Roberto Baggio

Roberto Baggio
Il Divin Codino

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Crossing: One of the Game's Big Problems

Around 10 years ago, the English decided that David Beckham was the world's best crosser of the ball. Only the English could have dressed up that limited talent to make it sound like a super-skill as they, above all other nations, nurture such an obsession with crossing that they have turned it into a fundamental of attacking play, convincing a large chunk of the soccer-playing world that this is the way things should be.
The idea has the beauty of simplicity, or at least the simple-mindedness: away goes the winger, over comes the cross and here comes the centre-forward to bludgeon the ball into the net. Anyone can understand that; I could, when I was about five years old. But, I don't know, shouldn't things have developed a bit since those far-off days?
Recently, during an English Premier League game on TV, the commentator - a former England international - hailed the arrival of a late defensive substitute with the comment that "he delivers good crosses". A few minutes later an attacking sub came charging on to be greeted with "he delivers crosses into the box". As it happened, in the few remaining minutes, neither player managed a cross. But there had been plenty during the game. I re-watched and counted 31. The score was 1-0 and the goal did not come from a cross.
I decided to compare the stats from a Spanish game (Barcelona v Racing Santander) with those from an English match (Everton v Manchester United) and discovered there were almost three times as many crosses in the Premier League game. I repeated the exercise, comparing another English game (Sunderland v West Ham United) with another Barça match.

Admittedly, this second Spanish game was a very special one, with Barcelona thrashing Real Madrid 5-0, but so what? It did contain some crosses, 10 in fact, which, when set aside alongside the 31 from the English game, nicely confirm the 3:1 ratio.
More important, and much more exciting to me, was the confirmation that crosses are highly inefficient at producing goals. Of the nine Barça goals, none of them came from a cross - which I'm calling any aerial ball delivered into the penalty area from a wide position, but from no further than 30 yards away. I haven't included corner kicks.
In the intricate network of passing movements that led to Barcelona's five goals against Real - the first of which involved a 32-pass sequence - there was only one aerial ball.
The way Barça play on the ground inevitably reduces the cross to just another, no that frequently used, option; a way occasionally varying attacking movement.
We've seen this style before in the way that the great Brazil teams played, though the more recent Dunga-inspired versions have been less devoted to it. Given that the style is widely praised, and that Spain and Barcelona are currently making it highly successful, it's reasonable to ask why it isn't more widely copied.
The answer, I suppose, is it's too difficult. "You need special players," is a response I've heard. Yes, you do - but how many countries or coaches are out there looking for and encouraging players like Xavi and Andrés Iniesta?
We're talking about difference between artistry and crudity.
Barcelona's attacking moves feature highly accurate and properly paced passing on the ground. The need cleverly timed - but not extravagantly energetic - movement off the ball. Compared to those skills, crosses are far too frequently lazy, slipshod way of delivering the ball to a team-mate.
If crosses are meant to be passes then most of them are inaccurate. But the object of most crosses is more about hope than accuracy. Given the dense crowding in modern-day penalty areas the best that can be hoped for is to deliver a cross that the goalkeeper can't reach but which encourages him to go for. After that, it's a matter of hoping for the best - even though defenders win the vast majority of crosses. There is the hope of a team-mate latching on to the second ball or the knockdown amid scenes that are not likely to add great beauty to the game.
When your style goes looking for knockdowns, you don't need players like Xavi or Iniesta.
Certainly, the swift execution of a winger's run, a cross on the run, and a flying header on goal, has immense beauty. But how many times does that happen? These days, rarely.
When people complain about the lack of goalscoring in the modern game, at least some of the blame can be laid on this extraordinary devotion to the outdated and far from intelligent use of crosses; a stylistic quirk that is not only inefficient, but stands in the way of the development of a much more dangerous and beautiful attacking game.

Originally written by Paul Gardner, World Soccer January 2011

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