A popular cry that was to be heard every Sunday when I was going up was “get it in the box.” In many countries the perceived wisdom was that the best way to score goals was dribbling down to the end line and crossing the ball. Many commentators still offer the same advice on a regular basis.
But is it right?
In recent years a body of research has begun to emerge claiming that crosses are a particularly ineffective method for generating goals.
Depending upon the particular piece of research it seems that you may need close to 100 crosses to generate a goal!
As an example check out this piece:
Most famously, The Czech economist Jan Vecer argued that there was a negative relationship between crossing and goals scored.
More simply, if the average premiership team would just stop crossing the ball then they would score about 0.4 goals more every match!
In some circles all of this led to the conclusion that crossing was a mugs game and should be largely avoided. Recently, however, there has been something of a push back. It’s not that any of the research was wrong. It’s just its more complicated!
Gerry Gelade has suggested a number of problems with the Vecer paper. For instance, in Vecer’s data a cross had to lead directly to a goal attempt but in reality in might create a knock down or a goal mouth scramble that lead to an attempt on goal. Sean Ingle recently reported in The Guardian a presentation by Gelade that showed that when we allow for this the probability of a cross producing a goal rises to 2.2% or about 1 goal in 45 crosses.
So what I can hear many of you saying, that’s still not very good. Actually, it’s not bad. It turns out that scoring goals is really hard!
The antithesis of crossing as a strategy is probably one that seeks to prioritize central penetrations. A great deal of research has highlighted how many goals arise from getting a player on the ball in Zone 14, and there is no reason to doubt these findings. But when we start to look at the probability of scoring after having achieved possession in these areas we find that most of this research puts the percentage at somewhere around 3 to 3.5% – not that different from crossing!
As an example, Colin Trainor found that in the EPL over the 2 years 2011-13 that if teams were able to achieve possession in an area 25 -37 yards from goal and in the central third of the field then they only managed to score about 2.5% of the time! Even the best of circumstances where a player was able to pass forward for an atempted central penetration only produced a goal around 3.9% of the time.
When we consider how difficult it is to make a pass into this zone (and how many such passes are intercepted, potentially leading to counter attacks) compared to finding a wide player with enough space to get a cross in then it could be argued that crossing is the optimal strategy!
Now, I am not arguing that this is the case and my own belief is that an attack that manages to get players on the ball between the lines is likely to prove the most effective scoring opportunity. Quite simply, it opens up the widest range of attacking possibilities – dribble, shoot, through ball, pass wide? By logical extension this gives the defense the most problems to solve. There is a reason why great defensive teams (think Atletico Madrid) congest the middle and allow the ball to be played to wide areas. By contrast, certain types of crosses (e.g from very wide, deep areas) seem to be poor options on average. If your main attacking strategy is the old British one of getting down the outside and crossing then you better have unbelievable headers of the ball or you’re winning nothing. We will discuss this more in the Part 2 of this series.
The only thing that does seems certain is that a mixed strategy that leaves your opponents uncertain of the threat they face would probably be optimal from a game theoretic perspective. It’s fine to look to attack centrally but if that’s all you do then your opponents will respond by packing it in centrally and then that probably won’t work.
Crossing is an integral but not the main part of any effective attacking strategy.
For an in depth discussion of this I refer you to a piece by Ted Knutson
In the second part of this series we will explore different types of crosses and begin to think about what this might mean for how we introduce the topic to young players.