When Erick Mombaerts arrived in Melbourne at the start of the 2019/20 season, Melbourne City had struggled to score from set plays.
Having scored just four goals from corners in 2018/19 (just one more than bottom-ranked Newcastle, Melbourne Victory and Central Coast), the team seemed to lack any key ideas and structure in these vital attacking situations.
With greater issues at play in the squad, including the need to completely overhaul the team’s principles in possession, the idea of set-pieces was placed firmly on the back burner for Mombaerts as he prioritised solidifying a team that seemed void of ideas and ambition under previous manager Warren Joyce.
As such, he chose to adopt a simple approach, particularly on corners where crossing the ball to aerial threats Harrison Delbridge and Curtis Good took precedence over creativity from these dead ball situations.
When Patrick Kisnorbo took over Melbourne City in 2020/21, he primarily sort to solidify what Mombaerts had already built. With this in mind, the set-piece strategy was refined, rather than overhauled.
However, as Kisnorbo looked to kickstart City’s title defence in the 2021/22 season, it became immediately clear that set pieces were becoming more of a weapon for his side, particularly as goals in open play came harder to come by as their oppositions sought to stifle City’s free-flowing football with pragmatic defensive structures.
Having recorded just six goals from corners in each of the two season’s that preceded the current one, City have made a concerted effort to improve in that area. This season, they are the top ranked team in the A-League Men, with nine goals from corners.
The efforts to improve from dead ball situations are clearly paying off as City sit atop the A-League table as firm favourites to clinch a second consecutive Premier’s Plate. However, the altered routines designed by Kisnorbo and his backroom staff help to explain how they have remained so successful over the course of multiple seasons.
The Mombaerts Era
Under Frenchman Mombaerts, Melbourne City adopted a very consistent approach from corners as his side almost exclusively used short corners to their advantage. In most scenarios, these short corners were designed to draw an extra opposition player away from the penalty area as they would seek to close down the second City player positioning himself next to the corner taker.
However, in most cases, the ball would be swiftly rolled out by the corner taker to the second man who would quickly cross the rolling ball before being closed down by the opposition marker.
The team’s six goals from corners placed them 3rd in the league in that area despite finishing 2nd on the table at the end of the season. Of their six goals from corners, all six came from a short corner or a deceptive fake short corner where the second man would draw out the opposition marker from the penalty area, but the corner would be taken normally.
Along with being instructed to almost exclusively use short corners, Mombaerts would almost exclusively send five players into the box for these attacking set pieces as he looked to get the ball onto the heads of Delbridge and Good.
This was the case when Good scored directly from a corner against Central Coast Mariners after a well taken assist by Lachlan Wales.
The tall brigade of Good, Delbridge, Conor Metcalfe and Rostyn Griffiths crowded together as another player was positioned on the goal-line in an attempt to obstruct the vision of Mark Birighitti.
Noone then rolls the ball out to Wales as a short corner before the youngster slashes in a cross to the front post where Good makes a well timed run.
Adrian Luna and Scott Galloway also play in an important role in this set piece routine.
Both are principally positioned near the edge of the box to collect any second balls that are headed away from the penalty area by the opposition. By positioning himself in the half-space (defined as the area between the centre of the pitch and the wing), Galloway can also receive a pass from Wales with an angle where he can deliver a cross to the back post.
With five players in the box, two preparing to take the set-piece and two protecting second balls, one of the full-backs acted as the team’s one screening protector in these situations, often positioning themselves on the half-way line ready to swipe out transition opportunities if the opposition were to break away quickly.
On corner kicks from the left hand side, Galloway would play this role and Jamieson would be on the edge of the box closest to the corner taker, ready to collect second balls but also deliver a cross with his preferred foot if needed. The vice-versa is true of corner kicks from the right hand side.
An almost identical situation unfolded just a few games earlier against Adelaide.
Jamieson, one of the two players protecting from second balls, receives the ball from one of the two players taking the corner. He then places a beautifully weighted cross under almost no pressure to Jamie Maclaren who leaps at the back post to score a goal with his head.
It soon became clear that corner kicks under Mombaerts were a matter of consistency and sticking to the plan.
In situations or matches were the team was facing pressure from the opposition, the team would sacrifice one of the two players sitting on the edge of the area for second balls and place them on the half-way line to protect against counter-attacks.
This was the case when City were 2-0 down in the Christmas Derby against Melbourne Victory.
Galloway is the only player on the edge of the box ready to pounce on a second ball while the typical five players position themselves in the box, ready to attack the incoming cross from Javier Cabrera. Delbridge gets onto the end of the cross to make the scoreline 2-1.
This clear strategy to target scoring directly from set-pieces with headers from a short corner started very well for Mombaerts, as his side scored from six corners within their first 15 matches. Just one of the six goals was not scored directly from the corner as it came as a result of a second ball.
However, as opposition teams became accustomed to this routine, the goals began to dry up for City, as they failed to score from a corner in the remaining 11 games of the regular season.
Clearly, it was time for a reshuffle.
Slight tweaks under Kisnorbo originally (six in the box)
Like most aspects of his arrival at City, Kisnorbo sought to make slight tweaks to Mombaerts’ way of scoring from corner kicks. He did not prioritise a complete overhaul of their set-piece routine as his side continued a desire to score directly from set-pieces by using short corners.
Like the season before, all six of City’s goals from corners in Kisnorbo’s first season came from short corners or fake short corners. Unlike the season before, each and every one of them was scored directly after a pass from the corner, as they scored zero goals from second phases of a corner after a ball had been originally cleared by the opposition.
