Is crossing still an effectively used strategy in the Premier League?
“The game has changed!” How many times have you heard, particularly from the ex-pros, this statement? There’s no doubt that some ways and forms of modern-day élite football has changed. You only have to look into the life of a professional footballer today, in comparison with a player from 25 years or so ago (their athleticism, their diet, their sports science support, their recovery techniques etc) and that itself should imply a significant difference in the performance of today’s players.
However, it isn’t just the ‘individual’ nature of the game that has changed. Look at the strategical side of things. With the influx of foreign players and managers, what was a very rigid structured, English natured, 4-4-2-loving nation, has now changed into something a lot more flexible and creative.
The days of the ‘winger’ and the ‘No.9’ in particular are not gone, but have in a lot of cases been altered. The very commonly adopted 4-3-3 formation is a prime example, with natural width expected to come mainly from the wide forward players and full backs, and the middle of the front 3 touted as more of a linking player than a direct target.
Because of the innovative tactics and strategies being used by some of today’s managers and coaches, are some of the more traditional footballing strategies going out of the window – like crossing?
Now, it’s not being stated here that no teams cross anymore. The question is; is it a priority for teams and something they still repetitively work on as a main attacking principle on the training field? Or is crossing now an outdated strategy?
This season, teams like Stoke and Norwich have relied on getting the ball in the box to their front men via a more direct ball and by crossing. The players in their armoury, like Holt, Morrison, Crouch and Co. are suited for this type of game but a think round the other clubs doesn’t bring many other old fashioned No.9 types to fruition.
The Premier League has seen the likes of Shearer, Ferdinand, Ferguson, Wright, van Nistlerooy and such, all plying their trade as out and out ‘strikers’, thriving on the direct or crossed ball and scoring an array of headed goals. Nowadays, the lead forward or the ‘no.9’ appears to have taken a different mould. How many of those players are there today, playing as a club’s main striker and flourishing on aerial service like crossing?
Top scorers currently
[caption id="attachment_13921" align="aligncenter" width="594" caption="Top 6 PL goal scorers currently"][/caption]
The first observation from the top 6 goals scorers , is the dominance in right-footed players. Only Robin van Persie has scored more than 3 goals with his left foot, obviously his strongest side. In relation to this article though, is the amount of headers scored. Over the past 10 Premier League season’s, the top scorer has never scored more than 5 headed goals and this season seems to be following a similar trend. Out of 120 goals by these 6 so far this season, only 16 goals have been scored via a header.
Out of the 6 players, how many of them are in the mould of the old fashioned ‘target man’. Demba Ba, used by Newcastle now on the left of a forward 3 and Yakubu at a push?! It seems the best goal-scorers in the league today are the more mobile and creative forwards, the ones occupying the ‘number 10’ role if anything.
Service & scoring
[caption id="attachment_13922" align="aligncenter" width="571" caption="PL teams goal scoring and service"][/caption]
A look at the numbers for some of the more direct methods of scoring this season reveals some very interesting statistics. It is Liverpool who cross the ball the most per game on average in the top flight. Quite an odd one considering they don’t play with a ‘real’ right-sided midfielder and that Stewart Downing isn’t a consistent starter.
Having said that, with Andy Carroll up top who does play that no.9 target role, you can appreciate why Liverpool play that way. The problem for Liverpool and that method, is that they have the worst chance conversion rate across the division at present.
A look at crossing from the teams that are performing at the top of the division this season shows that there isn’t rally a correlation between being there and producing crosses. Both Man Utd and Chelsea produce much more than the average number of crosses per game, but so too do Wolves and Everton.
Playing long balls and scoring from set plays follow a similar suit. Tottenham and Man Utd both advance on the average, where as Man City and Arsenal have the two lowest values.
Next Page: Top Creators in the Premier League (click bottom right or top right for next page)
[caption id="attachment_13923" align="aligncenter" width="563" caption="Top 6 PL assisters currently (via WhoScored.com)"][/caption]
A look at the origins of the 67 assists by the top 6 Premier League ‘assisters’ thus far gives another definitive insight into the popularity and effectiveness of crossing from high, wide areas.
Only Robin van Persie has produced his highest percentage (albeit joint) of assist from a high, wide crossing position. The other 5 players seem to have preferred assisting from deeper areas, sometimes with a direct ball in, but more often with a threaded ball into a dangerous central area.
Emmanuel Adebayor is the only player to have produced his highest percentage of assists from inside the opposition’s penalty area, where Samir Nasri, David Silva and van Persie again have enjoyed providing service from a deep central position.
So, is crossing an outdated strategy? Well, if you look at the formations used by the top teams in England, you could say yes. The role of the ‘winger’ in most of those 4-3-3 cases has transformed into a more rotational role, where the player starts higher up field (wide forward) but is not expected to stay in the channel for the duration, but instead should work laterally across the pitch and change roles with those near.
This doesn’t suggest that teams aren’t crossing anymore, or that those teams that do cross only play 4-4-2. But, the tactic of using a good ‘byline’ wide player and a target forward don’t appear to be implemented by many teams in the English top flight anymore.
A more flexible ‘Barcelona-type’ model seems to be the approach taken by a lot of clubs now, incorporating a more creative, deeper playing forward and the top scorer standings in the Premier League at present certainly reflect that.
What this doesn’t take into account, is whether the number of crosses on average per game in the division is any different to the older footballing periods as well as the amount of goals scored via volleys and such from wide deliveries.