England are the World Cup’s set-piece specialists, with six of their eight goals so far coming from dead-ball situations, according to Opta.
Gareth Southgate’s side have scored four goals directly from corners and free-kicks in their Group G games against Tunisia and Panama, adding two more from penalties – the second of which was awarded for a foul on Harry Kane at another corner.
England have scored twice as many goals from set pieces as any other side in Russia, with Portugal and Russia the only sides to have managed three.
They could easily have had more, too. England have looked like scoring from the majority of their set pieces so far, with seven of their 10 corners leading to a shot at goal.
The statistics show a dramatic increase in effectiveness compared to previous years. After just two games, England have had as many attempts from corners and free-kicks as in any of their previous five World Cup campaigns. They have already scored twice as many goals.
In 2014 in Brazil, by contrast, England only had eight attempts from corners and free-kicks in three games and failed to score with any of them.
So what’s behind the improvement?
Kieran Trippier has played a key role. The Tottenham man was not even expected to start a few months ago, but Southgate has found room for him in the team by moving Kyle Walker into the back three.
It is, in large part, in order to harness his delivery. Tripper, described as “one of the best” for assists, passes and crosses by Tottenham’s head coach Mauricio Pochettino, has been placed on corner and free-kick duty and the results have been spectacular.
According to Opta, only Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne has created more chances than the 27-year-old in Russia so far. Trippier’s total of seven puts him level with Brazil’s Neymar and Philippe Coutinho and Germany’s Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Muller.
It’s a far cry from Euro 2016, when Roy Hodgson infamously placed Kane on corner duty as England crashed out against Iceland after uninspiring performances in the group stage.
Trippier’s crossing has been invaluable but what’s more important is the emphasis Southgate and his coaching staff have clearly placed on set plays in training. “We’re working hard on set pieces and it’s nice to see it coming together,” said Kane after the Panama game.
Southgate is believed to have picked up tips on maximising set plays by studying the NFL and NBA.
“The fascination for me,” Southgate told Sky Sports before attending the 52nd Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in February, “is watching the coaches on the side and the defensive strategies and attacking strategies of the teams.”
Southgate is a fan of specialist coaching, which is common in American sports, and the man credited with working with England’s attacking players at set pieces is forwards’ coach Allan Russell. The Scot is a former lower-league striker who describes himself as the “world’s No 1 striker coach” on his personal website. He joined Southgate’s staff in June last year.
Like Southgate, Russell is influenced by American sports. “In my career I felt there was never enough detail on how strikers should be trained and coached,” he said in 2016. “When I was in America I looked at the NFL and the detail that goes into getting an extra 1 per cent out of these guys is incredible. I took aspects of that into what I am doing now.”
Russell has worked with a number of Premier League forwards on an individual basis, with Crystal Palace duo Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend among them, according to the Daily Mail, and he is now helping Southgate make England’s attackers as effective as possible from dead-ball situations.
The attention to detail was evident in England’s fourth goal against Panama, when Trippier passed a free-kick short to Jordan Henderson, who swung the ball towards the far post, where Harry Kane headed it back across goal. Raheem Sterling’s initial effort was saved, but Stones was on hand to score the rebound.
It was a brilliantly worked routine which rewarded meticulous planning on the training ground.
Targets to aim for
Of course, England’s emphasis on set pieces would not be much good if they did not possess players with the aerial strength to make them count.
England’s squad may only have an average height of 182.7cm (5ft10ins), placing them 15th of the 32 teams competing at the World Cup, but in Harry Maguire, Stones, Kane, Dele Alli and Loftus-Cheek, they have a core of likely starters who stand at 188cm (6.2ft) and up.
Their physicality has caused problems for their Group G opponents so far. Tunisia and Panama defenders could frequently be seen grappling with England players at set pieces.
One such incident was penalised against Panama, and Southgate will be aware that the introduction of VAR means more penalties are being awarded than ever. It’s just another example of how and why England are using set pieces to their advantage.
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