Updated: Aug 30, 2020
Point zero one percent. .010% That was the success rate in the Champions League of crosses played into the box from wide areas, according to a 2010 study. That's an incredible statistic. A 0.010% chance of scoring a goal. Another study of the English Premier League, where "crossing it" is a huge part of the game, reached a stunningly similar conclusion. According to Jan Vercer, finance professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, for every cross into the box that results in a goal, the crossing team loses possession from their crosses 73 times! Keep in mind that Vercer's study was based on data from five consecutive EPL seasons. According to Vercer, if teams did not cross the ball into the box at all and simply restarted their attack, they would score an additional 0.57 goals per game.
"It sounds a little bit bizarre, but each cross is costly. Most of them result in a loss of possession, so the team has to fight to win back the ball, they lose time and consequently they lose scoring opportunities. It's a suboptimal play." - Professor Jan Vercer
When the cross results in a goal, however, the fans of the scoring side erupt in joy. A goal is a goal, after all, regardless of how it was scored or how much against the odds it may have been. A few weekends ago I took some time to watch Osasuna take on Barcelona FC. In the 7th minute of the game, Roberto Torres, playing at the far post, scored a brilliant one-touch volley goal from a cross originating from the other side of the pitch. It was MAGISTERIAL, as Ray Hudson likes to scream.
On closer inspection, Torres certainly improved the odds of scoring through his intelligent positioning. He maintained a wide position, lurking in the area, keeping defenders in front of him and always on side. If the ball were to come in over the heads of the defenders, he would be in the perfect spot. And indeed he was. The sequence below highlights his positioning on the left side of the field over an 8-second period as the right winger dribbled down the right side to launch the cross.
Notice how Torres is delaying his run and maintaining a wide position. Everything is in front of him.
Just as the ball is about to be crossed, we can see a defender trying to mark Osasuna's right winger closely. At the same time, Torres slows his run. Now begins the lurking.
Torres seems to backtrack slightly, and we can see him looking into an alley of space to see whether his teammate will be able to get the cross off.
Focusing on the dashed lines tracking Torres' movements, we can see how he curled and maintained his position before making his dash toward goal. His run is timed with the launch of the cross, which is arcing perfectly over all the defenders.
Torres then strikes the killing blow with a textbook volley into the top of the net.
This time it worked to perfection. A combination of a perfectly weighted and lofted cross, excellent positioning by Torres and poor positioning by the defenders leads to a goal. Still, it was against the odds. According to Professor Vercer, Osasuna stands a better chance of losing the ball 73 times from crosses than scoring another goal from a cross.
And let's face it, when it comes to youth soccer the overwhelming majority of coaches teach the same thing: dribble hard and fast to the corner and deliver "SERVICE!!", while everyone else gets into the box ready for a game of pinball. "CRASH THE BOX!!" We've all heard this from coaches and parents alike. Don't get me wrong, I'll gladly accept a goal scored from a wide cross any day. In fact, my team scored exactly that way a few weekends ago to win a match. (WATCH HERE) But when you are focused on Positional Play and have technically skilled players that can out-possess opponents, then you have the tools to swing the goal-scoring odds in your favor. The trick is teaching your team to to use "Play - Possession - Position" to create better chances of scoring from more central positions closer to the goal.
THE MAGNETIC WINGER
Positional Play is hard to implement well with youth teams; very hard. You need technically skilled players who understand the value of positioning, which is different than positions. They need to use space as the basis for their positioning and be able to recognize and create numerical advantages in key areas of the field. When these ingredients exist, you will have the right context for creating trust between your players. And trust is the essential ingredient for positional discipline.
Let me explain. A fundamental principle of Positional Play is the rational occupation of spaces. And since the focus of this post is the wingers - the #7 and #11 - lets accept that a winger should naturally exploit wide spaces. There are many ways to use wingers and wide spaces effectively. Rather than simply having them run to the corners and robotically cross the ball into the box, they can often be used to open up central spaces in front of goal for higher percentage shots.
