The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Crossing is football’s greatest divide

An interesting sub-context to this season has been the running battle between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur fans to “prove” who is the “better player”; Theo Walcott or Gareth Bale. Of course, such debates can only be subjective but Spurs currently have the bragging rights on this one as Bale is the PFA Player of the Year. However, if such awards were decided by numbers than intuitive feelings, then perhaps the outcome would have been closer, with arguably Theo Walcott nipping it ahead of the Welshman. (Although we do realise, statistics are not all-conclusive on their own and it is a matter of interpretation).

In the league, Walcott has played two-thirds of the minutes Bale has played – a victory in its own right for the Tottenham winger – but still trumps him on goals scored, 8-7, and has made seven assists to Bale’s paltry one. However, Bale has created more chances which, in some ways, displays his consistency although it is probably higher because there is a greater concomitant responsibility to create at Tottenham than at Arsenal where there are more ball-players. In this regard, Bale leads 49-19 although it is much closer in the dribbling success stakes with Walcott having a 37% success rate and Bale marginally more with 39%.

What this shows is that while Bale’s numbers are not any more impressive, he does offer more of a visceral joy to fans and that’s perhaps why he has been so captivating this season. On the other hand, the use of the same criteria to judge Walcott has often been his downfall as, although he can occasionally frustrate, his game carries more intricacies than many first realise. But there is a much more interesting reason for looking at these numbers, beyond a way of appraising the two talents, because they confirm to me something that I have always long suspected.

Walcott’s game is more about timing runs and delivering measured passes free of the full-back while Bale’s is more cavalier; more concerned with getting to the by-line and putting the ball into the box. Therefore bearing the two styles in mind; if you take the relative chances the two players create in comparison to the assists they make, it proves to me that Bale’s supposed strength – delivering crosses into the box – is highly inefficient at producing goals.

That’s not to be construed as an attack on Bale because his explosiveness and ability stretch play has been key to Spurs’ success while the team itself has profited massively from crosses, usually in the form of knock-downs by Peter Crouch. But his statistics can be used a general observation because they are eerily similar to the overall Premier League crossing figures.

In the league this season, 27% of all goals scored have come from crosses – a fair proportion one would have to agree but that is put into perspective when you consider that 1.6% of ALL crosses lead to goals – a very low ratio indeed. Bale’s return is close to 2% – 1 assist out of 49 – and that’s not counting those unsuccessful, which will have pushed his percentage even further down. You could compare his figures to Theo Walcott’s which is at 42% but even that is skewed as the Arsenal player has attempted a high number of crosses that have led to nothing. Even so, it gives a good idea of the efficiencies of the two styles thus confirming a thing or two about crossing. Firstly, it’s an art very reliant on quantity – arguably more so than the quality of the cross – while the strategy is of the most success if you are willing to have the patience to persevere, all the while, relying on a bit of luck as well.

Crossing: The everyman’s strategy

When Arsenal drew with Tottenham 3-3 in a pulsating encounter last month, a total of 28 crosses were delivered and the fact that two of them led to goals suggests, however, that crossing is maybe not such an ineffective tactic. Inefficient perhaps, but that’s the thing with crossing; it only needs to work once in a match for it to be deemed worthwhile because it’s an easily discernible tactic.  Indeed, if football’s primary objective is to score, what’s more identifiable than a ball aimed into the danger area as often as possible thus (theoretically) increasing the likelihood of a goal? In Britain, it’s that sort of thinking that perhaps helps explain why many fans might resonate more with a direct game than a tentative and prolonged passing sequence because the purpose is far more conspicuous.

Arsenal have often been accused of not doing enough with their crossing; a claim which has its basis because the team rarely gambles in the box as much is it should do. Yet, Arsenal’s style is not that it encourages crosses in its spate loads, as we’ve deciphered a crossing game requires.  Their way of playing the ball on the ground, featuring moves with an emphasis on quick, accurate passes mean crosses are inevitably reduced to just another, occasional way of varying play. There are times, however, when Arsenal are in promising wide positions but instead of working the ball around, they hastily deliver the ball into the box. The team would be better off holding onto the ball, looking for a gap to open up rather than putting the ball in which, most of the time, will be cleared thus restarting the move. Perhaps the aimless crossing is symptomatic of the increasing anxiety amongst the fans rubbing off onto the players which is muddling up the identity. Certainly, there is a visible rush of panic whenever Bakary Sagna or Gael Clichy in particular pick up the ball, weighing up whether to hold onto it or appease the masses and put the ball into the mixer. By crossing, though, they may be passing up an opportunity to create a better chance elsewhere.

