What can we learn from England’s success at the World Cup?

Published: 19 July 2018

Lessons from the England football team's use of set pieces

The most successful football teams tend to combine set-piece expertise with creativity and effectiveness in open play

Other than Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat, one of the standout features of the World Cup was the number of goals from set-pieces. Of the 179 goals scored outside of shoot-outs, 43% came from corners, free-kicks or penalties, the highest percentage since 1966.

England’s reliance on dead ball situations was even more marked, with three-quarters of the team’s goals coming from set-plays during their journey to the semi-final.

But why does it matter and what might we learn?

The set-piece success rate highlights the value of planning and process. Dead ball drills are practiced tirelessly on the training ground. Individual actions are broken down to minute detail and players’ decisions become automatic and routine. Different scenarios can be identified, while team formations and player positioning can be planned to make the most of individual and collective strengths.

In contrast, there’s often little time for rational, deliberative thought in the heat of the match. Many players end up playing on instinct, often reacting to the opposition’s spoiling tactics. But when a set-piece occurs, there’s a big opportunity to put all the training ground practice into action, control the play and hit the back of the net.

When it comes to communications, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of typical open play. All too often, best intentions fail to turn into action, as unexpected, immediate work pressures push out longer-term ambitions.

That’s why it can be helpful to identify and plan communications set-pieces including research and thought leadership projects. The latter usually includes a structured activity framework that is both efficient, creative and fun. The thought leadership process often helps achieves early goals – be that client collaboration and engagement, or inspiring colleagues. But the carefully planned activity always creates a range of set-piece opportunities which can lead to a net-busting run of wins.

The most successful football teams tend to combine set-piece expertise with creativity and effectiveness in open play. World Cup winners France ultimately scored 75% of their goals from open play and 25% from set pieces.  Les Bleus’ success highlights that not everything can be planned and that moment-by-moment creativity is still required.

Similarly, successful communications programmes tend to include a mixture of planned and reactive activity, building on the team’s full skill-set. Helpfully, good thought leadership programmes also create a pack of rich content to help inform ongoing communications.

As England showed, dead-ball expertise can help teams surpass pre-tournament expectations. Set-plays can be carefully planned and often provide a means for less fancied teams to level the playing field with more well-resourced competitors.

But, as the Three Lions’ premature exit made all too clear, creativity and scoring in open play is also needed to win the big trophies.

Simon Maule


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Simon splits his time between our offices in Leeds and London. He formerly ran the UK corporate comms practice at Gavin Anderson & Company.

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