Crossing in the Premier League is a dying art

If you’ve been paying attention to the Premier League this season, you’ve already seen a lot.

You’ve seen Erling Haaland blow up what is said to be the best league in the world. You’ve seen Michael Arteta prove the illogicality of managerial entertainment. You’ve seen Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot. You’ve seen Thomas Tuchel sacked less than two years after winning the Champions League. You’ve seen Manchester United take their first steps towards establishing any kind of identity in over a decade.

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You’ve seen Leicester almost explode. You’ve seen AFC Bournemouth go 6 games unbeaten after losing 9-0. You have seen the end of the Bruno Lage era. You’ve seen plenty of people calling for the end of the Jesse Marsch era (despite a better-than-average expected goal differential). You may have seen the end of the “Steven Gerrard Will Succeed Jurgen Klopp” fairy tale. You’ve seen Nottingham Forest sign players worth the entire population of a tiny Caribbean nation, beat Liverpool and still finish last.

One of the few things you haven’t seen: crossover. A practice of whipping the ball wide and into the box for a speedy target man has been in decline for more than a decade, and the 2022-23 season may indeed be the end of crossing as we know it. .

Death of the cross

Back in 2008-09, Manchester United and Chelsea met in the Champions League final. Liverpool lead the league on goal difference and are yet to win it. Arsenal, captained by 21-year-old Cesc Fabregas, finished fourth with a fast pace.

This was the era of the Great Four. Tottenham Hotspur scored 45 goals with Gareth Bale playing as a full-back, finishing eighth with 45 goals scored. Manchester City, meanwhile, struggled to find stability in the first year after taking over Abu Dhabi, finishing in 10th place. Indeed, only one of the bottom half of the league in 2008-09 is still in the league today: Newcastle United, with Alan Shearer — yes, Alan Shearer — managing from a relegated side. UEFA Nations League: What happened at Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough was, perhaps, foreboding.

Elsewhere in the league, the list of managers evokes a pure and specific kind of nostalgia: Phil Brown, Tony Pulis, Martin O’Neill, Roy Hodgson, Gary Megson, Sam Allardyce, Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Tony Mowbray. You read all those names, close your eyes, and soak in the memories of hitting that yellow Nike ball into the penalty area over and over from wide.

In the 2008–09 Premier League season, the first season for which statistical evidence is available, the average team was crossing the ball 17.5 times per game in open play. If you sat down on a given Saturday or Sunday, you’d likely see around 35 crosses attempted between both teams in a 90-minute game. In fact, 21.9% of final third passes were crossed then. To say “every fifth pass in the final third is a cross” is an underestimation of how often balls are sent into the box.

Fast forward to this season and it’s almost unrecognizable: Premier League teams average 11.5 open-play crosses per game and 14.7% of their final-third passes are crossed — both the lowest since 2008-09.

As you can see from this chart, that’s a fairly steady decline from the 2008-09 crossover days. How the game is played, save for brief high-ticks during the pandemic-disrupted season did Significantly different, the trend is clear:

The same is true when you look at the percentage of final third passes; In fact, the decline seems even sharper until the plague hits. For the 2018-19 season that number rebounded in the previous three seasons before dropping to 14.8% and then reaching a new low this year:

In 2008–09, Bolton Wanderers led the league with 33% of their final third passes crossing. This season, ironically, the leaders are West Ham United, who are managed by David Moyes, the only manager still in the league since the 2008-09 season. West Ham, however, would be the 15th-most cross-happy team in the Premier League at the time, with 19.9% ​​of their final third passes crossing.

Back in 2008-09, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were still considered culturally continental in England, prioritizing quick, short passes through what appeared to be the easiest and most direct route to goal. However, compared to most of today’s Premier League sides, they seem stymied in turning every game into a ruck battle. In 2008-09, 16.6% of Arsenal’s final third passes were crossed — more than 11 teams so far this season. The current iteration of the Gunners are crossing the ball with just 10% of their final third passes, while Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United are even more cross-shy, with a league-low 9.5%.