Of course, you could say that the title was won and lost by Manchester United and Arsenal respectively due to the effectiveness of wing-play. United’s success this season has been all about stretching the play thus making them unpredictable and getting the ball into the box, a notion backed up by the fact they have scored the most headed goals this season. Against Everton, a late headed goal by Javier Hernandez from an Antonio Valencia cross, allowed them to maintain their distance over their rivals while Arsenal, in the following week, relinquished (an albeit late) lead to draw with Liverpool. Arsenal’s troubles in that game and indeed, the two goalless draws beforehand at the Emirates (Sunderland and Blackburn), was that they failed to break down the packed defence. Those frustrations are the main reasons why fans might clamour for a more direct game although looking at the statistics for the Liverpool game in particular, the team plundered 31 crosses from open play but alas, to no avail. If crossing is the solution, why didn’t it come to The Gunners rescue to save their season?

What Liverpool, and the other teams who have faced Arsenal at home, successfully did is deny the space behind; the area which Arsenal have had the most success this campaign. Their style, which was particularly effective earlier this season, was to get the two wide-men, usually Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott, in between the full-back and central defender to get in through on goal. “Like every player that is good on the ball he was too much attracted by the ball,” said Wenger of Samir Nasri’s role. “We wanted him to do more runs off the ball, going in behind [the defence] without the ball because we have many players who can give him the ball.”

Arsenal’s forte is the combination play around the flanks; although they have the second worst crossing success rate in the league behind Manchester City at 19%, completing 156 out of 813 crosses, the example highlights two clubs who have put a great emphasis on the interplay on the flanks as opposed to just putting the ball in. The trend is also the same at the top level. Take the Champions League for example; the preference for combination play has led to the almost universal use of wingers playing on the opposite side or “inverted wingers” as it has been coined by some.  As a result, goals from crosses, traditionally the most fruitful route to goal in the competition, have decreased by 20% from the previous season. And due to the propensity for those wingers to cut inside and create openings, perhaps it’s no surprise that goals from long range now account to 23.4% of goals scored in the Champions League in 2009/10. City, who now look likely to qualify directly ahead of Arsenal in the competition, play both David Silva and Adam Johnson, on the wrong, the latter of which Roberto Mancini has highlighted as a key member of their dynamics.

Barcelona have shown the importance of wide-men as contributing to goals although it must be recognised the key difference between the roles of their wide-men and those of that at Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur for example. The two English clubs deploy box-to-box wingers while Pep Guardiola’s side and Arsenal, with Theo Walcott in particularly, utilise wide forwards who have less onus to create.

There will be times, however, when Arsenal style falters and crossing becomes a viable tactic as we’ve seen in the 2-2 comeback against West Bromwich Albion and the late consolation with Aston Villa recently. The 4-4-2 can become the Plan B although it seems Arsenal may not have the personnel to execute a direct game. Marouanne Chamakh prefers linking the play as his primary mode of playing and that’s perhaps why him and Robin van Persie hasn’t quite worked as a front two. The two examples where Arsenal succeeded with crossing does have one constant: Nicklas Bendtner who was the target in each of those games and was his mercurial best when The Gunners defeated Leyton Orient 5-0. The Dane, however, will himself admit he hasn’t done enough to hold down a place but will argue more strongly, he hasn’t been given enough chances to be Arsenal’s alternative option.

If anything, the responsibility of crossing has been shifted to the full-backs as they are the players in the modern game who usually have the most space. As Jonathan Wilson writes for World Soccer magazine, “overlapping is the norm” and certainly, with opponents general defending deep and narrow against Arsenal, it becomes more apt to get the full-backs involved. However, Bakary Sagna and Gael Clichy, despite the improvements in their distribution, continue to frustrate as crosses are most of the time wasted. But we probably shouldn’t be too harsh on them because teams are purposely set-up that way. You’ll often hear, whenever sides play Arsenal, that their game plan is to concede the flanks, defending deep and narrow so crosses have little to aim at. The dense crowding of modern-day penalty areas mean the object of most crosses become more about hope than about accuracy but for Arsenal perhaps it’s more the case. Manchester United might get away with endless streams of crosses into the box because their play is open, more unpredictable and playing the ball into the box continuously is unrelenting on the defence. Arsenal are easier to read as crosses become almost a last resort; when ideas start to wane and passing options more crowded. If that’s the case, the opponent is usually doing their job.

If Arsenal want to improve their all-round game, they should learn from the 1-0 win over Manchester United. It’s interesting Arséne Wenger keeps on mentioning these three games as Arsenal’s blueprint for the coming season – Chelsea 3-1, Barcelona 2-1 and Manchester United 1-0 – and in regards to the latter, The Gunners were lauded for a greater commitment to crossing despite not actually profiting. However, by concentrating at what they do best thus getting more options around the box, they looked more menacing with the ball played in from wide areas. Wenger has declared Arsenal won’t buy a wide player next season although I’d argue they do need to; though one who offers more of a dynamic threat, improving on the style now rather than just putting the ball in the box. Of course, that’s not to say crossing as a whole should be abandoned; just that it shouldn’t be seen as a primary mode of playing but as a way of complementing Arsenal’s play when it’s dynamic and interchanging.

