Does Crossing Work in Football?

19 Apr

An article follows by Michael Cox for FourFourTwo StatsZone.

This is an interesting use of stats to show (I believe) that crossing as a means of scoring is incredibly inefficient and often a waste of possession. In addition to Michael’s use of stats below, here is another interesting one taken from the Daily Mail (Adam Shergold, April 4th 2013):

TABLE: Number of crosses played by each Premier League team this season and the percentage that find a team-mate

WEST HAM 633 24.49
NEWCASTLE 594 20.37
READING 578 20.07
ARSENAL 558 15.77
EVERTON 550 20.55
SUNDERLAND 544 16.73
STOKE 542 18.08
WIGAN 510 19.22
NORWICH 489 21.88
CHELSEA 479 17.54
TOTTENHAM 442 16.97
SWANSEA 437 22.88
FULHAM 432 17.36
LIVERPOOL 420 14.52
ASTON VILLA 389 19.02

The author uses the above figures to apparently show that crossing is ‘one of the most important facets of the game’ and berates some players inability to ‘beat the first man’ – you’ve got to love armchair athletes/critics! Personally, I think that the best crossing team’s (West Ham) cross ‘completion’ rate of 24.49% is pretty paltry. If that same figure was applied to pass completion you would be asking if your players were playing on one leg. Also, you then have to take into account that this only means that the ball reached a team-mate and did not necessarily result in a shot on target let alone a goal.

Europe’s ‘top’ crosser (as shown by Michael’s graphic below) is Nancy’s Yohan Mollo with a whopping 3.4 ‘successful’ crosses per game. In the featured game against Nice he crossed 7 times, 2 of which reached a team-mate and 1 resulted in a goal (however, this successful ‘cross’ was actually from a corner). Set pieces are also counted in the crossing stats, which I feel is inaccurate as set pieces are ‘closed/self-paced’ skills as opposed to crossing in open play which is an ‘open/externally-paced’ skill. They give you the chance to enact training ground routines choreographed over and again, as opposed to crosses delivered whilst being closed down by opponents.

In a previous blog I have quoted the interview in Forbes’ magazine between journo Zach Slaton and Soccernomics authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szimanskyi. They discuss why Damien Commolli’s attempt to recreate ‘Moneyball’ at Liverpool failed: because they used the wrong stats – crossing and finishing:

“The error there was that they did use numbers, but the way they tried to construct the team was as a crossing team. You use the numbers to find the people who are the best crossers, [Stuart] Downing and [Jordan] Henderson, and then you find the guy who’s best at heading in crosses, which is indeed [Andy] Carroll. But there’s a numbers problem there, where the stats show that crosses produce very few goals. In other words, high numbers of crosses are not the way to victory.”

Anyway, here’s Michael Cox’s article:

“Europe’s most prolific crossers revealed – does this prove crossing is inefficient?

Michael Cox uses the Stats Zone app to reveal Europe’s five most prolific crossers…  

While European football is currently going through an extended period of attacking play, the concept of crossing has never been so unpopular. As recently as the mid 90s, the top Premier League sides depended on two out-and-out wingers, combined with a traditional strike duo upfront, and concentrated primarily on getting the ball wide, then whipping it into the centre.

Statistical analysis generally reveals that crossing is an inefficient method of attacking – only around 20% of crosses successfully find a teammate, and it’s rare for a side to score a significant proportion of their goals from this route.

Indeed, the recent obsession with ball retention has significantly changed sides’ purpose in possession. More sides attempt to penetrate defences with through-balls in behind the opposition,  basing their attacking play around passing triangles and neat combinations in the final third.

“Hey, I remember you…”

Therefore, it’s interesting to see which players from across Europe’s five major leagues – now all available on StatsZone – are still effective at whipping the ball into the box, either from open play or set-pieces. Here’s a run-down of the top five, based on the number of completed crosses per game.

Europe’s fifth-most prolific crosser is Fiorentina captain Manuel Pasqual. A steady, consistent player and one of the few survivors from the Cesare Prandelli era, Pasqual has either played as a wing-back in a 3-5-2, or more recently a standard left-back in a 4-3-3 formation.

Fiorentina play an impressive brand of short passing football, and Pasqual is the player who keeps width as others focus on dominating the centre of the pitch. Despite being a No.9 himself, manager Vincenzo Montella doesn’t always deploy one, with Luca Toni more regularly a supersub – so it’s surprising Pasqual crosses so frequently. However, Fiorentina have become renowned for their set-pieces – they even have a coach, Gianni Vio, who works specially on attacking set-pieces. That’s the main reason for Pasqual completing 2.6 crosses per game.

In fourth place is Peruvian Jefferson Farfan, a very different footballer to Pasqual. Staying high up in his right-wing role, Farfan is an old-school winger who takes on opponents and whips the ball in regularly, if not always accurately. Schalke’s best performances – such as their recent 2-1 win over defending champions Borussia Dortmund – tend to come when they focus on attacking down that side, with Atsuto Uchida providing reliable support from right-back.

Farfan’s best game of 2012/13 was actually his first of the season – a 3-1 win over Augsburg in which he created all three goals. He averages 2.6 completed crosses per game.

Leighton Baines is in third position. In an Everton side that use both an old-fashioned No.9 – either Nikica Jelavic or Victor Anichebe – with aerial support coming from Marouane Fellaini in a deeper position, a large part of Everton’s game is about crossing. With Steven Pienaar moving inside from left midfield to allow Baines to overlap, the England left-back has created the most chances in the Premier League this season.
As such a key part of Everton’s attack, Baines often neglects his defensive duties – but he compensates for that with a succession of dangerous deliveries, including a number from dead ball situations. He completes 2.8 crosses per game.

In second place is a surprise name: Nicky Shorey, with 2.9 crosses per game. He came to prominence in the same season as Baines – 2005/06, when both had been promoted from the Championship with Reading and Wigan respectively. While Baines has since thrived at Everton and established himself in the England squad, Shorey is back with Reading after a mixed spell at Aston Villa, and is on course for relegation this season.
His impressive crossing statistics are almost solely down to his ability from set-pieces. This was most obvious in Reading’s 4-3 defeat to Manchester United in December – two of his assists were identical, from inswinging, right-wing corners.

The most prolific crosser in Europe is the only one of these five yet to become a full international – Yohan Mollo. The Saint-Etienne left-winger has had a peculiar season – he started 2012/13 at Nancy, scoring a stoppage time free-kick winner in the 1-0 win over Brest in the first round of the campaign. However, that proved to be Nancy’s only victory before Christmas, and Mollo was allowed to leave on loan in January, moving up the table to Saint-Etienne.

There, it’s been a completely different experience – his new club haven’t lost since Christmas, and Mollo has continued to pump a succession of crosses into the box, despite starting from the left as a right-footed player.

At Nancy he successfully cross 3.4 times per match despite receiving the ball frequently in deep positions – which makes him the most prolific deliverer from wide areas in Europe’s top five leagues.

Still, considering all these statistics are largely influence by set-pieces, when Europe’s ‘best’ crossers successfully find a teammate only three times per match, you can understand why so few clubs play that way.”

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