The glut of goals from set pieces suggests that those coachable, controllable moments could be more important than a teams style in open play
Have you noticed that England are all the rage in Russia and Im not talking about their clothes, their social media trending or the positive vibes which continue to come out of Gareth Southgates camp? No, Englands victory over Tunisia in their opening match was significant of the tactical fashion statement that has taken over this World Cup in the group stages.
Both Harry Kanes goals were the result of set-piece plays and if you look at the defining moments in many games they have mainly come from dead-ball situations. Kanes last-gasp winning goal, Cristiano Ronaldos outstanding free-kick against Spain and Luis Surezs crucial winning effort for Uruguay v Saudi Arabia have been swayed by the way teams set up defensively and offensively in these situations.
In fact, of the 38 goals scored in the opening round of matches 21 of them (53%) were scored from set-play situations, a huge increase on the overall figure at the last World Cup (25%). You could argue it is a smaller sample of games to compare, but the fact that VAR has been incorporated for the first time has completely affected the way teams are defending corners and wide free-kicks, as is the fact that more penalties are being awarded for shirt pulling and overly aggressive defending from these situations (except in Englands case against Tunisia).
Psychologically you can see that defenders are more aware of this and I see that this is leading to more and more chances coming from set plays, making the importance of organisation in these areas more crucial than ever. In Englands case, it was encouraging to see that the setups of their attacking set plays were clearly choreographed and designed to maximise the opportunities to score against Tunisias zonal defence.
Instead of inswinging corners and wide freekicks towards Tunisias zone, the cross was either outswinging or driven, resulting in two goals, more chances and a handful of instances where Tunisia players should have been penalised in their desperate, physical defending of these situations. It will be interesting to see how they continue to use set-play routines in the games to come.
The contrasting tactical styles of play from different nations is fantastic to watch and learn from at this World Cup, as is the fact that nearly every game has been competitive and too close to call. As the tournament proceeds into the later rounds, Im sure there will be more excitement and tension.
Overall, the opening matches have not disappointed in terms of entertainment, passion and drama. Whether its been the grit and determination of Switzerland, Iceland and Iran against more talented opponents, the explosive counterattacking play of Mexico, the fundamental, beautiful, collaborative play of Spain, or the reliance of Portugal on the individual genius of Cristiano Ronaldo, all the teams have brought their own concept and idea of how football should be played and performed. It shows there is no right or wrong way to play this wonderful sport and that if every player believes in his own teams philosophy and stays true to the collective plan, their chances of success are greatlyincreased.
I have been fascinated and impressed by the performances of the so-called lesser football nations who in terms of tactical organisation, fitness and a pride in wearing their national colours are standing up to the bigger sides, refusing to believe that football history and the superstars they are performing against mean they have no chance of gaining a positive result.
So far, the standard of every side, even Panama in the first half against Belgium, has meant that it has not been easy for teams to open up the lower-ranked nations in open play, due to the diligent organisation of the team unit and the improved athleticism of these players to not just sit back in a low block and soak up pressure but also to cover long distances at speed to pose a threat on the counterattack when they win the ball back in their own half.
As a result Im seeing a tactical trend that will make all the difference to who will lift the trophy in a tournament that is seemingly wide open. Will it be the possession-based football and expansive play of Germany, Croatia, Spain or Brazil? Will it be the youth,energy and physical dynamism of England, Belgium, Mexico or Senegal? Or the reliance on defensive shape and tactical organisation based around the matchwinners in Portugals and Uruguays teams?
Given what we have seen with set plays it could come down more to the pragmatic, coachable and controllable than to each teams style in open play, something that is so important at every level and is often the difference between a whole country rejoicing and celebrating their teams success for years to come or crying into their beer and waiting another four years for the chance to be crowned world champions.
Still, history has taught us that the performances of the top players can make a difference and we have certainly yet to see the best of Leo Messi, Neymar and Antoine Griezmann, unlike the imperious play of Ronaldo. Its too early to call what or who will be the most influential factor in deciding Russia 2018, but the effect of the dead ball thus far suggests that the teams going into the knockout stages will be those who are on trend.