below.
Vartughian added, “if you were to watch us defend an inswinger versus an outswinger, it's very different. When you start to look at the real detail of where certain balls are delivered and what the reactions of the players are, if we get our jobs right, and everybody does their job, the structure, in our opinion, yields [a] pretty low chance of goals.”
The system Vartughian has put in place and drilled often in practice has led to much success. Where NYCFC has gotten itself into problems is when players have failed those responsibilities.
The Importance of Personnel
Vartughian stressed that the structure in place is most important because it fits the players’ strengths.
“You can’t put a system in that doesn’t allow them to have success. I think we’ve got a good combination of guys that are pretty clever, can block. Got a lot of guys that are good in the air.”
Having capable players in the air is a key to successfully defending corners and the Pigeons have many that fit the bill. Maxime Chanot was second in MLS in 2021 in aerial duel success with a 77.9% win rating.
NYCFC had another five players in 2021 with an aerial duel success greater than 50% with James Sands (69%), Alfredo Morales (61.8%), Keaton Parks (59.7%), Alexander Callens (57.3%), and Malte Amundsen (52.9%).
Replacing Sands’ presence in the zonal line will be important for future success and Vartughian will likely turn to new Designated Player, Thiago Martins. The Brazilian center back is known for his ability to attack opponents and defend during the run of play, but Vartughian seems particularly excited about how he can bolster the defense on corner kicks as well:
Our system has some intricacies to it, it takes time to get the feel of it, to understand what’s being asked. It’s not just a simple plug and play, ‘hey go win this’. There’s a lot of nuances to it.
He’s a guy that gets it straight away. He’s an experienced guy. He’s been at a high level.
For us, the transition for him has been seamless, there’s minimal work that needs to be spent in the classroom so to speak. He just understands it, and the adjustment will be quite simple for him.
Turning Defense Into Offense
Keeping the ball out of the back of the net isn’t the only objective Vartughian has for corners. Thiago Andrade scored perhaps the most exciting goal in club history last season against DC United.
The fact that this followed immediately after a DC United corner, was not just by happenstance.
It’s the structure. And it’s how you come out and what you’re asking the players to do when they pick up a second ball, or when the goalkeeper gets it and how you release….
When we release from a moment of gaining possession and we ask them to do very specific things and I think if you were to watch the games…..we’re scoring goals in those moments. We’ve created penalties in those moments. We’ve had very near chances in those moments.
And all of them have a very common theme when you look at what the structure looks like when we break. I think teams have become keen to that, I think some teams are starting to play to defend with an extra one because we are dangerous in those moments.
MLS Cup Importance
Set pieces are an edge that can mean multiple points gained or lost over the course of a season, and are even more important in knockout style tournaments such as MLS Cup where one goal can end a season or extend it. During last season’s championship run, NYCFC scored two goals off of corners while allowing none.
, only three MLS Cup-winning teams have allowed a goal off of corner kicks during its playoff run. No Cup winner had a negative goal differential from corners during their playoffs while the total corner kick goal differential from MLS Cup winning teams from 2013-2021 was +8.
Going back to 2013
As NYCFC sets its immediate sights on a long CONCACAF Champions League run, success from the corner can prove to be a true pigeon feather in its cap. Having already scored three times from corners and conceding one so far across all competitions, Rob Vartughian has the group in top shape to have corner kicks be a difference maker.❧
Image: Cornelis Cort, The Battle of Zama
Apologies for bringing up THAT season.
Among those with 40 or more aerial duels. Data via fbref.com
The earliest season in the American Soccer Analysis database.