The Richmond (Corner) Kickers

Under Darren Sawatzky, the Richmond Kickers have become a formidable force in USL League One. Defensively strong and dangerous in transition, the Kickers look revitalized–ending the last two seasons in playoff positions. There are a lot of things that make them dangerous opponents, but I want to highlight one strength in particular that sets Richmond apart from many other clubs in League One: Attacking Corner Kicks. No club has scored from corner kicks more than Richmond since Sawatzky took the helm in 2020. In fact, no club has even created more chances from corners (Greenville has created the same amount in that time) than the Kickers in 2020 and 2021. Richmond are executing like no other team and it’s important that teams seek to figure out why. Otherwise, you’re allowing a team to basically create free chances that can be preventable if studied.

Some quick facts about set pieces and corners from Spielverlagerung, a tactical theory website:

  • Scoring from set-pieces is more likely than from possession
  • Scoring from a corner is more likely than from a free-kick
  • More likely to score from inswinging corners than outswinging
  • More likely to score from a 2nd ball than from a shot from corners

So basically, not placing SOME kind of emphasis on corner kicks/set pieces is like being offered free money and not taking the offer because you aren’t sure if the money being offered is worth your time. Last week, I shared some data visualizations to show how efficient teams were at taking corners in 2021. Here they are if you missed them:

Right off the bat, you can see that Richmond have one of the highest expected goals per shot from corners, they average the most shots per game from corners, and they tied for the most goals scored from corners. Now to quickly define what I mean by “from a corner”, I want to be clear and note that I am referring to a phase of play and not just the immediate action. The following example will help offer clarity. While this wasn’t from the corner itself, the offense and defense were still operating under the presumption that this was a set piece.

As you can see, even though the first action wasn’t what created the goal, both teams were still operating in set piece structures and continued to do so until the goal was scored. Richmond does some interesting things that help them score goals in these situations, whether they are first time shots or not. I wanted to find out what they did, if there were any patterns, and how effective they were. Let’s take a look at a few of their corners now and analyze how they go about creating chances.

First off, An interesting thing to note is that all 7 goals that were scored came from In-swinging corners. While Spielverlagerung does note that teams are more likely to score from inswinging than outswinging, it’s not THAT big of a difference statistically. Which means that Richmond was really putting in work to make these inswinging corners more dangerous. If you’re wondering what inswinging and outswinging mean, here are some examples:

Outswinging Corner: If the ball kept curling, it would turn away from goal.
Inswinging Corner: The Ball eventually curls towards the goal.

For this first corner, no second ball is needed. They win the first header and put it in the back of the net. So how does it happen? There are two general ways to go about taking a corner: offering coverage across the goal so that the taker doesn’t have to prioritize any one target, OR a team can prioritize one particular target and move in such a way that opens space for that target to receive the ball. For Richmond in this case, they choose to offer coverage across the goal, mostly due to the man marking taking place by Toronto. That being said, i didn’t see too many moments where they attempted to target any one person in regularity. They start movement just before the corner is taken to try to shake their markers and free up space. Bolanos opens up space and temporarily removes another body by dropping back to the edge of the box. This is not why he drops back (I’ll explain that later), but it helps offer a solution to their problem.

Terzaghi was their leading scorer from corners (duh?) with 3 goals and his work at the near post was instrumental in creating chaos, whether or not it was him taking the shot. His presence alone was often enough to pull defenders out of position.

Not all teams used man marking in set piece situations though. A couple of notable teams were Madison and the Revs II against Richmond. This created new problems to solve as I don’t think Richmond were willing to commit enough people in the box to match up numerically with their team. So in these instances against Madison and Revs you see almost everyone setting up outside the defensive structure until the kick is about to be taken. They then have individuals crash each post in an effort to disrupt the zonal structure. These runners weren’t tracked well and caused chaos in the box. 


Another important point to note about their corner routines is how they structured themselves in order to win “the second ball” and prolong the phase of play to put pressure on goal. They did some unique things to keep possession of the ball in corner situations and i’d like to highlight one that showed up time and time again when Richmond took corners. The team tended to create this wall that boxes in defenses and allows them to recover possession easily. One person, often Bolanos, drops deep to sit alongside the CDM lurking on the edge of the box and they always make sure to have someone as the furthest standing individual in the wall to give them ample opportunity to recover balls that go past the far post. This goal against Chattanooga has to be one of the longest phases of corner play from League One this season, but Richmond does a great job of keeping the play alive and putting pressure on the set piece defense. With Bolanos dropping deep to provide support on second balls, Falk lurking on the edge, and Bryant hanging out as the furthest wide option, Richmond has effectively boxed in the opposition defense, allowing them to easily retain possession. This is a huge reason why Richmond was able to get so many shots off. There were so many chances created off of winning possession back and keeping the play alive. 

The Kickers will be looking to replicate their success on corners in 2022 and unless teams do some serious work to improve their defense against them, I don’t see them slowing down any time soon. This is by no means all of the information to be found on Richmond corners, but simply a couple of patterns I noticed that were very successful for them in set piece situations. The Richmond (Corner) Kickers (I 100% stole that name from the marketing guy after he retweeted my data vizzes last week, sorry man!) have utilized a weapon that many teams in League One haven’t — or simply won’t. Having something like this in your locker to fall back on is so important in a long season with plenty of twists and turns. It doesn’t rely on any one person, but on the team executing together and I think they have all the tools to keep the pressure on in set piece situations for 2022. 

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