Chessboard tactics paying off for England

“Set-pieces are a valuable weapon in tight games.” So says England coach Mark Sampson, whose side made the most of dead-ball situations to see off Colombia in their final Group F match at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™.

England’s Round-of-16 opponents Norway know a thing or two about free-kicks themselves, with Maren Mjelde curling in a superb effort to give the Scandinavians a valuable draw against Germany in the group phase. The expectations are, then, that set-pieces will have a major bearing on the outcome of Monday’s meeting between the two sides in Ottawa.

Sampson, for one, is preparing for just such an eventuality: “We do a lot of work on them in training. I think corners, free-kicks and throw-ins are a very important part of the game, especially in women’s football. We know they can make the difference at least a couple of times in any competition, so we have to make sure we’re good at them.”

One such occasion came against Las Cafeteras, with England’s first goal originating from a Steph Houghton free-kick that the Colombia keeper could only divert into the path of Karen Carney, who made no mistake. Just for good measure, England’s decisive second goal in that game also came from a dead-ball situation, a penalty resulting from another free-kick, with Houghton slotting home from the spot.

“They’re a very important part of the game and we practice them a lot so that we can get them right on the pitch,” Three Lionesses midfielder Fara Williams told “You see a lot of these goals being scored in women’s football.”

Along with Houghton, Williams is one of England’s right-footed dead-ball specialists, while Alex Greenwood, the youngest member of the squad, is their most capable left-footed exponent.

Cunning plans Whenever the referee blows the whistle in England’s favour, two of their players step up to the ball, assess the situation and decide who will take the set-piece. While that player makes their preparations, the other one indicates to the rest of the team what they have to do.

“We decide between the two who’s going to take it,” explained Williams, who plays her club football for Liverpool. “It depends on which side of the pitch it is, on how wide out and on how far out from goal. There’s one other important aspect too. The rest of the team has to stick with the play till the end, which is how Carney was able to get on the end of the Colombia keeper’s clearance the other day.”

Though it only takes a minute or so to assess the situation and take the kick, behind each routine there are hours of careful analysis and study on the part of the coaching staff and hours of training-ground practice on the part of the players. Occasionally, one player will get the job done, as Mjelde so expertly did for Norway against the Germans. More often than not, however, set-piece routines involve a larger cast, a lot of choreography and several variations on a theme.

“We have various options for each situation,” continued Williams, who was anxious nevertheless not to reveal too much to their opponents. “We have to change things up in games because when your opponents start to recognise moves it’s easier for them to stop them. We have to switch things so we can catch them off guard.”

As Sampson explained, England also put a lot of work into neutralising the opposition’s set-piece moves, and his preparations for Monday’s tie will inevitably focus on the dead-ball abilities of Even Pellerud’s side. “Obviously, it’s not just a question of studying the ones you take in attacking situations,” said the 32-year-old England boss. “You also have to know your rival so you can respond to their set-pieces and not concede from them.

“We have a lot of weapons at our disposal and we have to know which to use at any given time. Dead-ball situations are an option that we’ll keep up our sleeve for the next rounds.”