Crosses: Part 2 – All Crosses Are Not Created Equal
Part 1 of this series discussed whether crosses were effective methods of scoring or if they might actually hurt a team as the economist Jan Vecer has claimed. The tentative conclusion was that crossing should not form the main focus of an attack but that it was an integral part of any attacking strategy (put in link). But it really makes little sense to talk of crossing in such a general fashion.
In the Garry Gelade presentation mentioned in Part 1, Gelade claimed that although the probability of scoring from from any cross was just over 2%, the probability of scoring from a cross in the box to the back post was in excess of 7% (roughly twice that of a cross to the near post).
All crosses are not created equal.
The lack of large publicly available databases makes it hard to be definitive about how effective different types of crosses are but piecing together information from various studies I would suggest the following:
Aerial crosses from wide areas (within a few yards of the touchline) are probably ineffective and may well fall into Vecer’s category of being worse than useless. The defense is usually set and organized, many defending players will be back in the box, the keeper has a lot of time to collect anything aerial (which the cross usually needs to be to clear the first defender), and the technical difficulty of delivering a quality ball from that position is high
Heading is hard. Crosses in the air have even worse numbers than crosses on the ground.
If we can manage to get inside the box the probability of scoring from crosses rises significantly. Various pieces of research have suggested that crosses delivered from just inside the penalty box produce goals about 5% of the time. Pretty good.
Pull back crosses from the end line are even more effective. Depending upon which data set used these can have success rates of up to 10%.
Balls played on the ground behind the opponents defensive line but in front of the goalkeeper for a forward to run onto may have the highest success rates of all.
For a very good review of the efficacy of different crossing methods please refer to this piece from Ted Knutson ( https://mixedknuts.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/things-we-think-we-know-about-football-july-2013/).
So what does this mean for training?
Many practices for very young players tend to involve crossing drills that try to replicate those of senior players. A player runs down the outside and attempts to cross the ball in the air for a teammate to finish. This usually creates a host of problems:
The player crossing may lack the strength to make such a cross and the technique they adopt to enable them to do so can create bad habits.
The finishing player lacks the technique (or desire) to finish an aerial cross and, given the data that is beginning to emerge, heading what can still be a pretty hard cross may not be a good idea (or even banned in the USA).
Young players love to smash the ball in the air into the box almost regardless of the scenario. While fun for them we need to be careful with these early habits because once formed they may become hard to break at older ages.
In my opinion once a player learns the habit of just whacking the ball in hard and aimlessly for crosses (or just shooting as hard as they can) it is VERY difficult to break this habit. In times of high arousal such as games they tend to revert to what they first learned.
How many times do you watch a youth game where a player gets into a great position on the end line and then just smashes a cross into the goalkeepers arms when, if the just got their head up, they had a totally open teammate standing by the penalty spot?
It’s all about habits.
I would argue that these observations, coupled with the results that are beginning to emerge from data analytics suggest a different crossing progression for young players.
In my opinion young players should be provided crossing and finishing which emphasize the following:
The pullback cross.
A ball played on the ground behind the opposition defense
Crosses on the ground wherever possible
Each cross should be seen as a pass rather than an opportunity to hit the ball aerially as hard as possible. By doing so we are not only teaching technique, but also helping the players improve their decision making and learn the tactical behaviors that promise the most success as they age. The specific practices used to do this are the choice of the coach but here are a few suggestions.
Here is a relatively simple continuous practice to develop the skill of the cut back cross. Initially, it is performed without finishing so as to keep the focus very much on the skill itself. Doing this also allows for more repetitions.
Once the players can perform the skill with some level of accuracy then we can incorporate finishing into the exercise.
- A1 dribbles down and pulls the ball back for B1 to finish.
- B2 then dibbles forward and pulls the ball back for A1 to finish.
- After finishing the players go to the end of the other line.
We can also create similarly simple exercises for the cross behind the defense and in front of the goalkeeper. Yet by incorporating gradual complexity, as shown, these can be quite rich learning exercises. Again, for the same reasons as above there is no finish involved initially. However, a finish can be included at any stage.
- The players dribble down, take a touch inside and attempt to cross along the ground to their teammates through the “second 6 yard box.”
- Once the players become sufficiently versed in the practice begin to work on them putting a gentle bend on the cross.
- While dribbling can their head come up to scan all the options.
- Players should follow their pass.
- The practice is repeated but now another player is introduced to play a give and go.
- Once the players are comfortable with the basic technique, introduce the option of them playing the cross first time if the set up pass is of the correct pace and angle.
- When would they take a touch and when would they cross first time on the basis of the type of pass they receive?
- If taking 2 touches can the first touch be positive on the move.
- After taking the first touch the head must come to scan all the options.
- The next progression is to introduce an overlap.
- All the same coaching points as above apply.
- The final progression is to introduce a defender.
- The attacking player has to decide whether to dribble or combine with a teammate.
- Initially have the defender apply passive pressure.
- After a while the defender can apply pressure but CANNOT chase the ball once it goes past them.
- All the above coaching points apply.
- With this simple practice and progression we have introduced some rich concepts and at the same time hopefully developed some good habits.
As well as crossing technique and decision making the above exercises can also be used to coach the associated finishing techniques:
- From a cut back
- From a ball played across the front of the goal
We can also incorporate multiple forwards and work on the angle and timing of various runs.
In my opinion this will lead to fruitful and productive practices. These concepts can also be introduced into various opposed practices. For any normal game at the end of a training session would be trying to create the space that a winger can exploit by getting in behind to the end line or crossing behind the defense. The easiest way to do this is to incorporate the rule that goals only count if all the of the goal scoring team are in their opponents half. It’s a very simple rule that will do the job and also provide the added benefit of keeping the team connected at all times – something that is not always easy for young players.
Other drills can be easily adapted to create the conditions we need for these types of crosses even if this was not the primary intention of the exercise. For instance in a standard 2 vs 1 drill if we add neutral players who only become live when the defending team win the ball, then not only does this create counterattacking opportunities (a great addition to the drill in itself) but is also achieves what we are looking for.
The neutral players will tend to receive the ball in advanced positions and if they cannot go directly to goal (always the best option) then they may be able to slip the ball across the front of the goal for the other neutral coming in.
We can also change the rules for the classic crossing drill with neutral players in outside channels.
Instead of the neutrals just controlling and crossing introduce a couple of conditions:
- If they can cross along the ground into the second 6 then they are permitted do so.
- No hopeful aerial crosses.
- They can use the time and space the channels give them to enter the field and run at their defender. In doing so many times they will naturally get to the end line. If they do manage to do so, can they deliver a quality cross?
- Allow one player to overlap. Again, this will naturally create the scenarios we desire.
I appreciate that many will disagree when these sentiments about appropriate progressions, especially downplaying so much (though not banning!) the aerial cross. Others will consider the suggested exercises too simple. Regardless, I am convinced that such an emphasis would encourage players to think and observe more, and that these habits around the goal would serve them well as they mature. Serendipity would also have it that match analysis supports these tactical habits as being the most efficient!
In the next part of this series we will consider whether the data supports using inverted wingers and, if so, how would we train it.
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