One tactic I like to teach my players is the concept of the Magnetic Winger. It is a very simple idea that involves wingers maintaining very wide positioning in order to attract defenders and pull them out of position - like a magnet. When the team is in possession, the #7 and #11 stay in wide positions forcing the opposing outside backs - #2 and #3 - to make difficult decisions. Have a look at the image below. Red #8 has the ball. The White outside back #2 has a choice to make. Should they press Red #11 or focus on Red #8. If no other teammates come to help, whichever choice White #2 makes, space will be created for the Red team to exploit. The same thing is possible on the opposite side of the field. If the ball is played to the opposite side of the field and #7 stays wide, they will create difficult decisions for the White #3 and once again create spaces. The magnetic pull of the Red #7 and #11 will attract defenders and create open spaces between the defenders. When these spaces appear, the Red team will be able to pass and move the ball to find higher percentage shots on goal. The trick is to teach your players to be disciplined in maintaining their position.
Magnetic Wingers are also effective when the team does not have possession of the ball. This is a bit counterintuitive as most coaches would ask these players to move more centrally to join the press and help the team win back the ball. By asking the wingers to maintain wide positions, we are necessarily asking a lot defensively of the Red #6, 8,10 and 9. If those players are not strong defensively, asking the wingers to maintain wide positions may not be tactically appropriate. But if your central players can press and defend effectively, allowing the wingers to remain in wide positions can be the key to an extremely effective counterattack if the ball is won back quickly in the opponent's half.
See the diagram below. If the White team's # 6 has possession of the ball in the area shown, Red #6, 8,10 and 9 can effectively establish a 4v2 superiority and hopefully win back the ball quickly in a dangerous central area. In the meantime, the Red wingers maintain their wide positions. Assuming that happens and that either Red #8 or Red #10 have won back the ball, this is precisely the moment when that wide positioning is extremely helpful. In that moment when the White team is transitioning from attack to defense, there will be confusion. Because Red #7 and 11 maintained their wide positions, they will create difficult decisions for the White team. If Red #7 and #11are not marked when possession is won back, Red will be able to accelerate their counterattack by quickly playing the ball wide to the #7 or #11. The key is to play the ball wide quickly. The advantage is lost if the wide pass is slow or delayed. Once the wide pass is made, it will once again force the White centerbacks and fullbacks to decide whether to move out to mark or defend the central channels. Depending on the decisions made by the defenders, inside spaces may open between the White #4 and #5.
To use this positional tactic effectively, ensure that the #7 and #11 do not maintain those wide positions for more than a few seconds. If it is clear that the central players will not be able to win back the ball quickly in the opponent's half, then they should move into more central spaces to defend and help win back the ball. The idea is for the #7 and 11 to temporarily maintain their wide positions in order to facilitate a quick counterattack. If it looks like it won't happen, then they move centrally to defend.
Let's think about it another way. Intentional and intelligent positioning of players without the ball creates important tactical advantages. It can create superiorities as well as spaces. This is the essence of Positional Play.
Much of this comes from the mind of Pep Guardiola, as Thierry Henry explained in a famous TV interview:
"Stay in your position, trust your team-mate on the ball, and wait for the ball. Look at where I am [hugging the left touchline]. That position allowed [Andres] Iniesta to get the ball [in central midfield] because I’m occupying the right-back. “Freedom, [in the] last third, run, you’re allowed to. You start in a high position, and wide, but after that, you can do whatever you want. “Basically from training to the game, up until the last third, he [Guardiola] used to call it the ‘three Ps’ - play, possession and position. And the most important one was position. You have to stay in your position, trust your team-mates and allow the ball to come to you."
Watch the video for yourself. It's fascinating!
At Eagleclaw, we have taken these concepts and integrated them into our own Positional Play curriculum designed to teach youth players how to play an intelligent, positional style of possession soccer. We teach players the value of using wide positioning as a way of creating more attacking options closer to the goal, rather than always crossing the ball into the box from wide spaces. If we use our Magnetic Wingers to create dangerous spaces in front of goal, we can play our possession game and find ways to play the ball into gaps and behind defenders for higher percentage goals.
But honestly, Torres' goal was amazing and goals scored off crosses from wide areas will always be part of the game. We are just looking to improve the odds in our favor, rather than just always winging it.