If you’ve been paying attention to the Premier League this season, you’ve already seen a lot.
You’ve seen Erling Haaland ignite what is supposed to be the best league in the world. You’ve seen Mikel Arteta demonstrate the absurdity of the managerial merry-go-round. You’ve seen Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot. You’ve seen Thomas Tuchel sacked less than two years after winning the Champions League. You’ve seen Manchester United take their first steps, in over a decade, towards establishing any sort of identity.
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You’ve seen Leicester City almost explode. You’ve seen AFC Bournemouth lose a game 9-0 and then go on a six game unbeaten run. You have seen the end of the Bruno Lage era. You’ve seen a lot of people calling for the end of the Jesse Marsch era (despite a better-than-average expected goal differential). You have seen the end of the “Steven Gerrard will succeed Jurgen Klopp” fairy tale. You’ve even seen Nottingham Forest sign players in a small Caribbean country, beat Liverpool and finish bottom.
One of the few things you haven’t seen: Crossing. While the once-common practice of kicking the ball wide and into the box for an onrushing target man has been in decline for over a decade, the 2022-23 season may well be the end of the cross as we know it. .
The death of transit
In 2008-09, Manchester United and Chelsea met in the Champions League final. Liverpool were leading the league on goal difference and have yet to win it. And Arsenal, captained by 21-year-old Cesc Fabregas, passed the ball at pace and finished comfortably in fourth place.
This was the era of the big four. Tottenham played with Gareth Bale at full-back, finishing eighth out of 45 goals scored and 45 conceded. Manchester City, meanwhile, have slipped to 10th place, struggling to find stability during the first year following the Abu Dhabi takeover. In fact, only one of the teams in the bottom half of the league in 2008-09 is still in the league today: Newcastle United, who were relegated with Alan Shearer — yes, that Alan Shearer — managing from slope. He was also relegated, perhaps foreshadowing what just happened in the UEFA Nations League: Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough.
The list of managers elsewhere in the league evokes a pure and very specific 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 relive the memories of that yellow Nike ball breaking into the penalty area from wide positions, over and over and over.
Gab Marcotti and Don Hutchison discuss Liverpool’s form after defeat by Nottingham Forest.
In the 2008-09 Premier League season, the first season for which Stats Perform provides, the average team crossed the ball in open play 17.5 times per match. If you sat down on a given Saturday or Sunday, you were likely to see around 35 crosses between the two teams in a 90-minute game. In fact, 21.9% of all final-third passes were crosses back then. To say that “every fifth pass in the final third was a cross” would be to underestimate how often they sent balls into the box.
Fast forward to this season and it’s almost unrecognizable: Premier League teams average 11.5 open-play crosses per game and 14.7% of last-third passes are crosses — both of which are lowest marks since 2008-09.
As you can see from this chart, it’s been a pretty steady decline since the heady days of 2008-09. Save for a brief replay during the pandemic interrupted season when the game was played He made changes substantially, the trend is clear:
The same is true when you look at the percentage of final third passes that are crosses. In fact, the decline looks even steeper until the pandemic hits. The number dropped to 14.8% for the 2018-19 season before rebounding in the previous three seasons and then hitting a new low this year:
In 2008-09, Bolton Wanderers led the league with 33% of last-third passes being crosses. This season, funnily enough, 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, with 19.9% of their last-third passes being crosses, would only be the 15th happiest team in the Premier League then.
Back in 2008-09, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were still England’s supposed cultured continent, prioritizing quick, short passing in what sometimes seemed the easiest and most direct route to goal. However, compared to many of today’s Premier League sides, it would seem like they are at a loss to turn every game into a rock game. 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 crosses the ball on just 10% of their final-third passes, while Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United are even shyer, with a league-low 9.5%.