Arsenal must stick to their identity rather than looking to appease the masses and trying to find a middle ground. It just doesn’t suit the team’s style and they would be better off holding the ball, looking to open up space with their passing and movement. Indeed, when your style is as beautiful and enthralling as The Gunners’ who needs to cross the ball – an often inaccurate and haphazard way of finding a team-mate? Not Arsenal.

*NB: Statistics with thanks to OPTA and @Orbinho. Overall Premier League crossing figures are correct of 25 April and Walcott/Bale comparisons on 10 April

Filed under: Statistics, Tactics

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7 Responses to “Crossing is football’s greatest divide”

  1. Matt says:

    I’ve never understood why crossing is seen as a counter to the opposition parking the bus. If the opponent parks the bus, that means they have more bodies in the box, and therefore it’s tougher to complete a cross. Assuming Plan A is an intricate and patient passing game, Plan B should not be just dumping the ball into the box through the air. Plan B should be a more rapid counterattack, with the ball kept on the ground. Essentially, Plan A is Barcelona style, plan B is Real Madrid style. A Plan B should continue to exploit our own strengths (passing, movement, dynamism), while posing new problems to the opposition (in this case, less time to settle, faster pace of the game, more threat from long shots). Our backup plan should rely on playing the ball behind the defense for Walcott and Nasri, and supporting them with midfield runners. Failing that, firing shots from outside the box before the defense gets a chance to load bodies in the box to block.

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    Spectrum Reply:

    @Matt, Good analysis, Matt. We can both see that that would be the smart thing to do. It’s beyond Wenger though. He doesn’t do tactics. If things aren’t going our way in a match, he’s at a loss to know how to change things. It’s as though he just tells the players to go out and attack, but with no overall strategy to it. The players look for direction and guidance from the manager when this one- dimensional approach fails to achieve results. But they get none from him. Or Pat Rice either, it appears.
    Combine this with a lack of motivational ability, and a failure to get the best out of the players, and that explains most of our trouble. Of course it would help if quality players had been brought in as well, but even if they had, Wengers deficiencies would still have negated the benefits of this.
    “In Arsene we rust.”

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    finsbury Reply:

    what?

    You mean like in the games against Barcelona?
    Back to the Amstrad for you Spectrum.

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  2. Frode says:

    Very interesting article, with some highly interesting numbers. I didn’t know that many CL goals are scored from long-distance efforts, but it definitely highlights how we need to shoot more. I think we have scored on something like 10 long shots this year in the league compared to twice last season. We are simply too predictable. Our wide-play is a joke, except for Theo. We shoot way too little. We are not effective on set-pieces. What we are good at is exploiting space, but that’s not enough. To me it was very interesting to watch how Real Madrid played against Tottenham, and how much more varied and flowing their game was compared to ours. They were dangerous from wide areas, through the middle, long shots, set-pieces and counter-attacks. If you have enough threats, the opposition will crumble, and we simply don’t have.

    I have actually argued we should shift our formation back to a 4-3-3, so that we basically can have an extra body in the whole. At least we should play like that against weaker sides, because we were the best team against weak opposition last season. It would also fit our squad way better, and lead to Fabregas playing a little deeper (where he prefers to play) and Wilshere a little higher. I sure as well I am not the only one who would like to see Song play as a defensive midfielder again. I also like the way Barcelona attack in 3-4-3 and I think it probably covers defensive space more effectively than the 2-4-1-3-ish offensive formation we play now.

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  3. Very interesting post. It is indeed very difficult to make a successful cross when the other team’s defense is already organized. Crossing the ball is an excellent weapon when countering attack.

    Anyway, I think that Arsenal (or should I say Arsene Wenger) is doing a great job in creating opportunities. A short pass style of play is something that asks for a lot of through balls, not crosses. And let’s face it, neither Walcott or Nasri are good crossing the ball and the fact that Nasri usually plays in the left side shows that Wenger is not interested in that type of play…. or is he?

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  4. finsbury says:

    Nice read Brain.
    Sagna has more assists from crosses then Bale this season! Two I think.

    And Walcott’s not done too badly either. The cross for Chamack against Villa, ruled out by the impartial official, was from Walcott?
    Then there was Vidic’s handball. Not disagreeing with the sensible thoughts expressed above but to be fair, that wasn’t a last resort, hail mary pass. Just a lovely cross.
    I can’t forget that Messi’s header against the Mancs, it was a very funny goal.

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  5. […] produced at the other end, which way the penny drops. This is why the cross is the equivalent of the Fordist mass production line. There is no need for the attacking players to understand how their opponents are processing the […]

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