Semi-Final Set Plays: 2018 World Cup Tactical Snapshot

Written for Pure Fitbaw by Laurie McGinley

In a webinar on the Inspire Coach Education channel Gerard Jones predicted that the 2018 World Cup in Russia would be dominated by set plays. He wasn’t wrong! Set plays have been a major trend at this tournament. Now that we’re at the semi-final stage I’ve analysed the set play attacking and defending of the four remaining countries; Belgium, France, Croatia and England. Each country has had some intelligent attacking set plays but has had some issues in defending them. This World Cup has been excellent – let’s hope it continues to be do keep an eye out for the examples I note below in the remaining matches. 

France Attacking

France have been excellent going forward using Mbappe’s pace in behind the defence. When they played Uruguay they controlled the game and used game management to close it out.

Laurie Set Plays One.png

This free kick from Antoine Greizmann is so clever (might use this in training!) as he fakes to take it the first time and therefore the Uruguayan defence was set for the first run but not for the second. Raphael Varane was very clever as he used that extra second to lose his marker – helped by Greizman’s intelligence with the free kick. Training time had clearly been used to work on this and the communication to trigger it which only the French players and staff knew. France scored from this set play which allowed them to dominate the rest of the match and progress to the semi-final. 

France Defending

There has been a lot of high lines in this World Cup. However, if you play a high line then the opposition might spin in behind which could cause a problem. As you can see in this diagram, the French team has a very high line when defending the free kick. In addition, the French players are on the wrong side of the Uruguayan players. If they are going to play a high line they still need to mark the players around them and it is unclear if it the staff or the players who decide if the system if zonal or man to man. In my view the fact a lot of the players have lost their man suggests it should be a man marking system. Belgium have a lot of height in their team and could exploit France from set plays. 

Laurie Set Plays Two.png


Belgium Attacking

 Laurie Set Plays Seven

Belgium have a tall and powerful team with a lot of technical ability. In this instance, shown above, Vincent Kompany makes a run to the front post and attacks the ball which leads to a goal. However, set plays is not where Belgium will win the game. Belgium use Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to transition from defence to attack by playing the ball to Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku’s intelligent movement allows him to link the game well so that Belgium can cross for him to spin in and finish or create the space for a Belgium midfielder to make a third man run from deep midfield.

Belgium Defending

Belgium are one of the better teams at defending set pieces effectively.

Laurie Set Plays Eight

However, even they have things to improve upon for the semi-final and in the example above we can see that although they have matched up well in a two v two situation the distance between attacker and defender is too much so the attacker has a run on the defender. Belgium have a tall, powerful team and should mark tightly as players should not be able to run off them.

England Attacking

England have impressed me during this World Cup. I think Gareth Southgate has been excellent in the way he has conducted himself – which as a Scotsman is a tough thing to say. England have scored eleven goals but only three of those have come from open play. They are very effective from set plays.
Laurie Set Plays Three

The image above shows Southgate’s new style of set play which features four England players lining up as though queuing for a train! This is innovative and makes it very difficult to mark as the opposition don’t know what runs the players are going to make. The focus will be on the four players breaking out but they will decide themselves who goes where in order to confuse the defending team. I believe this is a new way of working on set pieces which England will be remembered for.

England Defending

England have only kept one clean sheet in this World Cup. They struggled to defend corners against Colombia and one reason for that was that Colombia overloaded the mid 6 area. 
Laurie Set Plays Four

This is from injury time as Colombia searched desperately for an equaliser and the image shows that they have created a two v one situation in which one of their players will block the defender and the other will attack the ball. England need to ensure that they don’t get overloaded from set plays in the semi-final as Croatia have a big powerful frontline. I can see England conceding as they have a mistake in them but they have a pacey and strong frontline of their own too.

Croatia Attacking

Croatia are improving slowly but surely throughout the World Cup. They don’t use a lot of set plays but instead rely on their technical players such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. 
Laurie Set Plays Five

When they do have set plays they like to overload the middle of the box. Here, in the image above, is a three v two situation in Croatia’s favour. Due to their height and power and the quality of their crossing they do possess a threat but their best way of attacking is in open play through the middle and transitioning.

Croatia Defending

Laurie Set Plays Six

The defending by Croatia is poor in this image. They have a four v three situation in their favour but due to Russia’s power and Croatia not having any players on the posts they conceded. I always believe you need players on the posts for the extra security they provide. Croatia need to attack the ball in this instance and make sure they are tight to the opposition. This will be Croatia’s problem against England as they struggle to defend set plays and they tend to concede late goals.

I believe that a set piece will have a big influence on the remaining 2018 World Cup matches. Maybe we’ll see a penalty shoot-out! The final four all have attributes that make them contenders for the trophy but I believe that France will win the World Cup this year due to the strength in depth of the squad and having world class players all over the field.

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