If you’ve been paying attention to the Premier League this season, you’ve already seen a lot.
You’ve seen Erling Haalan blow up what should be the best league in the world. You’ve seen Mikel Arteta prove the illogic of managerial entertainment. You saw Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot. You saw Thomas Tuchel sacked less than two years after winning the Champions League. You’ve seen Manchester United take their first steps towards creating a different identity in over 10 years.
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You saw Leicester City almost imploding. You saw AFC Bournemouth lose 9-0 and then go on a six-match unbeaten run. You’ve seen the end of the Bruno-Lage era. You’ve seen plenty of people clamoring for the end of the Jesse Marsh era (despite a better-than-average expected goal differential). You’ve seen the end of the “Steven Gerrard replaces Jurgen Klopp” saga. You’ve seen Nottingham Forest sign players from the entire population of the tiny Caribbean country, beat Liverpool and still finish bottom.
One thing you haven’t seen yet: Passing. While the once-common goal-kicker’s whip into the box has been on the wane for more than a decade, the 2022-23 season could indeed be the end of the crossing. .
“Manchester United” and “Chelsea” met in the Champions League final in 2008-2009. Liverpool lead the league on goal difference and are still unbeaten. And “Arsenal”, captained by 21-year-old Cesc Fabregas, passed the ball at a pace and comfortably placed in the fourth place.
It was the era of the Big Four. Tottenham Hotspur, with Gareth Bale playing as a full-back, scored 45 goals and conceded 45, finishing eighth. Manchester City, meanwhile, have struggled to find consistency in the first year since taking over Abu Dhabi, falling to 10th place. In fact, only one of the teams that finished in the bottom half of the league in 2008-09 is still in the league today: relegated Newcastle United with Alan Shearer – yes, that Alan Shearer – in charge. Also perhaps foreshadowing what happened in the UEFA Nations League: Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough.
The list of managers elsewhere in the league evokes a pure and special kind of nostalgia: Phil Brown, Tony Pulis, Martin O’Neill, Roy Hodgson, Gary Megson, Sam Allardyce, Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Tony Mowbray. You read all those names, close your eyes, and remember that yellow Nike ball being smashed into the penalty area over and over again.
Gab Marcotti and Don Hutchison discuss Liverpool’s form after the defeat to Nottingham Forest.
In the 2008-09 Premier League season, the first season reported by Stats Perform, the average team crossed the ball 17.5 times per match in open play. If you sit down on a Saturday or Sunday, you’re likely to see as many as 35 crosses between the two teams in a 90-minute game. In fact, 21.9% of all final third passes were crosses during that time. Saying “every fifth pass in the last-third game was a cross” underplays how often balls are sent into the box.
Fast forward to this season and it’s almost unrecognisable: Premier League teams are averaging 11.5 open crosses per match and 14.7% of their final third passes are crosses – both the lowest since 2008-09 indicator.
As you can see from this chart, it has been a fairly steady decline since the heady days of 2008-09. Save for a brief note while the game is being played during pandemic disruptions did Significantly changing, the trend is clearly visible:
The same goes when you look at the percentage of last-third passes that are crosses; in fact, the decline seems even steeper before the pandemic. For the 2018-19 season, that figure dropped to 14.8%, rebounding from the previous three seasons and reaching a new low this year:
In 2008-09 Bolton Wanderers led the league with 33% of final third passes being crosses. This season, ironically, the leaders are West Ham United, managed by David Moyes, the only manager from the 2008-09 season still in the league today. However, West Ham would only be the 15th luckiest team in the Premier League, with 19.9% of their final third passes crossing.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in 2008-09 were regarded as the continent’s most cultured Englishmen, sometimes favoring quick, short passes over what seemed to be an easy and direct route to goal. However, compared to many sides in today’s Premier League, they seem dead set on turning every match into a rock battle. In 2008-09, 16.6% of Arsenal’s final third passes were crosses – more than 11 teams so far this season. The current iteration of the Gunners only cross the ball on 10% of final third passes, while Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United are even more embarrassing, with a league-low 9.5%.
