Former Scotland coach Andy Roxburgh has dubbed England the “kings of the corner kick” and praised Gareth Southgate for his “attention to detail”.
England’s World Cup run came to an end in the semi-final when they were beaten 2-1 by Croatia in extra-time. There is still a third-place play-off against Belgium on Saturday but few in the camp appeared to be looking forward to that on Wednesday night.
But Roxburgh, who led Scotland at two World Cups and has been part of FIFA’s technical study group at eight more, told reporters on Thursday he has been impressed with what he has seen of England and their coach.
Noting the crucial role set-pieces have played at Russia 2018, Roxburgh said: “In terms of corners and free-kicks, delivery is everything – Sir Alex Ferguson used to say that.
“And the delivery here has been high, high quality, then you get the movement, then you get the finishing ability.
“The coaches have to be complimented for that – Gareth Southgate, for example. I think nine of England’s 12 goals have been from set plays. They’re almost the kings of the corner kick here. It shows the attention to detail.”
England are far from being the only team to have prospered from set-pieces, though, with one goal coming from every 29 corners at Russia 2018, so far, as opposed to a ratio of more like one to 45 in European football over the last two seasons.
Asked why this might be the case, Roxburgh said: “I think we have to mention VAR (video assistant referees).
“You might say what has that got to do with technical matters but in this context it has.
“VAR is not only there to minimise refereeing mistakes, it’s also had a deterrent effect on the pushing, pulling and tugging that you saw in the early games. That’s almost been eliminated now and that means people have more freedom to move.”
Another feature of this tournament for Roxburgh, who served as UEFA’s technical director for nearly 20 years, has been “the Pep Guardiola effect”.
He explained it was clear to him and others on the FIFA technical team that the high-intensity pressing style of Guardiola’s Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City teams has had “a big impact on coaches”.
“We saw it with Croatia last night – they have this ability to play from the defence and through the middle,” he said.
“It’s high possession but it’s not possession for the sake of it, it’s possession with a penetrating style. You not only attack but you also try to win it back immediately, so it’s very technical but it requires speed and thought.”
FIFA’s technical director Marco van Basten, the former Ajax, AC Milan and Holland striker, agreed with Roxburgh on Guardiola’s influence but picked out a player who has never actually worked with the Spanish coach, Croatia’s Luka Modric, as his key man.
Van Basten also pointed out how hard many of the world’s best forwards and most creative players have found it at this tournament.
“The defending has been so tight, with no space to get the ball,” the three-time Ballon D’Or winner said.
“Even players like (Lionel) Messi and Neymar, big names, have had problems getting through these organised defences. That’s the way football has developed.
“The way countries like Sweden, Denmark and Iceland have defended, it’s so close, you just don’t have the square metres you used to have.
“Normally we say you can play between the lines, that’s what your creative players do. But today it’s nearly impossible to get in between the lines. So coaches will have to find solutions. These things go in waves.”
Last year, Van Basten suggested the answer might be changing the laws of the game, perhaps scrapping offside. He was not so forthcoming here, saying that could be a debate for another day.
The 53-year-old, however, did have some advice for Neymar, the Brazilian star who came to Russia hoping to prove he is one of the greats but left as a figure of ridicule for his dives and play-acting.
“It’s not a good attitude in general,” said Van Basten.
“I think you have to try your best to be sporting and if you are acting too much it’s not going to help you. That’s something he needs to understand himself.”