In terms of the routine, the slight tweak under Kisnorbo is that he gave license for another player to join the other five in the penalty area. This often meant that there were two players at the corner flag, six players in the box, one protecting for second balls on the edge of the box closest to the corner taker and one protecting transitions on the half-way line.
This goal from Good against Wellington was characteristic of City’s approach in Kisnorbo’s first season at the helm.
After the ball is rolled out to him by Florin Berenguer, Noone chips in a ball to Good, one of the six players in the box waiting for the cross, who heads the ball home. Nathaniel Atkinson is the only player waiting near the edge of the box for a second ball. He is positioned on the edge of the box nearest to the corner taker while Ben Garuccio is out of frame, protecting on the half-way line in case of a Wellington transition.
Two almost identical situations unfolded in City’s famous 6-0 victory against Melbourne Victory. As was the routine, six players light blue shirts found themselves in the box waiting to pounce on the short corner opportunity.
Berenguer characteristically rolls the ball out for Noone whose inviting delivery meets Nuno Reis at the front post before it brushes past Jamie Maclaren en route to City’s first goal of the evening. The defending from Victory is, quite frankly, porous, but the same principles for City apply.
Scarily, Victory seemed to have not learned from their mistake as City profited from an identical routine for their third goal of the game.
Again, Berenguer rolls it out for Noone who launches a lofted ball to the back post for Griffiths who rises above countless Victory defenders to cushion a header beyond the flailing arms of Max Crocombe.
Again, there is six players in the box with one player on the ball side protecting for second balls and one player out of frame on the half-way line protecting transitions.
In some circumstances, like this following goal against Adelaide, City demonstrated slight departures from this routine.
The strategy looks the same, but this time Josh Cavallo is caught ball-watching and fails to check his shoulder. Galloway snatches at the opportunity to attack the gaping space that formed at the front post as Adelaide’s markers were committed to dealing with the six City players darting in and around the penalty area.
Galloway took the chance with aplomb and rocketed a shot beyond the palms of James Delianov who stood no chance of saving the well-taken finish.
Despite the ease with which these goals were scored, the routine was largely predictable and did not have many possible variations given that the primary aim remained to cross the ball to taller players in the box.
This resulted in City finishing 4th on the goals scored from corners table, despite finishing 1st and winning the double.
A much-needed overhaul
Interestingly, City began their title defence season with a relatively similar corner routine to the one of the past season with Kisnorbo. Slightly more conservative, with one less player in the box and one more player defending transitions, City’s first goal of the season came from a corner kick.
The ball is launched in from a short corner towards Maclaren before Good manages to bundle the ball home.
City scored five more goals from corners (four directly from the pass from the corner taker) before Kisnorbo opted to significantly alter their approach in a manner which deserves great credit.
After having overseen a corner routine which, for the best part of two years, involved short corners aimed at crossing the ball to players who can head the ball in the box, Kisnorbo and his staff devised a more dynamic strategy over the course of the season.
The first example of this can be seen in their recent 6-0 victory against Wellington.
There are a few things to note here. Firstly, and perhaps most noticeably, there is no second player at the corner kick for the ball to be rolled out to. Instead, Metcalfe takes the corner directly.
Additionally, there are five players in the penalty area and two players ready to latch onto second balls with another two protecting transitions. This gives City extra stability in this area which has been needed given that the vast majority of goals they concede come from counter-attacks.
Metcalfe swings the ball into the front post with his left foot before Good rockets a header beyond Oli Sail. This was City’s first goal scored from a corner in more than 2.5 years that did not involve a short corner or a fake short corner.
Just eight minutes later, City sense the opportunity to test out their new routine once again – this time with an extra player forward as they sense that Wellington are on the ropes.
With three players on the edge of the box waiting for a second ball, Metcalfe sends in a cross, hoping that one of the five players in the box can get their head on the initial delivery.
Wellington clear the ball and it spills out to Marco Tilio who is well-positioned to retain the second ball.
Tilio then beats his marker in a 1 vs 1 situation before powering in City’s fifth goal of the afternoon.
This overhaul of City’s corner kick structure allows the team to establish more dominance on the game after these set-piece opportunities, particularly if they manage to retain the second ball with one of the two, and sometimes, three players waiting on the edge of the area.
Sacrificing the second corner taker also gives the team greater scope for flexibility depending on the state of the game. If they need to be cautious and conservative, this extra player can be used as protection at half-way to stop counter attacks while, if a goal is needed, he can position himself inside the box to attack the cross or on the edge of the box to collect second balls.
Kisnorbo’s more daring approach to attacking corner kicks was also evident during their match against Sydney FC.
Berenguer floats a ball into the box, aiming to reach one of the six light blue shirts. Metcalfe, O’Neill and Jordan Bos (out of frame) are on the edge of the box looking to collect second balls. City have no players defending the transition.
As Sydney clear the ball, Bos loads up from more than 20 yards and cannons a beautiful volley beyond the outstretched arms of Tom Heward-Belle.
With this more daring approach to their corner kick routine, Melbourne City have scored three goals from corners in their last three A-League Men games.
Patrick Kisnorbo has clearly recognised the importance and value of these attacking set pieces and looks set to continue profiting from them until the end of the season.
While opposition sides quickly cottoned on to City’s former approaches, the flexibility and confidence within their new routine may prove to be a step too far for rival teams wishing to thwart Kisnorbo’s steam train from rolling forward.