ST PETERSBURG - After more goals came from set-pieces in this World Cup’s group stage than any other, dead-ball strategy has continued to have a huge impact in the knockout phase, with five of the 11 goals scored in the quarter-finals coming from free kicks or corners.
Raphael Varane headed France on their way to a 2-0 win over Uruguay from a free kick while Fernandinho deflected a cross from a corner into his own net to put his Brazil side behind in their eventual 2-1 defeat by Belgium.
England continued their prolific use of set-plays to break the deadlock in their 2-0 win over Sweden when Harry Maguire headed home from a corner.
Denis Cheryshev’s wonder strike in Russia’s 2-2 draw against Croatia was the only opening goal in the quarters not to come from a set play, although Croatia’s Domagoj Vida later struck from a corner in extra time and Mario Fernandes headed in a free kick to force a shootout in which Croatia triumphed.
Fernandes’s header was the 66th set-piece goal scored at the 2018 World Cup out of 157 in total.
Overall, 42 percent of goals in the World Cup have come from set plays or penalties, beating the previous record of 36 percent from the 1998 World Cup and smashing the portion of goals from these situations in 2014 (27 percent), 2010 (24 percent), 2002 (29 percent) and 1994 (33 percent).
This trend has powered the rise of teams that traditionally do not do well in World Cups.
Hosts Russia, the lowest ranked team in the tournament, scored five of their 11 goals from set-pieces on the way to the quarter-finals, their strongest showing since the end of the Soviet Union, and got past highly fancied Spain in the last 16 thanks to a penalty shootout.
England, meanwhile, reached the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years with the help of eight goals from set-pieces, more than any other side in the tournament, including three penalties.
They also won a shootout for the first time in four World Cup attempts by knocking out Colombia in the last 16, a sign of their progress in preparing for every possible outcome.
England have been far more reliant on set-play strategy than fellow semi-finalists Belgium and France, who have struck three goals each from them, while their next opponents Croatia have scored from only one set piece and one penalty.
Gareth Southgate’s side’s potency from set-pieces was certainly on the minds of Croatia after they were forced into penalties by Russia.
“We watched the game today and saw how good they are from dead-ball situations,” captain Luka Modric said.
“We will have to improve on our set-piece defending between now and Wednesday.”
England’s remarkable set-play success is the fruit of extra preparation on the training ground with attacking coach Allan Russell, who has traveled with Southgate to the United States to study strategies from the NBA and NFL.
“We’d been spending a lot of time on set pieces, right down to the details, all the runs and the blocks,” said midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Captain and top scorer Harry Kane added: “Allan does finishing sessions with us, tells us about opposition defenders, goalkeepers, and tells us maybe where we can exploit a weakness. It’s just little stuff to maybe give us an edge.”
In a World Cup where set-pieces have played such a huge role and with teams becoming ever more cautious as the final approaches, that edge could prove the difference between England ending 52 years of hurt or falling at the penultimate hurdle.