World Cup 2018: England's set-piece heaven sees Gareth Southgate's side short-circuit the Swedes

England are scoring so many goals off the training ground that even days of homework can't stop the set-piece deluge

Ed Malyon
Sports Editor
Saturday 07 July 2018 14:30
BoxPark Croydon celebrates Dele Alli's goal

In the end it came down to the nuts and bolts. Self-assembled furniture usually does but, on this occasion, it was England who were the flatpack bullies, following simple diagrams and instructions to the letter to knock out Sweden and reach a World Cup semi-final.

So much of football comes down to ingenuity and split-second inspiration, those moments where nobody else can help you but yourself.

But not this England, a team that are capable of the sublime but have first conquered set pieces, the building blocks on which their success is founded.

England's defender Harry Maguire celebrates after scoring the opener

What settled this knockout tie was two headers, two times that a well-organised team couldn't handle what most northern European nations would consider the basics and, ultimately, two goals.

England have got themselves to this weird situation now where every corner kick feels like a penalty, where every free kick feels like a penalty and where every goal kick becomes a chance to take a breather and wonder where the next corner is coming from.

Harry Maguire headed at least three crosses today. Why cross normally when you can just power it across the face of goal with your forehead, instilling utmost fear into the minds of a team who had prepared for this and still couldn't cope?

All through the World Cup we have seen Gareth Southgate's implementation of set-play techniques from American sports - the pick 'n' roll, the stack, the screen - and Sweden had plenty of tape to analyse to try and work out where the cracks were but they came up just as short as every team that has tried to stop England thus far.

For Maguire's goal, the opener that blew open this game and forced Sweden to come out of their shell, it was Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane who played the key roles. Sterling holds his marker still while the two Harrys loop around him, using the Manchester City man and his defender as a barrier to give them a yard or two of space. Like an NFL offensive line creating a running lane, Maguire was about to have a channel to run into, allowing him a greater leap, plus no defender near him.

Kane, Stones and Maguire gather near the edge of the box

Kane then makes the first run, taking players with him and ending up surrounded by three yellow shirts as Maguire, entering the channel created by Kane and Sterling's movement, bounds onto the ball and heads home unopposed.

As he does so, the closest player to him is the defender that was allocated to Sterling, Emil Forsberg, one of the smallest players on the field and thus completely incapable of stopping the Leicester defender - one of England's most deadly aerial weapons.

Maguire headed home to break Sweden's resolve and pull them way ahead of their rivals as the World Cup's most-successful team at set pieces.

Maguire ran through the gap created by Sterling and Kane

Given the strength of the Three Lions from dead-ball situations there is a lot of homework down the line for Russia or Croatia, whoever wins tonight's showdown in Sochi and draws England in their World Cup semi-final for a generation.

But on this evidence who can stop them? Alli's goal that killed off this game had the feeling of a set piece with Jesse Lingard curling it to the far post and the Spurs man heading home at the far post unopposed. It was a defence that had been stretched and stressed to fracture.

England's Harry Maguire scores their first goal

England had chances to see the game out in open play, most notably with two good chances for Sterling.

They would have been a bonus, and it would not have been beyond the realms of possibility for England to win this game 3-0 or 4-0 if those chances had found the net.

There will be a time when the set pieces don't come off and England need to score from open play to make something happen. That time hasn't come yet, and for now the formula has England in the final four of a World Cup, waiting for something to go wrong and snap them out of their dream.

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