Issue #156 Wingers / Niedrigprozentig

As told by Michael Wood

Mark Marshall spent most of Phil Parkinson’s final season at Bradford City – and his first – sitting on the bench. He stands to spend his second season as one of the key players in Stuart McCall’s team.

On arrival at Valley Parade McCall discovered deep in a back cupboard a pair of wingers in Marshall and Paul Anderson in the same way one might knockdown a plasterboard wall in a Weatherspoons and find an ornate fireplace. Two flying wingers – as well as a tidy inside player in Filipe Morais – were idling around the training ground under contract and under used. It would seem that of all the things changed in the New Stuart McCall his love of a wide player is not one of them.

Said McCall on Marshall “He has proved he can play left or right. He’ll put crosses in from either side. We’ve had a bit of interest in him but for me he’s going nowhere. He can play a key part on both sides of the pitch. He likes to get wide and put crosses in and he gets lots of good balls in. And I’ll tell you what, he can finish. I know we haven’t seen it yet but he can do that as well.”

Wiki

Only one of ninety one crosses results in a goal.

That is as counter-intuitive a statement for supporters of English football – especially those of a certain age – to hear but with the plethora of statistical analysis of Premier League and Football League games over the last few season it has become obvious that eight-nine attempts to cross a ball do not result in a goal.

It cuts against the grain for a generation of City fans who grew up watching – loving – Peter Beagrie and Jamie Lawrence and then enjoyed Omar Daley, Kyel Reid and Adam Reach. Watching a winger tear into a full back is one of my favourite things to watch in football. But it is not one of the most effective.

This is attested to in research presented at Harvard and in in FourFourTwo magazine. Teams which cross the ball in open play more than others are significantly practically disadvantaged in scoring goals.

Crossing makes you lose more often. With a 0.01% chance of crossing resulting in a goal it is both inefficient as a way of creating goals and a poor way of retaining meaningful possession in the final third, as cross often results in turning over possession, and thus impairs other excellent ways of creating goals. Given the number of crosses in a game and that given that there are two teams in a given game one can only expect any single team to score from a cross once ever six games.

Once a month you can expect to see a cross result in a goal, and it could be against you.

Crossing, on the whole, does not work. Why did Phil Parkinson bring in two wingers? Why does Stuart McCall like them now? Read on, dear reader…

Tiki

The number of crosses (which is to say those in open play) in a game of English football has been falling for the past ten years. There are many reasons for this but all those reasons are haunted by the notional attachment to the Barcelona style of play known as Tiki-Taka. Tiki-Taka itself is a statistical reduction of the analysis that teams with low possession score fewer goals. Keep the ball away from the opposition and they will not be able to score. It is an inherently defensive tactic and always has been but has always been misunderstood as being based around attacking possession.

The world fell in love with Tiki-Taka because it fell in love with Barcelona and with Lionel Messi and this love blinding managers to some of the system’s drawbacks. First it is very hard to drill players into a Tiki-Taka system and equally hard to integrate new players into it. The authoritative work on this is I Am Zlatan where the iconic Swede all but states that Barcelona should change of they play to suit him because it is impossible for him to play as they do. Secondly it requires a specific possession skill-set in all but two of the eleven outfield players (goalkeeper, and one central defender who is allowed to be a clogger) and by requiring that skillset it diminishes other skills.

Which is to say that to play a possession game approaching Tiki-Taka one filters one’s players on how best they fit the skills needed and necessarily ignores those who have skills which do not fit. This reached an English nadir in Euro 2016 when Iceland’s overran an English midfield of Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli and Eric Dier. All three selected for the positions for their abilities in possession football rather than their abilities as central midfielders. Let us hope that Sam Allardyce does things differently.

This approach has become common in the Premier League rank and file and at clubs up and down the Football League who hold pretensions. If we take the definitive middle of the Premier League club at the moment – Everton – and look at their line ups towards the end of last season 1, 2, 3 one sees a morass of possession based attacking midfield players: Ross Barkley, James McCarthy, Tom Cleverley and Aaron Lennon.

Lennon is titularly a winger but started his career as a centre-forward at Leeds United before drifting out wide where he can beat players with pace but has no devastating cross to speak of. He is able to hold a ball and play a possession game and so he prospers. And this is not to criticise Lennon just to suggest that the game prizes some abilities he has to an extent where it overlooks ones he does not. Roberto Martinez – Everton manager at the time – would rather not lose possession than deliver a cross that found Lukaku more than one in ninety times.

It is not restricted to managers either. When he was favoured at Valley Parade many a fan’s team sheet was drawn up with a 433 that saw Devante Cole deployed in a wide attacking position despite seemingly never having crossed a ball in his life. Other skills are viewed of as more important.

Kiki

Which is to say that crossing has declined so it works one time in ninety because players selected by managers are not selected for their abilities to cross a ball and so quality suffers. As a result the ability of defences to deal with crosses has suffered from lack of use and a filtering of selection. When teams cross less they do other things and other defensive attributes are needed to play against them. Man-marking is more important than heading away high passes in much of football because there are so few high passes and so much movement into attacking space.

One hates to refer to England 1 Iceland 2 again but watching Chris Smalling play against the Icelanders is watching a player who has never been on a field against a James Hanson trying to work out where to stand against a player who does not want to spin off him.

Likewise strikers spin off defenders, they take up and look for space rather than occupying a defender as once they did. And the strikers who are good at finding space in order to retain possession are the ones who managers are picking. Ibrahimovic is once again the case in point here. His inability to retain possession in the way Tiki-Taka festished it meant that players who previously would have been described as midfielders were picked ahead of him for Barcelona to play as centre forward.

This was no problem for Barcelona and this is not a criticism of their achievements but rather an illustration of the priorities which football has fostered. Being good at attacking the area where there is no space – that is to say where a cross is aimed for in front of the goal and thus a direct path to goal – is less important in football than getting into the areas where there is space because there is no direct path to goal.

Teams are bad at crossing, and bad at defending crosses, and bad at attacking crosses and so there is an opportunity for a team who can cross a ball well to do so. This, one suspects, is why Parkinson experimented with bringing in Anderson and Marshall in the first place and why he abandoned that experiment after a few games last season.

McCall can revive that experiment and there is a scope for an advantage if the rot in defensive abilities is deep enough that League One central defenders are not able to deal with a decently floated ball into the box but statistical trends are against a manager who sets up a team to cross that ball.

Teams that cross forego goals – so the information tells us – and goals are hard to come by.