England did not just chuck their throw-ins down the line
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It was the moment Gareth Southgate knew Raheem Sterling was sharp and engaged: "Right from the start there was a throw-in inside and he was running at their defence and looked a threat."
Sterling would have to wait until the second half for his match-winning moment, but that early move led to Phil Foden striking the post with a cracking shot which epitomised England’s strong start. It’s provenance was also a regulation throw-in from inside their own half, and England employed a novel and inventive approach for their throws against Croatia.
One of the first things children are taught when they start playing football is to send throw-ins down the line. It is a way to minimise risk and also reveals a trace of the sport’s Victorian public school roots, with an emphasis on gaining territory rather than retaining good quality possession. A majority of throw-in takers, even at professional level, are reluctant to deviate from this orthodoxy.
England were, though. There was nothing especially unusual about the set-up which led to Foden’s shot. Right-back Kieran Trippier went across to take it, Croatia’s holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic pushed in to mark Mason Mount from goal-side and the right-back Sime Vrsaljko picked up England’s winger Sterling.
Rather than sending the ball down the line, England, thanks to choreography or opportunism, hurled the ball inside towards the centre circle which is a potentially risky move. Mount moved towards Trippier, taking Brozovic with him, and suddenly England had used a humble throw-in to open up space between Croatia’s midfield and back four. Sterling quickly realised what was on and arced his run inside and always had the legs on Vrsaljko. Before Croatia knew what had happened, Sterling was running at their defence and their strongest department had been bypassed. All from Trippier throwing the ball.
Phil Foden hitting the post started with a throw-in
It was not an isolated incident, either. In the 26th minute, England won a throw in a far more advanced position on the left flank. Unlike in the earlier example, Mount this time runs away from Trippier to attract the attention of Croatian centre back Domagoj Vida who is forced to follow his run. Once again, that same pocket of space is opened up in front of the Croatia defence. Vida’s weight is on his right side and he cannot change direction to halt what he can see is about to unfold.
Croatia were caught out again later in the first half
England managed to free Sterling again from a throw
Credit: BBC SPORT
Sterling had time to let the ball bounce a couple of times before lining up a shot at goal from 25 yards or so. He shanked it badly, but it was another example of England maximising a mundane scenario. The other side to this story, of course, is that Croatia will be furious that they allowed themselves to be undone from a dead ball in such a schoolboy way. Trippier was able to find Sterling, the most dangerous of England’s attackers on Sunday, three times with throw-ins.
Kieran Trippier passes to Raheem Sterling vs Croatia – the three most incisive were throws
In the Premier League, there are typically between 40 and 50 throw-ins per game. If we split 50 throw-ins equally between teams, that is 25 chances to either keep possession or give it away. While Liverpool were mocked for appointing throw-in coach Thomas Gronnemark, why wouldn’t a team want to execute one of the basics of football to an optimal level and maximise every possession?
In Russia three years ago, England scored the most set-piece goals of any team at a World Cup since 1966. Southgate and his staff are keen to find small, competitive edges and their creativity from throws on Sunday was indicative of this attention to detail. The England manager is known to have taken inspiration from the rehearsed moves which are pervasive in the NBA and NFL, where so many offensive patterns begin from a standing start. One of England’s routines even became a catchphrase of the summer in the 2018: ‘The Love Train’, which was coined by Glenn Hoddle after the disco hit by The O’Jays.
Who knows what else England will have up their sleeve for the forthcoming games. When they win their next throw-in though, perhaps avoid the temptation to look away from the screen and scroll through Twitter.