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Turning the Corner
In a stunning transformation, NYCFC have become one of the most dangerous teams in MLS on corner kicks. A look into how assistant coach Rob Vartughian is driving that improvement.
Historically, the New England Revolution have always played New York City FC really tight and the game on September 2nd of last year was no exception.
Down a goal with 20 minutes remaining, Bruce Arena’s side- intent on reclaiming at least a point at home- began to pepper Sean Johnson with a barrage of shots. After Gustavo Bou in typical Gustavo Bou fashion nearly lasered in a golazo from 15 yards outside the box, NYCFC’s lead appeared increasingly minuscule. Another goal was needed or New England seemed destined to equalize.
Two minutes later, NYCFC won a corner kick. Rónald Matarrita placed the ball in the middle of the left corner arc. As the Revolution lined up in a zonal marking scheme, Héber, Maxime Chanot, Alexander Callens, and Keaton Parks- the NYC’s biggest aerial threats- grouped together at the penalty spot while James Sands took position at the near post.
Matarrita raised his right hand and delivered a great ball into the near post. As the Costa Rican whipped in the corner, Sands backed into the zonal defender guarding the near post creating space for the four big boys in blue as they all splintered from the penalty spot trying to find a gap in the now vacated zone. The cross found Héber, the first runner, and the Brazilian delivered a power header off his big, beautiful bald head past a helpless Matt Turner.
In a very atypical manner, NYCFC had secured the game despite New England’s sizable advantage Expected Goals (xG) in large part due to some great set pieces off corner kicks. After the game, head coach Ronny Deila gave all the credit to assistant coach Rob Vartughian - the man responsible for all set pieces.
“[Vartughian] is the best set play coach I've seen in my life wherever I've been,” Deila proclaimed. “He's so unbelievably good to analyze and to find the opportunities to attack the opponents and also defend."
Vartughian has been a mainstay at NYCFC as the club’s longtime goalkeepers coach. Joining the club in December 2014, Vartughian is the only member of the coaching staff to have been with the team since the first season and all four head coaches.
From 2015 through 2019, NYCFC ranked 19th of 20 MLS teamsin scoring off corner kicks. The struggles were well known among the New York City faithful who watched specialist Andrea Pirlo, who only generated 2.67 Expected Assists off corner kicks over three seasons, become increasingly impotent in MLS and failed to deliver dangerous chances off set pieces.
However, since Héber's header last September NYCFC now leads the league in goals scored off of corner kicks with 12. What exactly changed?
Through the first 10 games of 2020, NYCFC approached corner kicks with a dull, monotonous mindset: utilize in-swinging corners, limit the keeper’s movement by crowding him with an attacker, and have four runners split runs to various channels with the hope that one of them wins a 1v1 battle. With a total of zero shots on target throughout these matches, New York City’s mundane routine proved to be an abject failure.
During the aforementioned match at New England, NYCFC changed things up: 10 out of 12 corners that night were out-swingers that mostly targeted runs at the near post. The result was one goal, three shots on target, and five corners resulting each in an xG of .047 or higher. Only six of NYCFC’s previous 68 corners in 2020 had a higher xG than .047.
Ever since this watershed match, NYCFC began utilizing a true variety of corner kicks. Out of 103 remaining corner kicks during the 2020 season, 37 were in-swingers, 53 out-swingers, 24 played short, and one to the top of the box while NYCFC’s production from those corner kicks greatly improved.
This year, Vartughian has taken corner kick preparation to another level by designing new corner kick plays, game-planning for specific opponents, and designing schemes to trick opponents by exploiting previous NYCFC tendencies. The result has been six goals scoredand the fourth highest goals scored per corner kick of the last four seasons.
On out-swinging corners, a common theme in play design has been very clear: set a pick at the near post and use the run behind the pick to either head the ball on target or flick on to the back post to connect with a late runner.
Vartughian has also increasingly designed set pieces to create free headers for his biggest aerial threats- namely Taty Castellanos. In the video below, Taty sets up at the back post and then curls around a pick set by a teammate, allowing him to become available for a free header.
That specific Taty back-post pick play has been run seven times in 2021, all of them off of Jesus Medina in-swinging corners from the right side. Against Pumas, Vartughian ran the same play from the opposite side with Maxi sending in an in-swinging corner from the left resulting in the game’s opening goal.
Vartughian has also gotten more creative in designing plays that exploit previous tendencies that he knows opponents have on video tape. Earlier this month against Orlando City, NYCFC ran a sneaky play that freed up Maxi Moralez for a full volley at the back post when the diminutive attacker almost never appeared previously in the box on corners.
For Jesus Medina’s utterly ridicioulous curler against Cincinnati earlier this year, Vartughian ran the exact same short corner action the previous week in DC except this time Medina went straight for goal instead of sending in a cross. Having seen this same setup on film, Cody Cropper appeared to anticipate the cross and froze up.
Vartughian has also looked to reuse set pieces with unique movement patterns after finding success from previous matches. In 2020 against the Crew, Alex Ring made a run from the top of the box to free up Anton Tinnerholm for a full volley. In 2021 against the Crew, Tinnerholm makes the run from the top of the box to free up Alfredo Morales for an open volley.
As NYCFC looks to climb in the Eastern Conference table against the New England Revolution today- a team that the Pigeons have scored 3 corner kick goals since September 2020- and secure a potential playoff game in Yankee Stadium, any set piece advantage they can find would be a boon for a club that has been completely snake-bitten in the playoffs.
Set pieces can often make or break a run in a knockout tournament where every single goal matters. Seattle scored off of four corners in their run to last year’s MLS Cup Final. And Rob Vartughian appears to be the perfect man for the job of figuring out how to do it.❧
Image: J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet
Expansions teams after 2015 not included.
35 out of 46 corners which we have video of were in-swingers.
Seven if you count the own goal forced against Cincinnati.
The ESPN+ feed initially shows a hiccup in the buildup here, but the replay shows the back post pick set by Tayvon Gray and Taty’s curl around it.