Crossing in the Premier League is a dying art

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

You saw Erling Haaland detonate what is supposed to be the best league in the world. You’ve seen Mikel Arteta prove the illogic of the managerial merry-go-round. You saw Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot. You saw Thomas Tuchel get fired less than two years away from winning the Champions League. You saw Manchester United take their first steps in over a decade to establish any sort of identity.

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You saw Leicester City almost implode. You saw AFC Bournemouth lose a game 9-0 and then go six matches unbeaten. You have seen the end of the Bruno Lage Era. You’ve seen plenty of people calling for the end of the Jesse Marsh era (despite a better-than-average expected goal differential). You’ve seen the end of the “Steven Gerrard will succeed Jurgen Klopp” fairy tale. You’ve even seen Nottingham Forest sign a small Caribbean country’s total population worth of players, beat Liverpool and still finish in last place.

One of the few things you didn’t see: crossing. Although the once-widespread practice of receiving the ball wide and whipping it into the box for an on-rushing target man has been on the decline for over a decade, the 2022-23 season could indeed be the end of crossing as we knew it. .

The death of crossing

Back in 2008-09, Manchester United and Chelsea were meeting in the Champions League final. Liverpool led the league in goal differential and still haven’t won it. And Arsenal, captained by a 21-year-old Cesc Fabregas, passed the ball at a pace and finished comfortably in fourth place.

This was the era of the Big Four. Tottenham Hotspur played Gareth Bale as a full-back, with an eighth-place finish of 45 scored and 45 goals. Manchester City, meanwhile, were down in 10th, struggling to find consistency during the first year after the Abu Dhabi takeover. In fact, only one of the teams in the bottom half of the league in 2008-09 is still in the league today: Newcastle United, who were relegated with Alan Shearer – yes, Alan Shearer – managing from the sidelines. Also relegated, perhaps foreshadowing what just happened in the UEFA Nations League: Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough.

The list of managers elsewhere in the league evokes a pure and very 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 off all the names, close your eyes and bask in the memories of the yellow Nike ball getting smashed in the penalty area from wide positions, over and over and over again.

In the 2008–09 Premier League season, the earliest season for which Stats Perform provides, the average team crossed the ball in open play 17.5 times per match. If you sat down on any given Saturday or Sunday, you would likely see around 35 crosses attempted between both teams in a 90-minute game. In fact, 21.9% of all final-third passes are crossed back. Saying that “every fifth pass in the final third was a cross” would be to undersell how often balls are getting sent into the box.

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

As you can see from this chart, it’s been a pretty steady decline since the cross-heavy days of 2008-09. Save for a brief tick during the pandemic-interrupted season, when the game was played did Significant change, the trend is clear:

The same goes when you look at the percentage of final-third passes that are crossed; In fact, the decline seems even steeper until the pandemic hits. That number dropped to 14.8% for the 2018-19 season before rebounding over the previous three seasons and then reaching a new low this year:

In 2008-09, Bolton Wanderers led the league with 33% of their final-third passes being crosses. This season, oddly enough, the leaders are West Ham United, who are managed by David Moyes, the only manager from the 2008-09 season still in the league today. However, West Ham, with 19.9% ​​of their final-third passes being crosses, would have been only the 15th most cross-happy team in the Premier League then.

Back in 2008-09, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were still the supposed cultural continentals of England, prioritizing quick and short passing over what sometimes seemed like the easier and more direct route to goal. However, compared to many of today’s Premier League sides, they would seem dead-set on turning every game into a stand-up fight. In 2008-09, 16.6% of Arsenal’s final-third passes were crosses – 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 shy, with a league-low 9.5%.

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

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

what’s up

It feels like a long time ago now, but back in December 2020, Arteta seemed to be clinging to anything he could to justify his continued employment as Arsenal manager. After a 2-1 loss to Wolves, he went on the following rant:

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

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

“It’s little things, like where [coaches are] Learn a full-back to come out and block the circle at all costs,” she said. “And then you’re kind of like, ‘Let them cross from there. If they want to move from there, that’s fine.’

Why would you let a player cross a ball from there? Well, in the same way you might let a basketball player take a shot from just inside the three-point line; It is inefficient. A 2014 study found that for Premier League and Bundesliga teams crossing has a strong Negative relationship with goals; In other words, the more you crossed the ball, the less you scored. Other, more recent, work has found that crosses, on average, lead to goals anywhere between 1% and 3% of the time. Even when you look at goals that came after a cross but not directly from them, the goal-scoring percentage is not that high.

The average shot from outside the penalty area, meanwhile, was converted 5.1% of the time in the Premier League last season, and that’s not counting rebounds or other goals that came after the shot but not directly from it. So even if you replace the average cross with the average “bad shot,” you’re still significantly increasing your chances of scoring.

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Arteta’s current club – and Rudd’s former – have proven as much. In 2019-2020, they averaged 14.2 open-play crosses per 90 minutes and 14.9% of their final-third passes were crosses. The following year, the numbers dropped to 11.2% and 12.5%. And this season, they are down to 9.7% and 10%. Meanwhile, their points-per-game rates have gone in the opposite direction: from 1.6 to 1.8 to 2.5.

Of course, it’s not that every circuit is bad; You’ve seen De Bruyne or Alexander-Arnold kick a soccer ball. It is more that the game is moving away from the aimless, bad crosses from wide against determined defenses, focusing instead on cutbacks and low crosses from near the byline, or early balls behind a higher back line. As the game has become increasingly globalized and domestic league styles have fed and influenced each other, most modern wingers now play on the “wrong” side, meaning they have to cut infield and away from traditional crossing areas.

In concert with this, teams also rely less and less on the proper and/or traditional No. 9, a kind of immobile but aerially dominant big man who camps out in the penalty area. So, there are fewer players who can actually cross the ball and there are fewer players whose main skill is getting on the end of crosses.

Perhaps, however, this has made crossing better. It’s still early in the season, but 22.5% of open-play crosses this season have been completed – a full two percentage points more than the previous high, from back in 2008-09. If everyone relies less often on crosses in the final third, perhaps the only players still allowed to cross the ball without being benched by their manager are the ones who are best at it. Maybe, without an obvious goal to aim for, they just cross the ball when they see a clear passing lane and an open team. And maybe, one day, if the trend continues to go in the same direction towards less crossing, more intricate attacking play, and faster, smaller defenders to stop it, we will eventually see someone push for a return to 2009 ball in order to take Advantage of all the players who no longer know how to defend crosses.

“Football is really different from baseball [and other sports]In that you constantly have the tactical innovations and revolutions driven by the coaching staff,” Rudd said. “So a lot of those kinds of truths change really, really quickly.”


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