What England's set-piece strategy will be missing with no Harry Maguire

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Set pieces have been a key part of England’s return to the top bracket of international football.

Dead-ball situations have been a useful attacking tool for Gareth Southgate’s team in the past three major tournaments. Harry Kane’s corner goals won them their first group match against Tunisia at the 2018 World Cup, before Harry Maguire’s thumping header gave them the lead against Sweden in its quarter-finals and Kieran Trippier’s direct free kick four days later briefly put them on course to reach their first final since 1966.

At Euro 2020, Jordan Henderson’s header from a corner sealed England’s semi-finals place in a four-goal demolition of Ukraine that also included a Maguire goal from a wide free kick.

Then, in the most recent World Cup 18 months ago, Maguire set up Bukayo Saka to score from a corner in their first game against Iran before Marcus Rashford’s free kick opened the scoring in a 3-0 win against Wales in the group finale.

Dedicated work on attacking set pieces has strengthened England in this phase of play, but the routines wouldn’t have worked without the individual quality of their players.

Accurate deliveries from Ashley Young, Luke Shaw and Trippier made training ground moves possible, and the aerial ability of John Stones, Kane and Maguire complemented them.

(Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

But at Euro 2024, Southgate will be missing Maguire, one of his most reliable players at attacking set pieces.

The centre-back has been a mainstay of this England team since his debut in 2017, but a calf injury meant Southgate had to leave him out of the 26-man squad he took to Germany.

The Manchester United defender has been central to England’s set pieces, especially their corner kicks. England tweak their routines from game to game depending on the opponents’ perceived weaknesses, but there are base approaches over which small adjustments are added, and Maguire was essential to them.

On outswingers, Southgate’s team tries to find Maguire in central zones, with the movement of the other players in the penalty box complementing that — isolating him in a one-v-one situation by moving in other directions and blocking the opposition’s zonal defenders is one approach.

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Another is having a player positioned towards the back post when Maguire is attacking an outswinging delivery, which provides a secondary attacking option in case he only manages to flick the ball on. Usually, that second player is Kane, who starts centrally here before the outswinger is played towards Maguire…

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… and moves towards the back post when the centre-back is attacking the cross…

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… to be in position for the next action.

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In that opening game in the 2018 World Cup, Kane’s movement towards the back post put him in a position to score the late winner in the 2-1 defeat of Tunisia, after Maguire connected with Trippier’s outswinging corner.

As for inswingers, England’s recent corners have focused on finding Maguire towards the back post, which is vacated by his team-mates attacking the near post and the central zone.

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The idea of isolating Maguire in one-v-one situations makes sense when you consider his physicality, agility and heading ability, but the centre-back also knows how to free himself from his marker using different techniques.

England’s use of screens to separate their runners from the opposition markers helps Maguire create the needed distance but, even when his man gets touch-tight, he smartly uses his hands to create that separation.

Maguire’s trademark move though is changing his direction when the corner is being taken, to catch out his defender, who will be looking at the ball to know its trajectory.

Initially, Maguire moves in any direction to distance himself from his marker…

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… but just as the corner is being taken, he changes it to catch out the defender, who has to watch the incoming ball.

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In this example, against Iran in the 2022 World Cup, Maguire is by the edge of the box as Shaw is preparing to play an outswinger.

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As the left-back begins his run to take the corner, Maguire feints towards the near post — notice how his body weight is on his left leg — before reversing his movement…

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… when his marker looks at the ball. The timing of Maguire’s switch gives him a small advantage because he adjusts it exactly when the defender has to change his focus and track the cross…

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… which allows the England centre-back to attack from the blind side. Here, Maguire wins the aerial duel and heads the ball down to Saka, who scores to double the lead.

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In another example, for Manchester United against Aston Villa back in February, Maguire is near the edge of the box and man-marked by Boubacar Kamara, while Bruno Fernandes is getting ready to play an outswinging corner.

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As Fernandes starts his run, Maguire moves towards the back post…

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… but he changes direction when the Portugal midfielder strikes the ball — Maguire’s body weight is on his right leg, which shows he is reversing his movement — and that’s the moment Kamara has to change his focus towards the incoming delivery…

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… which allows Maguire to free himself of the marking while being positioned on the blind side of the Villa midfielder.

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Maguire then heads the ball towards Rasmus Hojlund, who scores to make it 1-0.

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Replacing Maguire’s set-piece threat will not be easy for Southgate, but the latest friendlies have provided some potential answers.

In March, England’s inswinging corners featured Declan Rice attacking the back post with Lewis Dunk supporting him. The Arsenal midfielder had a similar role against Iceland last week, when he wasn’t taking the corners himself.

In terms of outswingers, Dunk took Maguire’s job against Bosnia and Herzegovina four days earlier, but there was less isolation as Marc Guehi and Ollie Watkins supported the Brighton centre-back in attacking the crosses, while Jarrod Bowen was the player positioned towards the back post.

Maguire’s importance on set pieces is also reflected in England’s wide free kick, where he is the main target.

Their main idea in these situations is to find Maguire towards the back post, with one player supporting him. The role of that player is to use the space created by the opponents focusing on Maguire, or to help the centre-back through blocking or by making dummy runs.

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In this example, against Albania in November 2021, Maguire and Kalvin Phillips are positioned towards the back post.

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Philips makes an early run as Reece James is preparing to take the free kick…

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… to be in a position to block 6ft 4in (192cm) Klaus Gjasula (highlighted red), putting Maguire at an advantage when James crosses the ball towards the back post.

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And Philips’ role proves its worth when a free Maguire heads the ball into the back of the net to give England the lead.

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In England’s recent friendlies, Guehi and Dunk were both used as the far player on wide free kicks, but the question is who will partner Stones this summer once the Manchester City centre-back is fully fit.

In the three group matches, Southgate’s side will probably have more set-piece opportunities against deeper defences, which might be an argument to give the nod to Dunk over Guehi, though the Palace man remains the favourite to start.

Maguire has been a crucial part of England’s success at recent tournaments — regardless of his fluctuating performances at club level — and will be a significant miss at Euro 2024.

(Top photo: Wyscout)

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