Among players who played at least 500 minutes in 2008-09, no player this season finished in the top 10 for crosses per 90 minutes in open play. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold would finish 11th with 5.74 points, with only seven others in the top 50. Three of them are Aston Villa players – Leon Bailey, Lucas Dean and Matty Cash – Manchester City player Kevin. De Bruyne, Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic, West Ham’s Vladimir Kufal and Wolverhampton’s Pedro Neto.
Aston Villa’s James Milner led the way for players who played at least half of his team’s minutes in 2008-09 with 6.65 crosses per 90. Liverpool’s James Milner is averaging just 3.34 attempts this season.
It seems like years ago now, but in December 2020, Arteta seemed to be doing everything he could to continue as Arsenal manager. After the 2-1 loss to Wolves, he played as follows:
“I think we scored 33 crosses for the first time in the Premier League,” he said. “I’m telling you, if we do it more consistently, we’re going to score more goals. If we put bodies in the box at certain moments, it’s math, pure math, and that’s what happens.”
Sarah Rudd disagreed. Arsenal’s vice-president of software and analytics, Arteta, talking about math and pure math when I spoke to him for my book, pointed to passing as one of the most easily exploited inefficiencies in the game today. Revolution.
– There are small things like where [coaches are] “He is teaching the defender to go out and block the cross,” he said. If they want to go through there, that’s fine.”
Why would you let a player cross the ball there? Similarly, you might allow a basketball player to shoot from inside the three-point line; it is ineffective. The 2014 study was strong for Premier League and Bundesliga teams negative relationship with goals; that is, the more you cross the ball, the less goals you score. They found that other, recent, work, cross, on average, leads to goals between 1% and 3% of the time. Even when you look at goals that come after crosses, but not directly from them, the goal percentage doesn’t go up that much.
And the average shot from outside the penalty area was converted 5.1% of the time in the Premier League last season, and that’s excluding shots or other goals that come after the shot, but not directly from it. So even if you’re replacing an average cross with an average “bad shot”, you’ll still significantly increase your scoring chances.
Arteta’s current club and Rudd’s former club seem to have proven as much. In 2019-20 they averaged 14.2 open play crosses per 90 minutes and 14.9% of final third passes were crosses. The following year, these numbers dropped to 11.2% and 12.5%. And this season, they decreased by 9.7% and 10%. Meanwhile, their points per game went in the opposite direction: from 1.6 to 1.8 to 2.5.
Of course, not every cross is bad; You’ve seen De Bruyne or Alexander-Arnold kick a soccer ball. This game is moving away from aimless, bad crosses and wide against set defenses, focusing instead on cuts close to the line and low crosses or early balls behind the high back line. As the game becomes increasingly globalized and domestic league styles feed and influence each other, many of today’s wingers are now playing on the “wrong” side, meaning they must cut across the field and avoid traditional passing areas.
With that said, teams camp inside the penalty area and rely less and less on the proper and/or traditional No. 9, a stationary but aerially dominant big man. So there are fewer players who actually cross the ball, and fewer players whose main skill is finishing crosses.
Perhaps this improved the crossing. It’s early in the season, but 22.5% of open-play crosses have been completed this season — a full two percentage points more than the previous high in 2008-09. If everyone is less confident about crosses in the final third, then perhaps the players who are still allowed to cross the ball without being benched by their manager are the best players. Perhaps without a clear goal in mind, they only cross the ball when they see an open lane and an open teammate. Maybe one day, if the trend continues in the same direction of less crossing, a more complex offensive game, and faster, smaller defenders to stop him, we’ll finally see someone pushing for a return to the 2009 team. Use all players who don’t know how to defend crosses.
“Football is really different from baseball [and other sports]”That’s because you’re constantly making tactical innovations and revolutions led by the coaching staff,” Rudd said. “So a lot of these realities change really quickly.”