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Proof it’s been the most entertaining, dramatic World Cup

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England captain Harry Kane’s stoppage time winner in England’s tournament-opener against Tunisia set the tone for the entire tournament, reported News.com.au (Australia).

The 2018 Russian World Cup has been the scene for a staggering statistical anomaly which marks the event as the most dramatic World Cup finals in recent memory.

According to a statistical analysis conducted by the New York Times, the 2018 finals has set a new record for the highest percentage of goals scored occurring after the 89th minute.

23 goals have been scored in the 90th minute and second-half stoppage time — accounting for a staggering 15 per cent of all goals scored.

That staggering percentage is almost double the eight per cent of goals scored from the 90th minute onwards at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The 2014 Brazil finals previously set the record for the highest percentage of goals occurring at the death after the clock ticks over the 89 minute-mark.

The 2018 World Cup has set a new benchmark in World Cup drama because 14 of the 23 last-gasp goals have either been match-winners — including Kane’s campaign defining stoppage-time winner against Tunisia — or goals which levelled the scores.

The report shows there have also been a staggering 10 penalties converted from beyond the start of the 90th minute.

The New York Times reports the average length of second half stoppage time has increased from 4.1 minutes at the 2014 event to five minutes at Russia 2018 — but the increased time elapsed still doesn’t explain the dramatic rise in goals being scored at the death because it remains by far the busiest five minute period for goals being scored at this World Cup.

The 23-goals scored in the last five minutes of games at the 2018 event is almost double the next most busy goal-scoring five-minute period with 13 goals being scored between 50-55 minutes on the clock.

It means there is a high statistical chance that fans will have to endure late drama at some stage in the semi-finals and World Cup final on Monday morning.

While it’s been the “late goal World Cup” — England’s charge through to a semi-final against Croatia on Thursday morning (AEST) shows it’s also been the “dead-ball World Cup”.

With 60 of the 64 matches now played, no fewer than 68 of the 157 goals that have been scored at the tournament have come from dead-ball situations.

This is the set pieces World Cup. So it would make sense if the team that has enjoyed more success from set pieces than anyone else manages to go all the way. That team is England.

Skysports.com’s Adam Bate reports Gareth Southgate’s side have scored five goals from corners and free-kicks — a tournament high.

They have scored three penalties. Also a tournament high. The total of eight is not only three more than any other team at this World Cup, it is more than any team has scored from set pieces at any World Cup since Portugal reached the same tally in 1966.

England is in good company. The last three teams to score four or more goals from corners were Germany four years ago, Italy in 2006 and France in 1998. All three went on to win the World Cup.

Defensive organisation is important and free-flowing football helps too. But history clearly suggests that scoring goals from set pieces can be the difference.

Of course, the sample size is small. But there are reasons to believe that England’s success from set pieces is repeatable. Plenty of planning has gone into the process, as exemplified by John Stones’ well worked second goal against Panama and indeed the movements of the runners at every single corner. But it is the personnel that really give them the edge.

England has won 59.7 per cent of their aerial duels — a higher percentage than any of the other 31 teams at the World Cup.

Harry Maguire has defended well but he also has the physicality to pose huge problems at the other end just as he did against Sweden. Kieran Trippier is the most reliable crosser of a ball that England have had since David Beckham.

Many coaches would not have picked either man but Southgate has made no secret of his desire to use such assets to his advantage. He viewed set pieces as a vital area to improve and just two games into the tournament England had already had as many attempts from set plays as they had managed in any of the previous six World Cups in total.

“We had identified them as key in tournaments and an element we felt we could improve upon,” he said.

“It helps if you have outstanding delivery and people who want to go and head the thing, of course, and we’ve got that. We are giving it the right attention in training. No matter how much you control the play at both ends, set plays are really important.”

Everyone is on message. Trippier has described them as “crucial” and Ruben Loftus-Cheek has spoken of the endless work on the details behind the runs and the blocks.

Southgate has studied other sports, notably NFL, to gain a greater appreciation of the specialisation of certain aspects of the game. The rewards of getting it right are obvious.

They can cover a multitude of other weaknesses too — most notably, the concerns over England’s lack of creativity that have been apparent from the outset. Prior to Dele Alli’s second-half header against Sweden, they had only scored two goals from open play at this World Cup. Both were against Panama and one of those was an unwitting deflection.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville spoke for many supporters after the Colombia game. “The worry I suppose is that after that first half an hour when we are really high energy and we make loads of runs beyond Harry Kane,” he told ITV, “once a team gets through that we do seem to have a problem showing some quality in the final third.”

One school of thought is that the absence of a creative midfielder will catch up with England in the end. Raheem Sterling has David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings at Manchester City. Kane and Dele Alli have Christian Eriksen providing the service for them at Tottenham. Without that player, opportunities from open play are at a premium.

But given that Southgate does not have anybody in the squad with those qualities at his disposal, he will be unlikely to search for any grand solution — and he may not need to find one. Not when Croatia await them. Not when the most obvious weaknesses that their World Cup semi-final opponents have shown so far has been in defending set pieces.

It was evident in their group game against Iceland when Sverrir Ingason forced a good save following a long throw and then hit the crossbar from the resulting corner. The point was further emphasised when Croatia once again failed to deal with the first ball in conceding to Denmark in the opening minute of their last-16 tie in Nizhny Novgorod.

Most recently, of course, there was the header from Mario Fernandes deep into extra time that levelled up their quarter-final clash against Russia. Alan Dzagoev’s free-kick was delivered into a dangerous area but there was nothing remarkable about the movement. Croatia’s defensive line was poor and the marking was non-existent.

England will be encouraged. They will no doubt choose to work on their fluency in the final third. Sterling could do with focusing on his one-on-ones. Taking a few more penalties in training would be wise. But there is a lot to be said for playing to your strengths. And England’s mastery of set pieces might just be enough to take them into the World Cup final.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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