Why this has been a World Cup of set-pieces
42 per cent of goals have come from set-pieces
Easy to practise, difficult to defend
More dead-ball situations awarded
The fact that the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has been a tournament of set-pieces will not have gone unnoticed by even the most inattentive of spectators. In the 62 games played so far, 68 goals have been scored from dead-ball situations, establishing a new competition record after overtaking the previous best mark of 62 set at France 1998. On Tuesday, the semi-final between France and Belgium was decided by a header from a corner, while England took the lead thanks to a direct free-kick a day later.
Of the 32 teams at Russia 2018, 15 have scored at least 50 per cent of their goals from set-pieces
"Set-pieces have proven to be an important tool at this World Cup," said Andy Roxburgh, a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG) at a media briefing on Thursday that addressed the tournament's tactical trends. "Over the course of the last [UEFA] Champions League season, 45 corners led to goals. Here at the World Cup, there have been 30. That shows efficiency, as well as speed of thought and action."
But why have set-pieces been so effective at this tournament?
In order to score from a dead-ball situation, teams first have to be awarded one. The parameters for this World Cup and the intensive training the referees received prior to the tournament led to an increasing number of fouls being spotted and awarded. This has been particularly evident inside the penalty area, with a record 28 spot-kicks being awarded so far, of which 21 have been converted.
This increased vigilance inside the 18-yard box has perhaps meant that defenders are not as robust in their marking, which in turn, gives attackers more room to score at corners or free-kicks. "We've identified set-pieces as a key area at tournaments," said England coach Gareth Southgate.
Five of the 11 goals scored in the quarter-finals, and two of the four scored in the semi-finals, came from set-pieces
At Russia 2018, several teams have deliberately gone without much possession, in order to focus on defensive solidity, often closing ranks around their own penalty area. In the few weeks that national teams have to prepare for a major tournament, it is much easier to train and adopt defensive positions than it is for players to take attacking movements on board. As a result, a lot more balls land in the penalty area and lead to penalties, free-kicks around the box or get cleared for corners. Counter-attacks are also often stopped with a foul close to the penalty box, or go out for a corner.
Furthermore, this reduces the probability of goals from open play. "The 'smaller nations' primarily practise defending because it's easier to train for that than it is to attack," said former Germany international Thomas Hitzlsperger. "That makes it harder for the bigger teams to score. They're faced with problems they need to solve and that leads to the increasing importance of set-pieces."
Quicker to take on board
Practising set-pieces is quicker and more effective than working on impactful attacking moves. Given the aforementioned lack of time national teams have to train together, this once again underlines why dead-balls have had such significance at Russia 2018.
Increasing numbers of teams now employ set-piece coaches, who can develop numerous ideas and variations well in advance, in order to drill them into the team during their World Cup preparations.
"We spent a lot of time on set-pieces, going into the tiniest details, looking at the runs and who blocks whom," said England midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
England's tally of nine goals from set-pieces set a new World Cup record, overtaking Portugal's return in 1966 by one
Difficult to defend against
An additional factor is that set-pieces are extremely difficult to defend against. For instance, regardless of whether a team uses man-to-man or zonal marking - or a mixture of both - at a corner, it only takes one player to react too late or deflect the ball the wrong way for the opposition to have a goalscoring chance. It is much harder to train to defend effectively against set-pieces than it is to execute them well.