The throw-in is an often-overlooked element of the game of soccer.
In most cases, a throw-in isn’t a game changer or even a particularly exciting part of the match.
But when it’s used properly—or even unexpectedly—it has the potential to set players up for a great pass or shot on goal.
That’s exactly what happened as England kicked off their Euro 2020 run with a 1-0 win over Croatia on Sunday.
Their fresh approach to a simple throw-in gave England an early advantage in the game, setting off the momentum that would eventually lead to the game-winning goal.
Soccer throw-in basics
Before getting into England’s big win, let’s take a closer look at the throw-in.
This is the method used to restart play anytime a ball goes out of bounds on either sideline of the field, with possession awarded to the team which did not touch the ball last before it left the field.
A player picks up the ball and throws it in with their feet behind the touch line where the ball went out of bounds.
Players must use both hands to throw the ball in over their head with both feet planted on the ground at the moment the ball is released.
For most throw-ins, players direct the ball down the line of the field with the intention of moving the play toward the opponent’s goal.
It’s not unusual for players to receive the ball from a throw-in along the sideline, move it down the field toward the end line, and then cross it toward the center in the hopes of creating the opportunity for a goal.
In their matchup against Croatia, England took a different approach and directed the ball toward the center of the field for an “inside” throw-in.
This has a greater risk since the opponent could’ve snatch up possession and quickly move the ball toward England’s goal.
In England’s case, however, it proved to be a pivotal moment that helped them take control of the game.
England’s game-changing throw-in
Just minutes into the match, right-back Kieran Trippier took a throw-in from inside England’s own half.
Croatia marked England’s players down the line, which is where the ball is often aimed with a throw-in.
This wasn’t a high-intensity moment in the game. England had possession, but they weren’t even in Croatia’s half yet.
But in an instant, the team transitioned into a powerful offensive approach as Trippier’s “inside” throw-in hurtled into an open space near the center circle, across the half-way line, and down toward Croatia’s goal.
Croatia’s defense was caught off guard as Raheem Sterling fell in behind the ball, quickly advancing it up the field before passing it off to Phil Foden just outside the top corner of the 18-yard box.
Foden quickly took a crack at the ball and sent it careening toward the goal, where it looked like it was headed straight for the side netting.
However, the ball just missed and ricocheted off the left post.
All this happened just over five minutes into the game and started off a hot offensive streak for England, who would go on to net their one goal of the game in the 57th minute.
Set pieces in soccer
The set piece is a critical facet of every competitive soccer team’s strategy.
Hours of practice are dedicated to rehearsing the formations for various game situations.
Set pieces are most commonly used for corner kicks, which is the method used to restart play when the ball goes out of bounds at the end lines of the field.
Set pieces usually involve one or more players having an assigned spot on the field.
Once the ball is put back into play, those players move in a certain direction to either receive the ball or lead defensive players out of the way.
Set pieces aren’t as common with throw-ins. Typically, the player taking the throw-in makes an off-the-cuff decision on where to direct the ball based on what’s happening on the field.
Likewise, the offensive players on the field may not have placements or runs planned out in advance. Instead, they just try to evade the defense in order to find an opening for the ball.
England’s opportunistic throw-in against Croatia is a small yet significant example of the ways in which players and coaches can create new opportunities on the field.
One unexpected throw-in toward the center of the field shifted the game in England’s favor early on.
Even though they didn’t score at that moment, a threatening shot on goal put Croatia on their heels and gave England the confidence to maintain an advantage in the game.
Throw-in set pieces, while far less common than other types of soccer set pieces, undoubtedly have the potential to present important offensive plays on the field.