Hard work and VAR key factors as set-pieces rule in Russia
St. Petersburg, July 11 : Samuel Umtiti's 51st-minute header from a corner kick booked France's passage to the final of the FIFA World Cup. It not only presented the French side with a date in the World Cup final, just a day after their national holiday Bastille Day on July 14, it also showed the importance of set-pieces in this World Cup.
Belgium have players like Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in defence, as well as Romelu Lukaku in attack and Marouane Fellaini in midfield. They're all tall, strong players, and yet it was the 1.94m Fellaini who lost out to Umtiti, who at 1.80m isn't the tallest central defender in the World Cup by a long way.
Teams in Russia have done their homework on the training grounds and Umtiti's was the 69th goal out of 158 scored to date in the World Cup, which has come from a set-piece. That doesn't mean sides are defending badly, instead, they are working on their routines on the practice ground and an attacking side will always be one step ahead of their rivals from a set-piece, because they know what they want to do while their opponents are left to react.
England have so far been the best exponents of set-pieces with three of their first four goals in Russia all coming following corners, while the fifth was a penalty. Since then they have continued their effectiveness from dead ball situations with eight of their 11 goals until the end of the quarter-final stage coming from set-pieces.
The last of those showed how well they have worked their routine, with players forming a queue behind Harry Kane before peeling off and Harry Maguire finding a free header to open the scoring against Sweden.
It helps if you have someone who can put the ball in the right place and Kieran Trippier has been very effective for the English side. It also helps if you have someone like Maguire (1.87m) or Kane (1.88m) to get a head on the ball. But sometimes it's down to quick thinking and hard work as shown by the fourth goal against Panama: a set piece involving four touches which left John Stones with a free header.
The use of VAR in Russia has probably also helped. For a start there have been penalties given which would otherwise have been unnoticed and defenders know that some of the tactics they would have used to defend a set-piece now run the risk of being punished by the referee pointing to the spot.
Purists would argue that a goal from a set-piece is not as beautiful as a goal following a flowing attacking move involving first one touch football and someone scoring after running into space. The reality is that in these days of analysis, videos, pro-zone and other coaching tools, a good powerful header from a corner is worth just as much: just ask Umtiti.