Has VAR contributed to more set-piece goals at the World Cup?

The opening fixtures of the tournament have been dominated by goals from dead ball situations.

Whether it be a thunderbolt ripped into the top corner by Cristiano Ronaldo or an opportunistic poacher's effort by Harry Kane, the opening week of World Cup 2018 has seen an extraordinarily high percentage of set-piece goals in Russia.

53% from dead ball situations

Following Spain's victory over Iran on Wednesday evening, the number of goals scored in the competition tallied at 45. Yet only 21 of those strikes had been scored from open play and almost a quarter of those derived from own goals.

In contrast, 24 goals have been created from dead ball situations, 16 from corners or free-kicks and another eight from the penalty spot. That is an average of more than one per game. Research from the EPL Index suggests that most professional sides score 10-20% of their goals from such situations so a rate over 50% at the World Cup is considerably out of proportion.

Out of the 32 teams playing in Russia, only Belgium, Denmark, Argentina, Iceland and Brazil have scored all of their opening goals of the tournament from open play by their own accord, whilst half of the teams in the competition have netted at least once from dead ball situations.

Ironically, three of the five players with the best statistics for set-piece conversion in Europe this season are present in Russia but neither James Rodriguez, Philippe Coutinho or Paulo Dybala have created such openings in the early stages of the competition. Lionel Messi is also no stranger to a dead ball situation and missed a penalty in Argentina's first match of the tournament.

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Less physicality in the penalty area

So, why have so many players taken advantage from such situations? One reason could be the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

Whether you like it or loathe it, VAR has certainly had an impact on the way football has been played at the World Cup. English fans may be yet to reap the benefits after what we shall describe as some interesting decisions against Tunisia but officials have been instructed to crack down on shirt pulling in the penalty area.

This has caused two contrasting situations. Those defenders who do opt to keep tight to their opponents have been punished, hence the reason for an average of almost a penalty every other game being awarded.

Yet such a stance is more often than not making defending more difficult in the penalty area. With the fear of giving away a foul, attackers are benefitting from more space, just as Ronaldo did when Morocco could only watch on helplessly as he knocked them out of the tournament with a bullet header.

Deeper defensive lines thwarting open football

However, VAR could also be hindering the number of goals we have seen in the tournament. 45 goals in 20 games is hardly substantial but the lower-ranked teams seem more content to take a leaf out of Jose Mourinho's book and 'park the bus' against the more established competition.

Such a tactic with a deep defensive line becomes even more prominent when you consider another aspect of the game VAR is looking at during the tournament. Assistant referees have been instructed to keep their flags down if an offside call is too close to make a decision. With this factor also favouring attackers, defences have naturally dropped back and appear content to avoid playing the offside trap so they are not caught out in such situations.

The result is a limited number of through balls, with only France playing more than five in their opening contest, and a focus on keeping numbers behind the ball as evidenced by the fact only two goals have been scored on the counter-attack thus far.