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Why set pieces are dominating scoring so far at the World Cup

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo lines up for a free kick that produced the dramatic tying goal against Spain. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters)

The early stages of the 2018 World Cup have been characterized by an unusually high number of set piece goals. What’s the reason behind the spike? And which team is likely to benefit most from set pieces?

A set piece occurs any time there is a restart of play from a foul or the ball going out of play. Typically these take the form of corner kicks, crosses from a free kick or a direct shot from a free kick, including penalties. A set piece allows the attacking team to more reliably put players into positions where they are more likely to score than during the run of play. Soccer doesn’t typically lend itself to running plays; set pieces are an exception that can be practiced in training to maximize scoring opportunities.

Two reasons for Russia’s early success in the 2018 World Cup

With players able to take up positions closer to goal, the likelihood of scoring from a set piece is more than 50 percent higher than that from a possession in the normal run of play. Based upon data collected by American Soccer Analysis, direct shots from free kicks are scored about 7.5 percent of the time, whereas crosses from free kicks are scored around 4 percent. Approximately 3 percent of corner kicks result in a goal. Penalty kicks are converted at around a 75 percent rate. Taken together, it is advantageous for a team to accumulate as many set piece opportunities as possible.

Of the 38 goals scored in the first round of group-stage matches at the 2018 World Cup, seven were from penalties, six from corner kicks, four directly from a free kick and three from free-kick crosses. All told, 53 percent of the goals came off set pieces, compared to 28 percent of goals scored at recent World Cups, which is on par with the rate scored in league competitions worldwide.

It’s reasonable to expect regression to the mean once all 64 games are played. But the increase could also be partly attributable an increase in awareness of the importance of set pieces, as well as the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR).

By excelling at set pieces, teams are effectively able to punch above their weight. At the club level, this has been demonstrated by FC Midtjylland in Denmark and Atletico Madrid in Spain. Both sides won their respective leagues by scoring more than 40 percent of their goals from set pieces, despite being outspent by their competitors. At the international level, not every team has the technical ability to compete with Spain and Germany in open play, but by excelling at set pieces, the underdogs can have a fighting chance.

Furthermore, defending set pieces is difficult, and requires coordination and understanding among defenders. Given the limited training time available before the World Cup, defenses may not be fully prepared to deal with teams that put more focus on attacking set pieces.

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VAR has also changed the complexion of the tournament. The system awarded two penalties upon review after the referee allowed play to continue following potential fouls in the box. In both cases, France and Sweden went on to score on the penalties awarded to them. In previous competitions these penalties would most likely not have been given.

Additionally, the safety net afforded by VAR may cause referees to call more fouls knowing that if deemed incorrect the penalty will be rescinded. Indeed, after the first round of group play nine penalties were awarded, only three less than were awarded during the entirely of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Which teams are most likely to gain an advantage with set pieces? First are those with elite direct-free-kick takers. This includes Argentina’s Lionel Messi; Serbia’s Alexander Kolorov, who scored a direct free kick against Costa Rica; and Brazil’s Philippe Coutinho. Perhaps Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has also turned a corner, scoring his first free-kick goal in 45 attempts at major international tournaments against Spain. Second are those with aerial prowess, including Serbia and everyone’s favorite underdog, Iceland, both among the tallest teams at the World Cup. Finally, England may have finally solved its set-piece puzzle. At the 2016 European Championship, England was widely criticized for having striker Harry Kane take corner kicks; in Russia he has already scored twice from corners.

It’s reasonable to expect this rate won’t quite keep up. But it certainly seems that set pieces will play a bigger role than ever at the World Cup.

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