When Eric Dier drove his penalty kick just past the outstretched fingers of Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina and into the back of the net, he broke a 22-year English streak of losing on penalty kicks. The obvious question now is whether England can break a far more important streak that’s lasted even longer: 52 years without winning a World Cup.
While every team in the quarterfinals has a nonzero chance of lifting the cup, this question presses on England particularly for two reasons. First, England got a massively fortunate draw. The two powerhouse teams remaining in the tournament, Brazil and France, are both on the opposite side of the bracket. Spain was supposed to block England’s path to the final, but it lost on penalties to Russia. This leaves just Sweden and either Croatia or Russia standing in the way of The Three Lions.
And second, it’s not like England had to knock off the world’s best to get here. Drawn into a group with Tunisia and Panama as well as Belgium, England was hugely favored to reach the knockouts. Colombia as a round of 16 draw was difficult on paper, but the absence of superstar James Rodriguez meant that even this match was not against a true equal.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index as a measure of the quality of competition,1 Uruguay and Belgium have had the lightest schedule, but each would likely have to get through both Brazil and France to make the final. England has faced the third weakest set of opponents to date, and its run to the final is projected as the second easiest of all the remaining contenders, ever so slightly behind Croatia.2
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But it’s not just luck for England. As Bobby Gardiner highlighted for FiveThirtyEight, England has developed a legitimately good team with a coherent tactical identity based on pressing immediately after a turnover to win back the ball in dangerous areas.
As Gardiner outlined, this tactic was developed in part because most of England’s players ply their trade at some of the highest-pressing sides in the world. But that’s not the only reason: England also lacks a proper creative midfielder. None of the top 30 ball progressors in the big five leagues is English, and the 31st, Jack Wilshere, did not make the squad.
The hope is that by forcing turnovers, England can get the ball in advanced positions without asking less expansive passers like Dier or Jordan Henderson to provide progression from deep areas.
So far the results have been mixed. England was dominant against Tunisia and created a number of clear chances from open play. But against Panama, Belgium and Colombia, England relied primarily on set plays to get chances. So far in the World Cup, according to data analytics firm Opta Sports, England has 30 shots from set plays, the most in the tournament — Spain is second with 28. Where England has particularly excelled is in winning fouls in dangerous areas to get shots from free kicks, either with direct attempts on goal or designed set plays. The Three Lions’ 17 shots from free kicks are by far the most at the World Cup, with Spain and Argentina trailing at 12.
As manager Gareth Southgate has said, this success in set plays does reflect effective attacking play, forcing opposition teams to give up fouls in dangerous areas. In other words, England is doing a good job of progressing the ball into the final third, and the team is being rewarded with set piece opportunities.
However, these tactics do not suit one of England’s best players. England isn’t a legitimate World Cup contender simply because Harry Kane happened. At the same time that Kane was developing into one of soccer’s best pure strikers for Tottenham, Raheem Sterling was making the leap at Manchester City and becoming an elite inside forward.
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The incredible season that Mo Salah had for Liverpool somewhat obscured Sterling’s massive improvement in production — 22 goals and 12 assists in a little over 3,000 minutes in the Premier League and the Champions League. But set pieces aren’t Sterling’s game. While Kane attempted 26 headed shots last season in the Premier League, Sterling attempted just one. Sterling excels at receiving balls at his feet — he was second in the league in progressive passes received with 6.5.
Though England’s set plays have been good for Kane — as his two goals against Tunisia demonstrated — they’ve done nothing for Sterling, who has no goals and just one assist in his three games played. The best way to get Sterling involved would be to develop an open-play strategy for getting the ball into the penalty area and allowing him to create. So long as England depends on set plays, the team sidelines one of its most dangerous attackers.
The Three Lions have made it this far through an easy draw with the press and set play plan. But if England intends on defeating a superpower like Brazil or France and lifting the cup, it will need both of its forwards in the game.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.