By the end, Italy knew what was coming. They just could not stop it. Sweden left-back Jonna Andersson's in-swinging corners from the right proved their undoing every time. Andersson's deliveries were responsible for three of Sweden's goals as they beat the Azurre 5-0 at Wellington Regional Stadium last week.
At the same venue, a few days earlier, another Andersson corner had led to a 90th minute winner against South Africa. Amanda Ilestedt, the 5-foot-10 centre-back, who has just swapped Paris Saint-Germain for Arsenal, had headed in three of the goals, emerging as a surprise contender for the Golden Boot in Australia and New Zealand.
"I hope Amanda goes all the way and does win it," the Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson, only half-joking, smirked after his side's win over Italy.
In total, four of Sweden's nine goals at the tournament have come from corners. Their success from dead-balls is part of a wider trend at the World Cup that will likely be increasingly important in the knockout rounds. Colombia's dramatic winner against Germany came from a corner, as did the United States' leveller against Netherlands. Germany scored from three corners as they hammered Morocco last week.
Following the conclusion of the group stage, the first 48 games have produced a total of 25 goals from corners. That represents 0.52 goals per game and a dramatic rise from previous tournaments, even keeping in mind the expansion to 32 teams. It has already surpassed the 16 corners scored in 52 games across the 2019 tournament in France, an average of 0.3 goals from corners per match. That figure is about the average at previous finals. There were 19 goals from corners in 52 games in 2015 (0.36) and 11 from 32 games in 2011 (0.34).
However, it is one particular corner which is causing the most damage in this tournament: the in-swinger. That is the corner of choice for the teams having the most success from set plays. Of Sweden's 24 corners, 23 have been in-swingers, either from Andersson on the right or the right-footed Kosovare Asllani on the left.
All 12 of Germany's have been in-swingers. Ireland's goal against Canada was an in-swinger from Katie McCabe that flew straight into the net. Hayley Raso's second goal in Australia's tournament-saving win against Canada was also from an in-swinging corner -- the Matildas have used that delivery for 24 of their 25 corners. Italy use it more sparingly, seven times out of 13, but it led to their equaliser against South Africa, even if they were eventually eliminated.
The tactic, in most cases, seems very clear. Crowd the six yard box and try to drop the ball somewhere in there. If delivered well, at worst it is causing panic; at best, it is headed home or goes straight in. Andersson had almost mirrored McCabe's effort in Sweden's opener against South Africa.
There are outliers. No team has had more corners at the World Cup than Spain (34), but they, perhaps due to the profile of players in their squad, have opted for more variety. Just 10 have been in-swingers. Only one of their eight goals had come from a corner prior to the knockout rounds.
Sweden certainly magnify a trend that could become especially decisive in the latter phases when games become tighter and the smaller details make the difference. Against Italy, they were actually on the back foot for large parts of the first half. Then, with two swings of Andersson's left boot, they were able to score twice in the minutes leading up to the break, adding a third goal in stoppage time.
The feeling after the game was that, if Andersson finds Ilestedt with such aplomb every time, Sweden's corners are almost un-defendable.
"Maybe," Andersson laughed after the Italy game when asked by ESPN if she felt like that was the case. "Of course, if you put three or four players on Amanda and try to push her into the goal. But I think if we continue to take [good corners] then we know we can score, even if it's against a good defensive team. But, as I said before, if we see they block us there, then we need to do something else. It doesn't matter who we face now, we can still score."
Coach Gerhardsson said what is being seen at the World Cup is the result of a lot of hard work on the training pitch on the set pieces, an element of practice he says is not always the most fun.
Sweden dominated from start to finish against Italy 💪🇸🇪— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 29, 2023
Watch all FIVE goals from Sweden's big win ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/X56So357Fc
"I have been putting in a lot of time to do corners and training hard to have good deliveries," Andersson added. "I know we have a lot of good players in the box, so I need to deliver them well. It has been a lot of training. [My teammates] know that I can deliver the ball and I know they can score, so it's a good connection we have. If I play the ball in that space, I know they can score."
Ilestedt has been the great beneficiary so far. How many times has she nodded in Andersson's crosses in training?
"Many times, many times," she told ESPN. "We are working a lot with set pieces and also extra after training, I am working a little extra with Jonna. Apparently [it is paying off]. It feels good, the balls are coming when they should."
Next up for Sweden, who rested nine players in their win over Argentina in midweek, is the United States. The USWNT have also had joy from set plays, although try to be more varied from corners. A short-corner led to Sophia Smith's second goal in the win over Vietnam, although it was an in-swinging delivery, one of 14 from the U.S.'s 26 corners, that Lindsey Horan headed in to rescue a point against Netherlands.
If Sunday's game in Melbourne is as tight as expected, set plays could well make the difference. The USWNT know what is coming, but can they stop it?