Among players who have played at least 500 minutes, no player has finished in the top 10 this season for crosses per 90 minutes in 2008-09. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold’s 5.74 in the 90 would rank 11th, with only seven others in the top 50. Three of them are Aston Villa players — Leon Bailey, Lucas Digne and Matty Cash — with Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic, West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Pedro Neto the others.

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Among players who played at least half of their team’s minutes, the leader in 2008-09 was Aston Villa’s James Milner with 6.65 crosses per 90. Liverpool’s James Milner has just 3.34 tries this season.

what’s happening?

It feels like a long time ago now, but in December 2020, Arteta seemed to be clinging to anything he could to justify continuing to serve as Arsenal manager. After a 2-1 defeat at Wolves, he was left speechless.

“I think we put in 33 crosses for the first time in the Premier League,” he said. “I’m telling you if we do it more consistently, we’re going to score more goals. If we put the bodies in the box that we’ve had at times, it’s math, pure math, it’s going to happen.”

Sarah Rudd disagreed. Arteta, Arsenal’s VP of software and analytics, pointed to crossing as one of the few easily exploited inefficiencies in the modern game when I spoke to her about math and pure maths when I spoke to her for my book, Net Gains: Inside the Beautiful Game’s Analytics. . revolution.

“There are little things like where [coaches are] Teaching a full-back to come out and block the cross, “and you’re like, ‘Let them cross. If they want to cross, that’s fine.’

Why would you let a player cross the ball from there? Well, in the same way you might let a basketball player take a shot from inside the three-point line; It is ineffective. A 2014 study found that cross-over between Premier League and Bundesliga teams is strong negative relationship with goals; In other words, the more you cross the ball, the less points you score. Other, more recent, crosses have been found to lead to targets, on average, somewhere between 1% and 3%. Even when you look at goals that come after crosses but not directly from them, the goal percentage doesn’t go up that much.

Meanwhile, the average shot from outside the penalty area was converted 5.1% of the time in the Premier League last season, not counting rebounds or other goals that came after the shot but not directly from it. So even if you replace the normal cross with the normal “bad shot”, you still significantly increase the chance of scoring.

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Arteta’s current — and Rudd’s former — club seem pretty much proven. In 2019-20, they averaged 14.2 open-play crosses per 90 minutes and completed 14.9% of their final-third passes. The following year, those numbers dropped to 11.2% and 12.5%. And this season they drop to 9.7% and 10%. Meanwhile, their points-per-game ratio has gone in the opposite direction: from 1.6 to 1.8 to 2.5.

Of course, not all crosses are bad; You’ve seen De Bruyne or Alexander-Arnold kicking a soccer ball. It’s more that the game moves away from aimless, nasty crosses, focusing instead on cuts and low crosses from near the byline, or early balls behind a high back line. As the game has become increasingly globalized and domestic-league styles have fed and influenced each other, many modern wingers now play on the “wrong” side, meaning they have to cut infield and move away from traditional crossing areas.

Alongside this, teams also rely more or less on the proper and/or traditional number 9, a stationary but aerially dominant big man camped in the penalty area. Therefore, there are fewer players who can actually cross the ball and fewer players who are masterful at crosses.

Sometimes, though, this made the crossing better. It’s still early in the season, but 22.5% of open-play crosses have been completed this season — two full percentage points off the previous high since 2008-09. If everyone is less reliant on crosses in the final-third, perhaps the best players are the only players still allowed to cross the ball without going to the bench by their manager. Sometimes, without a clear target to aim for, they only cross the ball when they see a clear passing lane and an open teammate. Maybe, one day, if the trend goes in the same direction towards less crossing, more complex attacking play and quicker, smaller defenders to stop it, we’ll finally see someone push to return to the 2009 ball and take advantage of all the players who no longer know how to defend crosses.

“Football is really different than baseball [and other sports]”Because you’re constantly doing these tactical innovations and revolutions that are driven by the training staff,” Rudd said. “So a lot of those truths change really quickly.”

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