Tactics Column: Arsenal and Sunderland separated by crosses
They say that “insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” When Sunderland plundered in their 48th cross without scoring in their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, Martin O’Neill conceded that his side were unlucky and he didn’t understand how they “didn’t score.” Certainly, Sunderland deserve a lot of praise for putting Arsenal under disconcerting pressure with their crosses in the second-half, but crossing as a main strategy can be as inefficient as serving dinner plates with one finger.
Actually for a side like Sunderland with considerably less resources (and lesser players), “putting it in the mixer” and “playing to the percentages” is probably best way to create chances. For bigger clubs, though, crossing should be seen as just another occasional way of varying play.
The most well-know example of a big club misunderstanding the nuances of crossing is Liverpool who, under the management of FSG, tailored their signings in order to meet a crossing game. They signed Stewart Downing for £20m because statistics told them he was the most accurate in the Premier League. And as Andy Carroll was on the books – a £35m signing and the best header of the ball, it’d be a perfect match. Except statistics, if applied properly, would have told them it was futile endeavour. The next season, Liverpool crossed the ball on average about 20 times a match, the most in the league, yet were outscored by more than half of the teams in the Premiership.
I did a piece in 2011 which found that although 27% of all goals in the Premier League came from crosses, only 1.6% of ALL crosses led to goals. That’s a shockingly low proportion and I’d wager it’s much the same for the past two seasons yet we hear pundits and fans scream alike to see sides to get more crosses into the box.
That’s not to say I’m disregarding crossing entirely – although there’s a paper to be published by a respected professor that suggests that sides like Arsenal and Tottenham should even abandon the idea of crossing! The professor, Jan Vecer, tells me that “that crossing is highly detrimental for scoring. It turns out that the two teams most affected are Tottenham and Arsenal, and they would gain an extra goal per game on average if they stopped crossing.”
But there is another layer to his argument and that is that when people complain about a lack of goal scoring chances in a game, crossing for the sake of it, is a simplistic notion and rather, it gets in the way of the development of a much more dangerous and – dare I say – beautiful attacking game. “In fact, most of the goals scored from crossing would be scored anyway through different means,” Vecer adds.
When Arsenal went down to ten men, that was probably the best opportunity for Sunderland to ditch a crossing game and add more dexterity to their play. Certainly, watching Stéphane Sessègnon, I could help but feel a degree of sympathy for him. He constantly beat Arsenal’s full-backs but the only option he had, because his team-mates couldn’t match his skill, was to just fling it in.
Had Sunderland scored from one of their crosses, perhaps these words might not have been written. 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 Bacary Sagna in particular (and when Theo Walcott used to) 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.
Saying all this, there’s one team that I’ve yet to mention which goes against grain and that is Manchester United. This season, they’ve scored at least 20 goals from crosses this season, owing much to the delivery of Robin van Persie. But there are other factors which makes their play so conducive to crossing. Sir Alex Ferguson says they practice scenarios where they are chasing games and that gung-ho mentality is ripe if you want to succeed at wing-play. It requires a lot of patience, luck and most of, perseverance. Perhaps Sunderland were unfortunate: they showed two out of three of those attributes but ultimately, couldn’t influence luck. Arsenal would argue, with the way they played, they made their own luck.