Has crossing lost its effectiveness?

Manchester United's former manager Alex Ferguson.
Manchester United's former manager Alex Ferguson.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON • Alex Ferguson was unequivocal. Certain things, the Scot felt, were non-negotiable.

"We like wingers at Manchester United, and we always have," he once said.

It was a proud tradition, and one he did his utmost to maintain. Over the course of his reign, from Andrei Kanchelskis to Cristiano Ronaldo by way of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, he produced teams illuminated by dazzling wide players.

That has all changed now, and not only at Old Trafford. Across the English game, what one of the beneficiaries of Ferguson's tastes, Dwight Yorke, describes as the "classic style of football" is fading.

Width has gone out of fashion, replaced by an obsession with possession, lone strikers and inverted wingers. With it, a defining feature of the English game has gone too.

The art of crossing, it seems, is dying. According to Opta statistics, there has been a staggering decline in the number of crosses in the English Premier League in the last decade and a half.

In the 2003-04 season, an average match produced about 42 crosses. So far this season, that figure has slipped to 29 - a reduction of a third in little more than 10 years.

That is coupled with an even more marked drop in how effective crossing is. In 2003, roughly a third of crosses found their target.

This season, only a fifth of balls played in from wide areas have picked out a team-mate.

Nowhere is that more notable than at Manchester City. Despite spending almost £100 million (S$204 million) on wide players Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne, only 13 per cent of the team's crosses so far this season have been successful.

No team in the Premier League have been more profligate in their delivery, and yet they keep trying. Only Southampton and Crystal Palace cross more often than City.

"If you're a full-back, when you get into a wide area, you're looking to see your striker and maybe one of your midfield players in the box," says Andy Hinchcliffe, a former full-back who played for City, Everton and England.

"But, what if that striker is Sergio Aguero and the midfielder is David Silva, and they're surrounded? You know crossing will not be effective. So you check back in, play a pass, conserve possession."

There is no question, in the minds of those who know the subject, that the profile of centre forwards has changed in recent years.

As Hinchcliffe notes, there are few of the old bulldozers left, replaced by craftier, more gifted - but substantially smaller - strikers.

It is an assessment supported by Les Ferdinand, as fine a header of the ball as English football has seen in the past 30 years and now director of football at Queens Park Rangers.

"Every forward that comes to me now is a No. 10," he said. "That is how they see themselves. They are not No. 9s who want to head the ball. Most teams play with one up front and three rotating behind them; the forwards are not trying to win headers and the players behind them are not looking to cross the ball."

Instead of seeking to reach the byline or attempting to whip a ball in from deep, players are now largely instructed to cut back inside to an area known as Zone 14, named by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University.

"It's the part of the pitch around 25 or 30 yards out from goal," said James Scowcroft, the former Ipswich Town forward, now coaching at the club's academy.

"A lot of studies show that is where most goals come from, where through-balls are most likely to be successful. Players are encouraged to get into those positions and wait for an opportunity. That is seen as much more effective than crossing."

Statistics do show that games with more crosses from open play tend to have fewer goals; one study suggested only one out of every 91 crosses leads to a goal.

Teams have interpreted that to mean it is not a reliable method of scoring; they play with only one striker in systems that seem designed to prove how ineffective crossing has become.

Far better, they feel, to keep the ball, to wait for the perfect opportunity to score, to consign that classic style to history.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline 'Has crossing lost its effectiveness?'. Print Edition | Subscribe