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England lack creativity but set pieces mean it might not matter
Set pieces could carry England to the World Cup final
Last Updated: 09/07/18 1:17pm
England rely on set pieces but does it even matter? They are cracking the World Cup code, writes Adam Bate.
With 60 of the 64 matches now played, no fewer than 68 of the 157 goals that have been scored at the tournament have come from dead-ball situations. This is the set pieces World Cup. So it would make sense if the team that has enjoyed more success from set pieces than anyone else manages to go all the way. That team is England.
Gareth Southgate's side have scored five goals from corners and free-kicks. A tournament high. They have scored three penalties. Also a tournament high. The total of eight is not only three more than any other team at this World Cup, it is more than any team has scored from set pieces at any World Cup since Portugal reached the same tally in 1966.
England are in good company. The last three teams to score four or more goals from corners were Germany four years ago, Italy in 2006 and France in 1998. All three went on to win the World Cup. Defensive organisation is important and free-flowing football helps too. But history clearly suggests that scoring goals from set pieces can be the difference.
Of course, the sample size is small. But there are reasons to believe that England's success from set pieces is repeatable. Plenty of planning has gone into the process, as exemplified by John Stones' well worked second goal against Panama and indeed the movements of the runners at every single corner. But it is the personnel that really gives them the edge.
England have won 59.7 per cent of their aerial duels - a higher percentage than any of the other 31 teams at the World Cup. Harry Maguire has defended well but he also has the physicality to pose huge problems at the other end just as he did against Sweden. Kieran Trippier is the most reliable crosser of a ball that England have had since David Beckham.
Many coaches would not have picked either man but Southgate has made no secret of his desire to use such assets to his advantage. He viewed set pieces as a vital area to improve and just two games into the tournament England had already had as many attempts from set plays as they had managed in any of the previous six World Cups in total.
"We had identified them as key in tournaments and an element we felt we could improve upon," he said. "It helps if you have outstanding delivery and people who want to go and head the thing, of course, and we've got that. We are giving it the right attention in training. No matter how much you control the play at both ends, set plays are really important."
Everyone is on message. Trippier has described them as "crucial" and Ruben Loftus-Cheek has spoken of the endless work on the details behind the runs and the blocks. Southgate has studied other sports, notably NFL, to gain a greater appreciation of the specialisation of certain aspects of the game. The rewards of getting it right are obvious.
They can cover a multitude of other weaknesses too - most notably, the concerns over England's lack of creativity that have been apparent from the outset. Prior to Dele Alli's second-half header against Sweden, they had only scored two goals from open play at this World Cup. Both were against Panama and one of those was an unwitting deflection.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville spoke for many supporters after the Colombia game. "The worry I suppose is that after that first half an hour when we are really high energy and we make loads of runs beyond Harry Kane," he told ITV, "once a team gets through that we do seem to have a problem showing some quality in the final third."
Sterling's unnoticed work
England are flying but one player continues to receive criticism. Here, Adam Bate takes a look at why Raheem Sterling's role in the team's success should not be overlooked.
One school of thought is that the absence of a creative midfielder will catch up with England in the end. Raheem Sterling has David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings at Manchester City. Kane and Dele Alli have Christian Eriksen providing the service for them at Tottenham. Without that player, opportunities from open play are at a premium.
But given that Southgate does not have anybody in the squad with those qualities at his disposal, he will be unlikely to search for any grand solution - and he may not need to find one. Not when Croatia await them. Not when the most obvious weaknesses that their World Cup semi-final opponents have shown so far has been in defending set pieces.
England's unlikely heroes
Top scorer Harry Kane is England's star, but their World Cup success has been built on three players who only had a handful of international caps between them at the start of the tournament.
It was evident in their group game against Iceland when Sverrir Ingason forced a good save following a long throw and then hit the crossbar from the resulting corner. The point was further emphasised when Croatia once again failed to deal with the first ball in conceding to Denmark in the opening minute of their last-16 tie in Nizhny Novgorod.
Most recently, of course, there was the header from Mario Fernandes deep into extra time that levelled up their quarter-final clash against Russia. Alan Dzagoev's free-kick was delivered into a dangerous area but there was nothing remarkable about the movement. Croatia's defensive line was poor and the marking was non-existent.
England will be encouraged. They will no doubt choose to work on their fluency in the final third. Sterling could do with focusing on his one-on-ones. Taking a few more penalties in training would be wise. But there is a lot to be said for playing to your strengths. And England's mastery of set pieces might just be enough to take them into the World Cup final.
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