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Set-piece mastery has England in line for success

The Associated Press

England’s Harry Kane, second from right, Jordan Henderson, right, and other teammates train on Friday.

The Associated PressREPINO, Russia (AP) — Forget bending them like Beckham. At this World Cup, it has been a case of teasing them in like Trippier and angling them in like Ashley.

Set pieces have been the main source of goals at the tournament in Russia — 42 percent, no less — and England has been the master of that department on its run to the semifinals.

Eight of its 11 goals so far have come via free kicks, corners or penalties, which is four more than any other team and the most since Portugal also scored eight set-piece goals at the World Cup in 1966.

This hasn’t come about by fluke. Meticulous preparation — including a trip to the United States to take in an NBA game — the selection of specific players with strong dead-ball delivery, and the defensive nature of high-pressure tournament football has led to a point where set pieces could yet lead England to a second World Cup title.

“Set pieces have been a massive thing for us and other teams through the whole of the World Cup,” Ashley Young, one of England’s set-piece takers, said Monday.

“Obviously we work on them in attack and defense, and they are vitally important for us.

“They have worked in our favor and we’ll carry on working on them.”

A decade ago, England had one of the best set-piece takers in football in David Beckham, whose precision and ability to curl the ball in from the wing was an important weapon at major tournaments. So famous were his crosses that a movie, “Bend It Like Beckham,” was spun off it in 2002.

In England’s class of 2018, free kicks, corners and wide crosses are mostly provided by England’s wingbacks, Young and Kieran Trippier, and they are proving tough to defend.

Young set up England’s first goal in the 2-0 quarterfinal win over Sweden with a driven corner from the left wing that was headed in by Harry Maguire. Trippier’s delivery from the right has been even more impressive, so much so that some have nicknamed him the “Bury Beckham” — a reference to the northern town where he was born.

“I used to watch Beckham and [World Cup-winning Italy midfielder Andrea] Pirlo, players like this, over their careers — they have got a fantastic right foot on them and everyone knows that,” Tripper said. “Beckham was the one I always looked up to; the technique, his crossing, on the move or set pieces.”

Only a few months ago, Young and Trippier were far from sure of getting into England’s World Cup squad, never mind the starting team.

However, Gareth Southgate, the team’s forward-thinking coach, decided to switch formation to a 3-5-2 last year in an effort to give more security to his defense, enable his midfielders to have more possession, and to get more support for star striker Harry Kane.

Another side effect was the necessity for wingbacks, and who better than the energetic Young and Trippier?

But it’s more than just England’s crossing ability. It’s what the players are doing when the ball goes into the area.

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