Among players with at least 500 minutes played, no player from this season would have ranked in the top 10 for open crosses per 90 minutes in 2008-09. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold at 5.74 per 90 would have been ranked 11th, with only seven others ranked in the top 50. Three of them are Aston Villa players — Leon Bailey, Lucas Degin and Matty Kass — while Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Tottenham Hotspur’s Ivan Perisic, West Ham’s Vladimir Koufal and Wolverhampton’s Pedro Neto are the others.
Among players who have played at least half their team’s minutes, the leader in 2008-09 was Aston Villa’s James Milner with 6.65 crosses per 90. This season, Liverpool’s James Milner is attempting just 3.34.
It seems a long time ago, but in December 2020, Arteta seemed to be clinging to whatever he could to justify his continued employment as Arsenal manager. After the 2-1 defeat by Wolves, he went on the following rant:
“I think it’s the first time in the Premier League we’ve put in 33 crosses,” he said. “I’m telling you if we do that more consistently, we’re going to score more goals. If we put the bodies we’ve had at certain times in the box, it’s math, pure math, and it’s going to happen.”
Sarah Rudd disagreed. VP of Software and Analytics at Arsenal, when Arteta talked about the math and pure math, she pointed to the crossover as one of the few easily exploitable inefficiencies in the modern game when I spoke to her about my book, Net Gains: Inside the Beautiful Game’s Analytics Revolution.
“There are little things, like where [coaches are] teaching a full-back to come out and block the cross at all costs,” he said. If they want to go through there, fine.’
Why do you let a player pass a ball through there? Well, the same way you can let a basketball player make a shot from just inside the three point line. it is ineffective. A 2014 study found that for Premier League and Bundesliga teams the crossover was strong negative relation to goals; in other words, the more you crossed the ball, the less you scored. Other, more recent work has found that crosses, on average, lead to goals somewhere between 1% and 3% of the time. Even when you look at goals that came after crosses but not directly from them, the goal percentage doesn’t increase that much.
The average shot from outside the penalty area, meanwhile, was converted 5.1% of the time in the Premier League last season, and that doesn’t count rebounds or other goals that came after the shot but not directly from it. So, even if you replace the average cross with the average “bad shot”, you greatly increase your chances of scoring.
Arteta’s current — and Rudd’s former — side seem to have proven as much. In 2019-20, they averaged 14.2 open-play crosses per 90 minutes and 14.9% of their final-third passes were crosses. The following year, these numbers dropped to 11.2% and 12.5%. And this season, they drop to 9.7% and 10%. Meanwhile, points per game percentages have moved in the opposite direction: from 1.6 to 1.8 to 2.5.
Of course, not all crosses are bad. you’ve seen De Bruyne or Alexander-Arnold kick a soccer ball. It’s more that the game is moving away from misplaced, poor crosses from too wide a defense against set-up defences, focusing instead on cut-backs and low crosses from close to the byline, or early balls in behind a higher back line. As the game has become increasingly globalized and the styles of domestic leagues have fed into and influenced each other, most modern wingers now play on the ‘wrong’ side, meaning they have to cut inside and move away from traditional intersection areas.
In concert with this, teams are also relying less and less on the proper and/or traditional No. 9, a kind of stationary but dominant big man who camps inside the penalty area. So there are fewer players who can actually cross the ball and there are fewer players whose main skill is to find crosses on the wing.
But maybe that made the crossing better. It’s still early in the season, but 22.5% of open crosses this season have been completed — two full percentage points more than the previous high, set in 2008-09. If everyone relies less often on crosses in the final third, then perhaps the only players who are still allowed to cross the ball without their coach sitting them down are the ones who are better at it. Perhaps, with no obvious target to aim for, they only cross the ball when they see a clear passing lane and an open teammate. And maybe, one day, if the trend continues in the same direction towards fewer crosses, more complex attacking play and faster, smaller defenders to stop it, we’ll finally see someone pushing for a return to the 2009 ball for you all to exploit players who no longer know how to defend crosses.
“Football is a lot different than baseball [and other sports]given that you constantly have these regular innovations and revolutions driven by the coaching staff,” Rudd said. “So a lot of those truths change really, really quickly.”