England's dead-ball dominance is set to continue, but have they evolved?

England’s dominance was in full flow vs Iran in their World Cup opener. Skylab: EPA analyse the components and investigate their reliance and evolution

The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia resulted in many set-piece goals; corner-kicks found the net with a rate of 1 in 29. A higher rate than 1 in 61 in South Africa 2010 and 1 in 36 in Brazil 2014. 

England found most of their success in Russia from set-pieces, manufacturing 9 of their 12 goals from corners (4), penalties (3), and free-kicks (2), with two open-play goals versus Panama from Lingard and Kane’s heel, and Alli vs Sweden.   

Their dominance was no fluke, as with other aspects of matchplay, it was evident from the corner routines that they were well prepared to try and create spare for their strongest headers of the ball, Maguire, Stones, and Kane. Often, they would deploy one or two players with less of an aerial presence to block any defenders’ attempts to clear or drag them away from the target area with opposing runs to create space between the posts.   

England’s set up with splitting runners (red arrows) to create space for John Stones (black arrow) to run onto the penalty spot.

Contact point of John Stones’ headed goal vs Panama

In UEFA Euro 2020, England’s reliance was less prominent but that also mirrored across the whole competition. Could this reflect a higher general level of competition in earlier competition stages?   

In England’s World Cup opener, England was dominant in open play and from set-pieces where Iran was certainly aware of England’s threat. Iran was visibly concerned about setting up defensively and getting close to England’s key weapons which resulted in Maguire hitting the crossbar, nearly winning a penalty, and focusing on marking players in the penalty area to allow Kane through from two quick free kicks. 

The Skylab: EPA team queried whether we’d see much evolution from the team’s attacking set-pieces with the reduced preparation time at this World Cup for most players and whether defensive sides are well equipped enough to defend them specifically.   

Our analysis shows the England players have embedded key roles, which could be a factor in the limited change in the England first XI and squad. Looking at the Maguire attempt off the crossbar, there are similarities to how England has previously attacked corners, compared to the winner Kane scored versus Tunisia in 2018.   

Runners movement in red and Kane’s movement in black vs Tunisia

Runners movement in red and Kane’s movement in black vs Iran

England has lined up with players pinning zonal markers ahead of a group of runners involving their strongest headers of the ball. In 2018, the runners were very bunched and would split as the ball was delivered. Against Tunisia, Kane was positioned at the back of the group allowing him to drift towards the back post unmarked as the runners attacked the penalty spot and bundled markers with them. The slight variance against Iran was less of a bunching with the runners and Kane in front of the main runner Maguire. Iran expects he will run towards the ball to attack the corner or act as a blocker for Maguire behind him. However, as the ball is delivered, either by design or through Kane’s instinct, he realises he won’t be able to get to the initial ball, and therefore makes a similar movement to find himself in almost an identical position to the 4 years previous. This time Maguire gets a cleaner connection, but if the ball had been flicked on towards the back post again, or if it had come down off the bar, Kane was there to finish it off again.   

Kane’s positioning at first contact vs Tunisia

Kane’s positioning at first contact vs Iran

Of all the homework and execution in the box, it would be worthless if the deliveries aren’t of high quality, and with Trippier, Trent, and occasionally Kane, they have some of the best takers around. Kieran Tripper sits second in the Premier League in terms of expected assists the season, behind only Kevin De Bruyne, and his potential alternate Trent Alexander-Arnold lead that metric, as well as actual assists, in the Premier League last season.   

Furthermore, with the placement of this year's World Cup during the season, most teams have had limited time to train together, meaning organisation when defending set pieces may not be as solid as a traditional summer World Cup. Expect England to try and take advantage once again.    

Skylab: EPA have recently delivered research to professional clubs that answers their key performance questions. If you'd like to hear more or explore Skylab: EPA as your team's resource, email ciaran.skinner@skylab.com

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