‘Cross and Inshallah’, a phrase adopted by Football Twitter in recent years. A term of derision, it’s usually reserved for instances where players and teams have run out of ideas. In doing so, they adopt a hit-and-hope approach of crossing from deep. Often when frustrated, players will prefer to deliver a ball into a ‘dangerous area’ rather picking out a teammate or recycling the ball, presumably because of how much commentators seem to fawn over it.
When executed well, a high-volume crossing strategy can work wonders. Think Cesar Azpilicueta & Alvaro Morata during Antonio Conte’s 17/18 season at Chelsea – no two players combined to put on more goals that season than those two. The majority came from Azpilicueta dropping into the half space and picking out Morata at the far post. Similarly, the season before, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli linked up well deploying the same strategy.
When executed poorly however, it can be one of life’s great frustrations. The infamous example being the Man Utd game under David Moyes’ tutelage, which led to 81 crosses against Fulham . This one match represented an over-reliance on a tactic that actually proves to be relatively inefficient. Soccerment Research conducted in 2018 calculated that only 1 in every 64 crosses across Europe’s top leagues results in a goal.
I decided to analyse the numbers in the Premier League this year and then take a look at the reasons behind select teams’ stats. I’ve used team data from whoscored.com, in conjunction with individual player data found on kickest.it. Using two key metrics – Number of Crosses Per 90 & % of Successful Crosses Per 90 – I plotted for all 20 PL teams. This should give us an indication of who are the best and worst crossers in the league this year.
The chart below plots all teams’ stats using the average as a base value. Here, we are able to see which teams are, in relative terms, better at crossing.
We’re going to take a look into each quadrant, highlighting a couple of traditional ‘Big Six’* teams as we do and look to analyse the reasons behind what we’re seeing.
*DISCLAIMER – Arsenal are a Big Six team for the purposes of this article.
Before we do that, it’s worth commenting on a couple of noteworthy positions:
Interestingly, West Ham lead the way with an indexed Volume and Success Rate figure and it seems the majority of teams who deploy 3 at the back have appeared in the upper right quadrant. Their position is largely due to personnel at the wing-back positions, with Cresswell and Coufal’s touches often being in advanced positions. While Antonio isn’t a traditional ‘target-man’, he is often found with balls in from each wing. Soucek bombing on from midfield and Jarrod Bowen playing as a wide forward adds to West Ham’s penchant for crossing.
You might expect Burnely to be higher for both stats, but the fact is the majority of aerial balls they throw into Barnes and Wood come from the back. Burnely lead the way for ‘Long Balls attempted per 90’ – 78. Having said that, Dwight McNeil is one of the 5 players who have attempted the most crosses this season.
Leicester record a low success rate for crosses in game. Losing Chilwell has no doubt contributed to this, as well as having a right-footed left-back in operation for most of the season. Not playing with traditional wide forwards has also played a part. No Leicester player, bar James Maddison (22), has completed more than 9 successful crosses this season. This is despite James Justin and Marc Albrighton’s high volume attempts.
If we take a closer look at the four quadrants, we’re able to start to see some patterns.
High Volume, Low Success
Teams: Liverpool, Arsenal
Looking at Arsenal’s stats this season there seems to be a pattern. Maybe a hangover from the fabled Emery-ball, but we see an over-reliance on the left hand side. Arsenal’s highest volume crossers this season are Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney. As it is 5″9 Alexandre Lacazette leading the line and Aubameyang’s arrival at the back post not being as frequent as it used to be, it hasn’t been as effective as it could have been. Playing with inverted wingers hasn’t help them either. Aubameyang regaining form and variance in their crossing position might lead to greater success.
Liverpool’s high-volume approach to crossing has worked very well in recent years. This year however, there seems to be a change in movement from Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. They are no longer making the sort of runs in behind that made them such devastating threats to teams worldwide. Trent Alexander-Arnold (123) and Andy Robertson (125) are responsible for the highest number of attempted crosses this season, but their cross completion percentage is well below average (18% and 22% respectively). In the case of Robertson, this isn’t always bad news as he’s provided the second-most successful crosses this year.
It’s clear that Liverpool are still generating opportunities and scoring goals from wide areas. The problem lies more in their accuracy and improvement on this would get them back to their ruthless best.
High Volume, High Success
It will be interesting to see how Chelsea’s position changes now that Tuchel is in charge. Throughout this season, they have been crossing at relatively high volume with decent success. While the fullbacks have contributed a lot to this number, it’s actually Mason Mount who has been crossing the most. His crossing success rate is a huge 37% and is largely due to dropping into the pocket to deliver balls to Abraham and Werner. It remains to be seen how Chelsea’s set-up will change with the new man in charge however. With the plethora of options in the full-back positions, you’d expect more crosses to come in from wide if Tuchel persists with 3 at the back.
Low Volume, High Success
Teams: Manchester United, Tottenham
Spurs are in the top 20% of teams in terms of counter-attacking goals, a tactic they used particularly well at the start of the season. Spurs interestingly have the highest percentage of attacks that occur through the middle of the pitch (28%). It is an indication that when they win possession, they break swiftly. This is usually through Harry Kane dropping deep to collect the ball. They don’t have a player that ranks inside the top 50 for successful crosses. When they do get the ball out wide, it’s usually to find Son who in turn usually finds Kane.
Rotation of full backs definitely plays a part in the lessening of these statistics. What we can take from Spurs’ position is that they don’t often utilise crosses but if utilised, it is in a clinical fashion.
Manchester United’s crossing volume comes from two men: Bruno Fernandes and Luke Shaw. They couldn’t be more different in their approach and application. Luke Shaw’s crossing this season has been at the level that United fans have expected for years – finding himself in advanced positions more often. It has led to crossing with a greater degree of accuracy (33%) than in previous seasons. It’s no surprise then that United’s attacks come more often than not from the left-hand side (43%).
Bruno Fernandes’ crosses come from all over the place and in much higher volume. An above-average success rate of 26% isn’t as bad as you might think from watching his hollywood balls. Nevertheless, his gunslinger approach to passing is a stark contrast to Shaw’s more deliberate crossing from the left.
Low Volume, Low Success
Teams: Man City
Lastly, we have Manchester City. A somewhat anomalous season for them in which they haven’t regularly played with a centre forward. It has meant that De Bruyne’s usual high-volume crossing approach has been blunted slightly. He’s still in the top 10 for total crosses attempted and he’s still producing accurately, but City have been passing teams to death more this season. They sit highest in the league for passes-per-game at 688, of which 584 (85%) are accurate, short passes. You’d expect their volume to increase should Aguero return or Jesus get a run of games, but they’ve found a way to win this season without relying on crossing as much as they used to.