Why crossing and heading is a dying art in the Premier League

Alistair Tweedale
The Telegraph
Trent Alexander-Arnold is part of a dying breed: a Premier League player that crosses the ball - Liverpool FC
Trent Alexander-Arnold is part of a dying breed: a Premier League player that crosses the ball - Liverpool FC

It is somehow still the case, 19 years into the 21st century, that not a single Premier League match will go by without a groan from the crowd when a player opts for a simple pass back to a team-mate in a deeper position rather than lump the ball into the box.

The idea that getting the ball near the goal as quickly as possible is the best way to play is hard to shift in the English mentality, at least where many fans are concerned. The players themselves, however, appear to be realising that the days of crosses and headers being the Premier League's bread and butter are long over.  

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A decade ago, almost 50 crosses were being attempted in the average Premier League game. That figure has dropped consistently each season since, and now sits at around 35 per game.

Remove set-pieces from the equation and it is the same story: 38.2 open play crosses were put into the box in 2008-09, with that figure plummeting to 24.2 in 2018-19. 

Football statisticians Opta define a cross to include most balls played from a wide area (from a few yards into the box right out to the touchline) that is aimed into the middle with the intention of creating a chance. Even allowing for the many, many low balls across the face of goal that Pep Guardiola's Manchester City attempt - so often successfully - crosses are increasingly uncommon in the top flight.

Some of the worst recent performances by the Premier League's bigger teams have been defined by a woefully ineffective focus on crossing. The day then-Manchester United manager David Moyes called "as bad as it gets" saw his side attempt a record 81 crosses in a home draw against bottom-of-the-league Fulham in February 2014, with visiting defender Dan Burn likening the tactics to "Conference football". 

Manchester City have attempted 35 crosses or more in four league games since the start of last season, and have lost every time. The use of wide forwards playing on their 'unnatural' flank with the aim of cutting inside towards goal is certainly playing its part.

Underdogs are increasingly trying to shuts teams out with deep, narrow defensive blocks, forcing opponents to move the ball out wide in the hope that they will resort to hopeful crossing from poor positions. That is the blueprint for upsetting the odds these days.

There simply are not as many top-level centre forwards who specialise in headers any more. Harry Kane last scored a Premier League header over a year ago. Olivier Giroud has lost his place in the team at Chelsea. No Arsenal centre-forward has scored a headed goal in the league since December 2017 (incidentally, that was Giroud), and Christian Benteke - previously one of the finest exponents of head goals - has simply stopped scoring entirely. 

After Peter Crouch's retirement, none of the Premier League's top 10 scorers of headed goals is still playing. The top scorers this season are Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Burnley's Chris Wood, with two apiece.

All that has resulted in headed goals becoming an endangered species, making up just 11.7 per cent of the goals that have been scored this season, which is by a distance the lowest rate in any season in the entire Premier League era. Clearly, it is harder than ever to convert from crosses.

This does not necessarily mean that crosses themselves are redundant - they just have to be better than they were before, carefully targeted passes rather than thumps 'into the mixer'.

Liverpool have two of the league's best crossers of the ball in their full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, while City's Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the best on the planet. When any of those players get into a position to cross, defenders have to worry about more than beating the striker to a header. Crosses can dip and bend so viciously that strikers can get in behind defenders to score. That is why Liverpool and City lead the league this season (alongside Everton) with four headed goals each. Hit-and-hope crosses are now almost impossible to score from, and more sophisticated crossing routines are now needed in open play as well as at dead balls.

It has all led to a change in the English football diet, and while that may have provoked some uncomfortable rumblings in certain quarters, the game should be richer for it.

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