Won’t be a full column this week, but I wanted to point readers to Opta Pro’s interview with Soccernomics co-author Simon Kuper.
I’ve written in the past that the perception of Soccernomics as ‘a book on soccer analytics’ has had unfortunate consequences for the popular understanding of statistics in football, reducing it to a set of curious “freakonomics” style tidbits that have little to do with how teams play but instead how many fans kill themselves during tournaments, or why England doesn’t win World Cups.
But Kuper touches on something I’ve heard before when speaking to people in the analytics field, and it’s something that has been backed up anecdotally in my experience, both by look at the Opta MLS chalkboards and in watching the game:
However, my sense is that the data shows – and in a few years’ time we’ll probably have a much greater understanding of this – is that crosses are not an efficient way to score goals. It’s therefore not an effective strategy and I’m sure this will become clearer as we understand the data better.
This is something Sarah Rudd, vice president of analytics and software development at StatDNA, touched on when I spoke to her several months ago, and the prevalence of crossing in football is one of the few (if only) areas where the data conflicts in a concrete way with how football is played. This year for example, Duncan Fletcher wrote a piece that argued in part Toronto FC’s relative turnaround under Paul Mariner could in part be ascribed to the drop in the number of crosses.
This should make make intuitive sense to anyone who’s watched their fair share of football matches. After all, there is nothing more infuriating than watching a team carefully and intricately pass the ball from their own half to the flanks, with full-backs running the length of the field to help out in attack, and the forwards moving up with the midfield behind in support, only for a player to whip in a cross in the blind hope one of their players will connect with the ball and score.
It’s why we see often see cross conversion rates regularly as low as 1 or 2 connections for every 30 attempts. It’s a lottery with poor returns, in other words. For a cross to pay off, you need a centre-forward who has both height advantage and good positional sense. You need the central defenders to mistime their jump, or lose their marker. You need a pinpoint cross that is low, fast, and just far enough from the keeper to prevent him from catching the ball.
When everything goes your way, your team is awarded a goal. Unfortunately, more often than not, the end result of a cross is loss of possession, vulnerability on the break, and exhaustion as your players must run in the other direction to defend.
Frequent crossing of the ball is in many ways a holdover from the old Charles Reep long-ball school, which (erroneously) promoted the 3-pass optimization rule, the idea that the vast majority of goals came from 3 or fewer passes. Hence, better to whip in the ball as quickly as possible to the area, rather than tease the ball along the edges of the 18-yard-box.
But as formations narrow, and variations on the difficult-but-rewarding variations on possession football remain in vogue, we may see less and less crossing at the highest levels of the sport. Spain for example attempted a mere 13 crosses in their 4-0 defeat of Italy in the Euro 2012 final, and half of them were short and within the 18-yard box. Throughout the tournament, most of their crosses from outside the area came from corners, and they rarely exceed 20 attempts.
Spain plays a 4-3-3 with a “false 9,” meaning the wingers often cut in and pass to a forward coming in from deep. But not everyone can play like Spain or Barcelona; this doesn’t mean however they must whip the ball in the box in blind hope for an Andy Carroll/Darren Mattocks-style towering header. As more and more data on this subject becomes available, we may see a drop off in crosses around Europe.