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.

The opposition to #one four nine and how where it comes from

#onefournine is a success at Bradford City because it makes sense.

It makes economic sense mostly. West Yorkshire is a big place, City are the only club enjoying the sort of success which peaks between Manchester City and Arsenal on Match of the Day, and the stadium is big enough that supply can outstrip demand.

This has been obvious to Julian Rhodes for some time and carried on being obvious after Mark Lawn arrived. It was obvious to David Baldwin and is obvious to James Mason who aligns the policy more with a social movement than an economic one.

Mason buys into the idea that #onefournine is about making football affordable and while the club before him had cast doubt over that with threats to remove the policy if it were not well subscribed – hardly the talk of social reform – it is often the case the social policy has a better chance of succeeding if it coincides with economic interest.

And that should be it. Mason delivers affordable football to an area which is justified in feeling that the club they are asked to support actually care about their support. I’d like to see the club go further but I’m pleased with where they are.

And I’m pleased with where we are: the supporters. The support at Bradford City is vibrant and interesting. There are amusing songs about pies and the sort of mood that makes going to a game about more than the result of a game. As Roberto Martinez said to Phil Parkinson in 2012 as City beat Wigan pointing at the away support “Are they ever not noisy?”

City seem to be – for whatever motivation – at the heart of a reform in football support taking back something which was lost in the commercialisation of the game over the last twenty years.

You have to wonder sometimes if other chairmen might try take Rhodes and Lawn to one side. “You’re making us look bad…”

They never seem to.

But there are dissenting voices and – most curiously – those voices always seem to be from other team’s supporters.

The tone of them is obvious and sneering. The only reason – they suggest – that Bradford City will be playing in front of 18,000 season ticket holders next season is because the price is low and that were the price to go up then the number of season ticket holders would go down.

So far, so Economics 101. If you put the price of a Mars Bar up then you sell fewer Mars Bars. If you bring down the price of a Rolls Royce then you sell more Rolls Royces.

But this is not solely a question of economics. Football at the level of Bradford City – give or take a division in either direction – has to accept that it has a problem. Teams are battling with the Match of the Day sides for supporters on a daily basis.

Sky Sports, BT Sports, every newspaper and a good deal of the football coverage online are dedicated to trying to get you supporters more interested in following Manchester City (or Chelsea, or Real Madrid) from afar than getting down to Bradford City (or Leyton Orient, or Real Vallecano)

The entire game under the elite level of under a fairly constant bombardment.

It is not a huge leap of comradeship to suggest that considering football is played between two clubs that what is good for a peer is good for you too. If more people start watching football at Bradford City’s level then everyone at Bradford City’s level benefits.

And of course you can put it down to a tribalism and a point of jealousy if you want but whatever the motivation for the criticism and the implicit attempts to thwart or discourage similar schemes at other clubs the results are the same.

Walk around Bradford and see the Liverpool shirts, the Chelsea shirts (try not to smile that much) and the Barcelona shirts and contemplate how difficult it is to get people interested in one club over another when one has the masses of media on their side. As fans of clubs outside the elite we should turn cartwheels whenever someone makes headway in attracting more people to get off sofas and go to stadiums.

Moreover though what does it say about the game if supporters of it – from any club – might suggest that there is a virtue in the idea that people should be not able to go to a game because they cannot afford it?

This is, in embryo, what the criticism of City’s pricing policy is. A statement that it is better if poorer people are not able to afford to go to football matches. To suggest that demand should be artificially suppressed with prices specifically so that people less able to afford to go to football should not be able to go to football is basic financial apartheid.

It is as contemptible a statement as made and the people who make it for that reason are worthy of contempt.

We can only hope that Bradford City start to be an example to the rest of the game and that those voices are minimised.

Recent Posts