By Paul Gardner
When David Beckham was flying high with Manchester United 10 years ago, he presented his admirers with something of a problem. Even they could recognize that he was far from being the best player in the world, he wasn’t that fast, his heading and tackling were nothing to write home about and he couldn’t dribble worth a damn either.
How to describe him in the glowing terms that he surely warranted as a good-looking superstar? The press solved the problem by anointing Beckham “the best crosser of the ball in the world.” This was a category and a title that had never been heard of before, but it went over well in Britain. Which was logical, for the Brits have always had a sort of mystic relationship with the cross.
In the 1940s and 1950s that was the way you played the game, you had two fast and tricky wingers who would race toward the goal line, over would come a tempting cross and then ... just at the right moment! -- the burly center forward would come charging up, to meet the ball powerfully with a thunderbolt of a header that ripped past the goalkeeper for a breath-taking goal.
Sounds great -- and actually, I’m not exaggerating that much, things often did happen that way. The name typifying that sort of play was Tommy Lawton, who scored many a superb goal just like that. But Lawton has gone, he died in 1996, and the robust simplicity of the game he played has gone with him.
You don’t see many goals like that these days ... and yet, strange to relate, the British obsession with the cross is as strong as ever. This makes little sense to me, because I am convinced that most crosses are dealt with pretty easily by modern defenses.
A definition is required. I’m treating as a “cross” any aerial ball that is played from the flanks into the penalty area from within a distance of say 30 yards back from the goal line -- farther out than that, it is hardly a cross, more of a long forward ball. I’m also including corner kicks and free kicks -- provided they are played in the air.
The vast majority of the crosses it seems to me are speculative -- they are not aimed at a specific teammate, they are lofted into the penalty area in the hope that they will find a teammate. Nothing more complicated than that -- put the ball into “the mixer” and hope for the best.
So I have done some research into this matter, checking up on myself to see if I’m getting this right. Admittedly, rather primitive research, but it’s a start. I chose a couple of games from this past weekend, one from Spain (Barcelona vs. Racing Santander), one from England (Everton vs. Manchester United), and went through them looking for crosses.
The stats are admittedly slender -- observations on just two games -- but what they reveal is emphatic -- so much so, that they astounded even me -- and I was more or less ready for them.
|Game (Crosses)||Crosses causing danger||Crosses resulting in goals|
|Barcelona 4 Racing 0 (17)||3 (17.6%)||0|
|Everton 3 Man. United 1 (63)||6 ( 9.5%)||0|
The enormous difference between the use of crosses in the Spanish and English games is surely significant. If it be argued that the choice of Barcelona, with its intricate passing game, skews the results, I would argue that it is a fair comparison of one of Spain’s top teams against ManU, one of England’s.
There is also the stunning news that despite 80 (repeat, eighty) crosses, not one of them led to a goal being scored. Two of the goals (Dimitar Berbatov for ManU, Dan Gosling for Everton) did come from balls played into the area -- but these were ground balls, much closer to being accurate passes.
Everton and ManU used the cross 63 times, which works out pretty nearly at once per minute of actual playing time. Yet it has a zero success rate, and registers only a 1 in 10 rating on "causing danger." That makes it sound hopelessly dumb.
But, who knows, maybe the carpet bombing of aerial crosses merely makes the ground ball more effective when it comes as a sudden surprise. Could be, I suppose. Though I’m far from convinced.
No doubt I should take a look at more games -- some Italian, some German, some Argentine. And some MLS. But before I get into that, there is another factor involved in the above statistics which cries out for an explanation.
Obviously, Everton vs. ManU is one of the great traditional derbies of British soccer, and I’m treating it as a prime example of the British game, and why not? Well, here’s why not. The reasoning begins to crumble when you realize that the majority of the players involved in that game were not British.
Of the 22 starters, only 9 were British. Four of the five subs used -- for short periods -- were British, making it 13 out of 27 players who were British, still below 50 percent.
How is it that players from Argentina, Spain, Russia, Ecuador, South Korea, Bulgaria, France, the Netherlands and South Africa can so far subdue their natural playing style that they produce a “typically British” helter-skelter derby game bristling with crosses?
There is the fact that both coaches are British. Scottish, actually. But surely, they can’t have that much influence, can they?