Gareth Southgate heaped praise on his Scottish strikers coach Allan Russell for helping England prosper from dead-ball situations during a fine start to the World Cup.
Four years on from seeing their hopes of reaching the last-16 ended with a game to spare, England face Belgium on Thursday with progress to the knockout phase already assured after back-to-back Group G wins.
Southgate’s side followed up last Monday’s last-gasp 2-1 win against Tunisia with a 6-1 thrashing of Panama in Nizhny Novgorod – matches in which set-pieces provided the foundation for victory.
Five out of their eight goals in Russia have come as a result of set plays that have helped propel the team into the next round, and the manager has highlightedthe work former Russell has done with the team.
“If anything, Allan is spending more time on those,” Southgate said of the Glasgow -born coach, whose multi-club playing career included spells with Hamilton, St Mirren, Partick Thistle, Airdrie and Kilmarnock. “We’ve identified that as a key area in tournaments and it’s a key area we felt we could improve upon.
“In the most simple terms, it helps if you have got outstanding delivery and people that want to go and head the thing. You know, at the moment we’ve got that.
“We’re giving it the right sort of attention during training and it was clear the opposition were wary of it right from the start because there could have been a penalty conceded from the first one.
“Then it led to a penalty in one of the latter ones, so it’s an important part of the game.
“No matter how much you control the game and how much you control possession, in tournaments set-plays at both ends – as we have seen again – are really important.”
It was not just set-pieces that pleased Southgate in Nizhny Novgorod given his side’s unerring response to his call for ruthlessness.
Harry Kane grabbed a hat-trick to complement a John Stones brace and Jesse Lingard’s stunner, with the only frustration a late goal by Panama substitute Felipe Baloy that prevented England from controlling Group G on goal difference.
It means England and Belgium head into Thursday’s shootout for top spot level on points, goal difference and goals scored.
“I haven’t had a chance to watch their game (against Tunisia) in as much detail yet, but they are what we’ve expected them to be,” Southgate added.
“They have some outstanding individual players, they have a fairly clear pattern of play. It’ll be interesting to see if they stick to that formation against us but I’m pretty sure they’ll play three at the back whatever they do.
“This is their moment, I would say, as a team because they’ve been together for a long time. They have great experience from the last World Cup, the last European Championships.
“I don’t remember them having a better crop of players, so I am sure they will feel this is the time that they’ve got to deliver.”
While Belgium expects, this tournament represents a free hit for an inexperienced England side basking in the afterglow of their biggest-ever major tournament win.
“I think the players will have gained confidence from not only their own performances but watching the other games,” Southgate added.
“We talked about lessons we can take from the other matches as well, in terms of managing scorelines and making good decisions. So, I think they can see they’re doing a lot of things right.
“You know, everybody will talk about Germany and Brazil scoring in the last minute, but we did that. Against Tunisia, we had 85 per cent possession in the last 15 minutes of the game, so they’re things that are really important if we’re going to keep improving as a team.
“I think they’re seeing the reward from the work we’re doing. They know how together they are, they have got a really strong spirit.
“That will only grow by winning matches, but also we’ve got to make sure that the players who haven’t played as big a part feel valued because their approach to training and the intensity of it meant that we were ready for this game.
“If that was to dip at any point, then we’d be nowhere near as effective.”