Crossing the Soccer Ball.

What I am about to write will seem sacrilegious to soccer purists, but if you bear with me I think you will eventually understand the point being made.  The traditional crossing of the soccer ball is the most inefficient tactic for scoring the soccer ball in the game today. 

For years I have taught my teams to deny the opponents cross. The foundation of any good defensive scheme is to take away what the offense wants to do. In soccer finishing off crosses has long been a   staple of training around the globe. So, I have for years instructed my outside defenders to turn the ball inside toward their center backs thus denying the opponents the traditional cross.  This simply makes sense and I have noticed ever increasing numbers of teams adapting this strategy.

My own teams rarely practice crossing the ball in a traditional sense - driving the ball down the flank to the 18 extended and crossing into the space directly in front of the face of the goal. We do practice taking the ball to the end line and engaging the goalkeeper then slotting it back between the penalty mark and the top of the 18 - the bangoo.

I always try to stay ahead of developments in the game. My teams played zonal long before it became popular to do so. As I just stated, my teams rarely cross the ball in a traditional sense. We are different yet highly successful. Perhaps we are successful because we are different?

The traditional cross was viewed as a fundamental strategy when playing against a diamond man-marking stopper / sweeper system. It was intelligent play to shift the diamond towards one side of the field and play back against its grain to generate scoring opportunities. With zonal defenses being the staple of todays defending schemes that strategy is not nearly as effective unless a team over shifts its entire back line to ball side. If the backs remain in their channels it renders crossing the ball far less effective.

Changes to combat zonal defending schemes are driving todays game like never before. This is something I noticed 4-5 years ago and resulted in a different approach for our offense being developed. As I said, my teams have never been ones to spend much time in training on finishing off crosses. I have always considered this to be an inefficient means of generating quality scoring chances. We have always looked for different means to advance the ball into scoring position.

The head high school coach I worked as an assistant under was the first to utilize a zonal defense in our area. Our school was way ahead of the game in that regard and it was ultra effective. He was also a possession style coach for attacking the opponents goal.  Those teams were great defensively and struggled to score. A typical score would be a 1 - 0 victory and we were the dominant team in the area.  I remember countless discussions with that coaching staff on how to generate more goals.

Possession in those days and on those teams saw a primary focus on the number of passes a team could string together. Training games were built around this and those teams became pretty impressive in building up the number of consecutive passes they could make in playing keep-away. That was also the rub - playing keep-away doesn't do much for you if the intent is to score goals.

As a head coach in both the scholastic and club ranks I have stuck with zonal defending and a possession style attack, but it would be unrecognizable to those old teams. The foundation for our attacking philosophies are rooted in my love for basketball. I remember legendary coach Bob Knight instructing at one of his camps that you had to move the ball from side to side to open seams in a moving defense through which to attack.  Attacking zonal defenses in soccer works the same way. The beauty of this is it also works extremely well against man marking systems of defending.

So while traditional crossing of the soccer ball has been increasingly looked at as an outdated low percentage means of generating quality scoring opportunities the value of intelligent crossing of the ball has actually risen.

A 2010 study of the UEFA Champions League saw that while 16% of goals scored came from traditional crosses only 1 in 92 crosses resulted in a goal being scored. An efficiency rating of .01%. Yikes! Here's another interesting statistic from that study, possession was lost 73% of the time a traditional cross was made. In fact, the study suggests the cross is so inefficient teams would score .57 of a goal more per game if they abandoned the cross entirely. 

Comparisons between qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup and qualifying for this summers World Cup also bolster the idea traditional crossing is becoming less prevalent in the game. There were over 3 fewer crosses per match in this last round of qualifying than there had been in the previous.

Tiki-Taka or touch-touch is surely responsible for some of this as possessions became longer and by extension fewer over the course of a match. Yet, tiki-taka was exposed in this summers World Cup for being nearly as ineffective as the traditional crossing style has become. So, what's going on?

To begin with, tiki-taka is basically what those high school teams I referenced earlier played in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  Those teams won games with typical scores of 1-0 or 2-1. They possessed the ball. They made opponents chase the ball. That is tiki-taka soccer. The underlying premise being the opponent cannot score if you possess the ball. However, the priority in tiki-taka is not about possessing to attack.

Over the last half dozen years I have directed and urged my teams to find the path of least resistance to goal. We do not work on traditional crosses at all. We do still work on the bangoo cross. And we work on early crosses as if it were a religion.  I provide two simple templates or patterns for advancing the ball up the field with both relying heavily on having at least two complete changes of field. If we can change the point of attack with one huge cross, I love it. If it must be done by 2 or 3 shorter passes, I still like it. But then the ball must immediately begin it's journey back across the pitch as we enter the final third. This can be done by another cross or by a player carrying the ball across. The entire premise is to force a defense to move to one flank then catch them moving in recovery to the other flank.  Flat or square passes are near useless as they do not force a defense to change its vertical positioning on the pitch. The key is for diagonal crosses. This is heretical to traditionalists who have long viewed the flat or square cross from the 18 extended to be the option of choice in attacking the oppositions goal.

Today's crosses must be diagonal, early and repetitive to be effective in moving zonal defenses not only channel to channel but also vertically up and down the pitch. Moving zonal defenses vertically is the key to opening seams to attack through.  And you know what?  It works against man-marking systems as well!  I do not have a formal name like "tiki-taka" for what we do. I call it possessing to attack although possessing to score might be a better description.

Now that the game seems to be catching up with our defensive philosophy I am strongly considering inviting the opponents to cross the ball in a traditional sense. We have the results and the stats to prove we can win convincingly by possessing to score through intentionally manipulating a defense. From what I am seeing the game is moving in this direction on the world stage right on down to the club and now high school ranks.  This is the driving force behind the ever more popular 4-2-3-1 formation we are seeing - opening flank play for the purpose of early crosses with an emphasis on intentionally orchestrated versatility in the attacking third of the pitch.

Traditions are great but like everything else in life they must also change with the times The new traditional cross is the early and repeated cross before reaching the attacking third.  The 4-2-3-1 formation opens the space on the flanks for this to occur. Whereas early penetration followed by successful use of width was once the accepted formula for attacking, the modern game sees utilization of width to open seams through which to penetrate as the emerging norm for attacking play.

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