Wingers / Niedrigprozentig

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.

Transfer / Improvement

If you were to use the words “nothing has happened” in relation to the last two weeks someone might look at you askance.

Prime Minister, Brexit, Iceland, Etc.

If you did said it about Bradford City’s transfer policy you would be able to claim some level of accuracy. The list of transfers in June 2016 grows and the signing club is not Bradford City in any of them.

And that list includes some interesting names too. George Moncur – who joined Championship Barnsley – is the very type of player one might want to see in Stuart McCall’s new Bradford City team. Paul Downing – who joined MK Dons – is reported to have been a target that City missed out on.

No matter. As season ticket sales report to be slower than hoped for there is an idea that were Bradford City to make some impressive signings then bums would go onto seats. This is wishful thinking. While there are players who might sign at League One level who could convert the unconverted they are hard to think of.

If you, dear reader, believe that were we to sign the much lauded Bradley Dack, or Romaine Sawyers of Walsall, or Millwall’s Lee Gregory that the man sitting in his armchair watching Match of the Day will be beating a path to Valley Parade I’d suggest you are engaging in a wilful self-delusion.

There are a number of great targets available for sure but the people who know them are not staying away from Valley Parade for their absence. If you are the sort of person who knows who Mark Beevers is you have probably already got your season ticket sorted out.

If you are waiting for City to sign a big name then I would suggest that there is no name City could sign big enough to stimulate your interest.

So while it is curious that City are a few weeks away from pre-season and have allowed the player pool to be whittled away it is not exactly troubling. New chairman, new owners, new manager, new scouts, new targets. It might be unfortunate than Moncur and Downing have slipped away from City’s grasp but it is hardly surprising.

And it probably beats the alternative which is a scatter signing where you get the best players you can find on paper and nail them into system. If you want to know what scatter signing teams look like you need only cast your mind back to Monday in Nice where a group of very talented players with very expensive price tags were beaten by another group of talented players with much less expensive price tags who had been assembled with a little more care.

Or better still think back to Stuart McCall’s first spell as City manager where players were brought in and shipped out with an indecent frequency causing a team with as brittle a character as one can remember.

Players like Paul McLaren came in and were shipped out and one wonders how much care went into their signings. Three of the best signing in City’s recent: Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, and Stephen Darby; all came with a guarantee of character from assistant boss Steve Parkin.

When signing a player managers want to – need to – know about the character of the individuals they are signing. Skills are obvious – on the whole – but how do you know you are not signing a Jake Speight, or a Leon Osborne?

Take two of McCall’s signings. James Hanson is proved himself as a character and as a player for Bradford City. Steve Williams has proved himself as a barber.

Williams looked like a superbly talented footballer and a classy defender but the two conversation I have had with people who knew Williams said they same thing. He did not have the desire needed to be a footballer. He did not “want it” enough and it showed.

There is a celebrated story of West Yorkshire’s own Frank Worthington – a sublimely talented 1970s footballer – turning up to play for Sir Alf Ramsey’s England wearing leather boots and all over denim.

This was the England team of Bobby Moore and the Shelf Cowboy need not apply. He did not fit in, at all, and which accounted for his few caps in the same way that his move to Liverpool was – according to David Peace’s account and popular folklore – cancelled because his to STDs he picked up in the space of a week.

Shankley, and Ramsey, took one look at Worthington and knew that as good as he was on the field he was not good for the dressing room.

How do you find these things out? How do you get better at recruitment? I’d imagine it has a lot to do with scouting, with knowing the difference between a good footballer and someone who is good at kicking a football, and about having enough contacts to find that information out.

Maybe it can be done ten times in the space of two weeks. Maybe not.

We heard much talk of hoping that Stuart McCall had changed and had learnt as a manager and here it is. It might put a dampener on season ticket sales that City have not brought in ten players in a week (and I would argue that it does not) but it heartens me that no one at Valley Parade is bringing in ten new faces with a week or two preperation.

To me that is the first sign that McCall has changed and, dare one say it, improved.

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