By Sam Polak
United Soccer Coaches member Sam Polak has written for several soccer publications including, MLSsoccer.com and FourFourTwo, and is currently an opposition analyst for the USL side Oklahoma City Energy FC. The majority of his work focuses on the underlying tactical and technical concepts of soccer that run consistent through all levels of the game.
Germany’s early exit from Russia is a big deal. Even though defending champions seem to repeatedly bow out before the Knockout Stage in their following World Cup, it is a reminder that being too committed to any approach and long-term success are inversely related.
It’s important to think about where the game is going as coaches and analysts for this exact reason. Otherwise, like seen with Germany, the game will evolve and leave behind (or even simply just stay out of reach of) those who don’t innovate.
As the DFB’s ability to shape the soccer landscape will inevitably dip, the remaining 16 teams will now have the largest impact on future trends and be the greatest indicators of what lies ahead.
With that in mind and even though neither team had much to play for, England provided some insight into where the game is headed in the long run during their 0-1 loss to Belgium.
England have had an exciting tournament so far. Part of this stems from their successful results in the face of never-ending expectations. But another part of it comes from the fact that they are doing things that aren’t necessarily mainstream yet.
England showed three such dynamics against Belgium that I believe will become more widely visible in the game after the influence of the 2018 World Cup shakes out— a particular aspect of their set piece play, creativity when starting the game off, and the freedom for their goalkeeper to express his personality when the team is in possession.
Rightfully so, there has been a lot of talk about The Three Lion’s set pieces— whether it’s the goals off corners or well-rehearsed free kick routines. However, one component of their performances from dead ball situations that has not been given enough attention is throw-ins.
Throw-ins are usually a nonchalant part of the 90 minutes, a way for the ball to come back in play so the game can return from where it left off. England have adopted a different mentality.
The team has made a noticeable commitment to movement and energy out of throw-ins.
In the sequence above, the Red Devils of Belgium outnumber England in white. Yet England are still able to create a threatening cross out of this moment because of their activity while the ball is out of bounds.
I have memories of working with a high school team during a training session this past fall where we spent 15 minutes walking through some ideas connected to throw-ins. One player remarked “are we seriously practicing throw-ins?” England will hopefully change this perception for players.
Gareth Southgate also has his side starting games more creatively than opponents.
Above, he lines up four players all along the right and sends them charging forward. The sequence above is from the Panama game, but the same creativity is visible against Belgium as well.
Although England line up symmetrically, they ultimately move completely asymmetrically— the players on the right roam forward while the players on the left remain hovering around half field.
For most teams, the kick-off is just a means to get the game started. It’s almost a formality.
England have a different approach. They see it as a unique opportunity to organize an attack given all their players can start on the same page.
Taking creative chances on kick-offs has started to be visible in various leagues, but I bet it will become more widely experimented with after this World Cup.
Finally and most interestingly, England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is allowed to offensively express himself in ways other goalkeepers don’t have the same chance to or simply won’t.
Pickford has the freedom to offer support to teammates on the ball irrespective of how vulnerable it leaves England’s goal.
Further, it’s common knowledge goalkeepers are using their feet more and more. It doesn’t ordinarily feel that goalkeepers necessarily want to receive a pass when the ball is played back to them though. Players in this position give off the sentiment that they are available for a pass merely should the situation call for it.
Pickford exudes a different attitude. He is actively trying to be involved in the England’s build-up. Below, with his team down a goal, on the heels of Loris Karius’ debacle in the Champions League, he steps way out of his goal to take a free kick before running back to position.
There is limited upside here— especially as he elects to play the ball across his goal. So why do this? Pickford has a different idea about his responsibilities and is empowered by his team to be a part of the offense in this way.
What’s more, it’s not every day you see a goalkeeper make a two-handed backspin push pass.
Goalkeepers are ordinarily asked to do very specific tasks and with targeted duties come less room for creative outlet.
England has created an environment where Pickford can show his interpretation of the position in a way I don’t think we have necessarily seen. This will inspire other goalkeepers that they can be still themselves despite the potential restrictions of the role.
Looking back at Germany’s exit from this competition once more and its ramifications, there will be an argument that all sorts of factors contributed to Germany’s seemingly premature trip home. Therefore, because we did not see all the elements of their preparation and just the results, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what the country has done. I agree with this up to a point.
At the same time, however, we shouldn’t minimize the fact that the remaining 16 teams are among contention for the World Cup for a reason. And given that, it’s worth having a discussion about what teams like England are doing differently than others in the world right now.