England's dearth of set-piece takers could prove costly in open play too

Every England failure at an international tournament needs a fall guy: usually a player who has missed a penalty, sometimes a player who has been needlessly sent off. Two years ago at Euro 2016, there was a variation on the theme: a player who wasn't good at set pieces.

England's shock round-of-16 defeat to Iceland prompted the immediate resignation of manager Roy Hodgson, but among the analysis of his tactical blunders in terms of shape and formation -- Wayne Rooney in midfield proved particularly unsuccessful -- the meme from the tournament was the identity of the corner taker. Harry Kane, England's primary goal scorer, took them over and over again. And they drifted over the heads of the players waiting in the box, over and over again.

It was a surprise choice of set-piece taker, but it stemmed from practice on the training ground where presumably Kane's deliveries were somewhat more accurate. Besides, another unusual set-piece taker, Eric Dier, slammed home a free kick against Russia, so Hodgson's determination to look outside the box paid dividends in some respects.

The focus upon the set-piece taker was, in simple terms, somewhat irrelevant. Corners, for example, are not generally a particularly prolific source of goals; in the Premier League last season, only one in 40 corners resulted in a goal. But looking back at the past couple of decades, and taking set pieces more generally, England have often excelled in these situations, which partly explains why set pieces became such an issue two years ago.

Much of England's good record from corners, of course, was courtesy of David Beckham, the world's greatest set-piece deliverer throughout much of his England career. Beckham's level of contribution in open play varied, but his set pieces were almost always splendid. At World Cups, he proved particularly effective with direct free kicks against South American opposition, netting against both Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2006, while an in-swinging delivery against Paraguay in 2006 also resulted in Carlos Gamarra scoring an own goal.

In between, at World Cup 2002, a half-fit Beckham was nevertheless still vital from set pieces. His pinpoint corner found Sol Campbell for England's opener against Sweden, and a deeper delivery assisted Rio Ferdinand against Denmark.

Beckham's set pieces also proved crucial at the European Championships. England's only win at Euro 2000, 1-0 over Germany, came from an Alan Shearer header, assisted by Beckham's free kick. Four years later, Frank Lampard's opener against France in the first game, and his equaliser in the quarterfinal against Portugal, both came from Beckham set pieces.

Clearly, England's progression to the knockout stages during this period owed much to Beckham. But after his retirement, England could still depend upon fine deliveries from the right boot of Steven Gerrard. Matthew Upson's ultimately irrelevant header against Germany in 2010 came from a short corner worked back toward Gerrard, and at Euro 2012 he assisted first Joleon Lescott's header against France, and then Rooney's winner against Ukraine, albeit in the aftermath of a corner rather than from the delivery itself.

So, from 1998 until 2014, England could depend upon brilliant deliveries from either Beckham or Gerrard, which provided a regular source of goals. Without either of them, and with Kane on corner duty, suddenly England found themselves without their most reliable weapon: dead balls.

Two years on, the problem remains. In fact, it has become even worse. Ranking players by the numbers of corners taken in the Premier League last season, you have to go all the way down to 39th place to find the first Englishman in the World Cup squad, Marcus Rashford, who is unlikely to start this summer. The likes of James Ward-Prowse, Tom Carroll, Aaron Cresswell, Marc Albrighton and Jonjo Shelvey, incidentally, are ahead of him but not in the reckoning, while James Milner has retired from international duty and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is out injured.

Put simply, England don't have an established, recognised set-piece taker likely to start.

So who has been taking them? Well, in England's first warm-up friendly, a 2-1 victory over Nigeria, Kieran Trippier took three corners, and Ashley Young took four. Trippier is a good crosser, bending the ball around the defence from deep position, and Young is capable of good dipping balls into the box.

When Gareth Southgate rotated his side for the 2-0 win over Costa Rica, Fabian Delph took five corners, Trent Alexander-Arnold took three and Danny Rose took one. None of these players, however, are likely to begin England's opener against Tunisia on Monday, probably leaving a choice between Trippier and Young.

If that is the choice, it's particularly interesting because those two have both played their way into Southgate's starting XI at a late stage, seemingly being chosen for the wing-back slots ahead of superior options. Part of Southgate's logic for switching to a three-man defence was the fact England could count upon Rose and Kyle Walker, two energetic wing-backs accustomed to playing in those positions for Tottenham, at least before Walker left for Manchester City.

But now Walker has been shifted into a right-sided centre-back role, where he has performed well. That has opened up space for Trippier, a perfectly competent player, but a less competent and dynamic right-wing-back than Walker. Has Southgate changed the format of the team, in part, to get a set-piece taker into the side?

The same may have occurred on the opposite flank. Young has enjoyed a fine campaign at left-back for Manchester United, but a left-wing-back in a 3-5-2 surely needs more speed, and a proper left foot. Rose offers both of those qualities, and surely more in an attacking sense, ahead of two matches against Tunisia and Panama, where England will dominate possession and must stretch the play. In fact, England won't have a single left-footer from their probable 10 outfielders: only goalkeeper Jordan Pickford is a leftie. Again, Southgate might well have considered the importance of set pieces, and in a close race between Young and Rose, preferred the former for his dead-ball delivery.

It's a peculiar problem for England, especially because Southgate has determinedly selected technical players throughout the side, which should theoretically include a couple of handy set-piece takers by default. It's an issue in itself, and if it has tempted Southgate into changing his preferred wing-backs to solve the problem, might also have harmed England's attacking threat from open play.