EPL crosses this year have ranged from dreadful to Beckhamesque
Every so often comes a soccer match in which something elementary is done so badly so repetitively that one is forced to abandon any attempt at enjoying it and dive headlong in to the stats. A couple of weeks ago, Arsenal arrived to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge; this season a top-six encounter, but traditionally a top-four contest. Between them they managed six decent crosses. Six! Another 42 soared over everybody's heads, cannoned off a defender's ankles, arced out for a goal kick or, sin of sins, hit the first man.
A number of clubs in the Premier League play a relatively narrow game, and fans of both Chelsea and Arsenal have bemoaned their lack of width when opponents manage successfully to stifle them through the middle. At St. James' Park last week, Chelsea's difficulties in getting around the sides of the Newcastle defense were evident, and when they did succeed, their deliveries seemed to be afflicted by the adrenaline rush of surprise. Amongst all of Manchester City's attacking talent, the rather less twinkle-toed James Milner stands out for his ability to run the line and swing a good ball into the box, as he did umpteen times (that's an official figure) against Liverpool recently, creating five goalscoring opportunities.
Now, stats need caveats: they are always partial, and compromised for it. There is no straightforward causal relationship between prolific crossing and winning matches, or even scoring lots of goals. Last season Liverpool topped the crossing charts, averaging more than 20 crosses per game, but was still outscored by half of the table; about one in six of the total goals scored in the Premier League last season were set up by crosses in open play. And good wingers are not necessarily measured on crosses alone: Tottenham Hotspur have two of the league's strongest, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, but Lennon will more often than not cut in and Bale's influence meanders increasingly as Spurs make do without strikers.
But having watched two sides chasing Champions League places deliver such miserable service from the flanks, my interest was sufficiently piqued to check out the numbers. Which teams are profiting from crosses this season? Which players are laying on opportunities from wide areas?
Immediately after the Chelsea-Arsenal match, Manchester United played Tottenham, Tom Cleverley setting up United's goal with a wonderful, pinpoint cross from the right that Robin van Persie had only to twitch his neck muscles to turn into Hugo Lloris' net.
We expect to see United use the width of the pitch -- when the team sheet is missing proper wingers, it can generally be taken as a sign of Sir Alex Ferguson's wariness of opponents overriding his instinctive team selection -- and the supply is abundant. United has scored at least 20 goals from crosses this season. While Antonio Valencia is United's most frequent crosser of the ball (107 so far this season, says Opta), the full back Rafael da Silva is relatively prolific and accurate. Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Cleverley have all laid on recent goals for van Persie and Javier Hernandez (and the unfortunate West Bromwich Albion defender Gareth McAuley) with balls delivered from the flanks.
West Brom, too, has prospered from wide areas. Romelu Lukaku's recent goals against Reading, Fulham and Norwich took the tally delivered from crosses this season to 14. The full backs Billy Jones and Goran Popov created the latter two, while the midfielder James Morrison might have had a hat-trick of assists from the left against Reading, Lukaku turning two crosses on to the woodwork after scoring from the first in the 19th minute. Like United and van Persie, Albion can make the most of players getting down the channels because in Lukaku they have a forward who recognizes spaces in the box and knows how to beat defenders to them.
Some wide players have been less fortunate this season. In Adam Johnson and James McClean, Martin O'Neill has two of the Premier League's most frequent crossers of the ball, Johnson's 93 coming predominantly from the right and McClean's 91 almost exclusively from the left. In Sebastian Larsson, the Sunderland manager also has one of the most accurate. Chuck Stephane Sessegnon and acting full backs Danny Rose and Craig Gardner in to the mix, and Sunderland should have plenty of white paint for the boot man to chip off each Sunday evening.
At West Ham United, meanwhile, Matt Jarvis has yet to chalk up an assist this season despite pinging in a cross every 11 minutes, on average -- by new year's eve he had created 50 chances for teammates without a single one being converted. His record is not far different from that of Leighton Baines, whose contribution to Everton's season (84 chances created so far this season) in tandem with Stephen Pienaar has been so admired. Only Jean Beausejour, who has set up five of Wigan's goals this season, can separate Jarvis from Baines for successful crossing. No wonder Jarvis has recently been talking about trying to get on the end of a few crosses. He must be about ready to start chasing his own.
The problem is that strikers are often left isolated -- though that ought to change for Sunderland in the back end of the season, assuming that O'Neill plays his new signing, Danny Graham, alongside Fletcher. The pair played 10 minutes together against Reading last week and though in that time Sunderland conceded a needless free kick and with it the points, Graham's debut cameo came close to bringing a goal when he connected with Johnson's center only for the Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici to save at close range.
"It's great to have someone to hit in the box," Johnson said afterwards. "[When] you have two men around you and one striker in the box with two men around him, it's difficult to do anything. When you've got more bodies in the box, you can often really get at teams." O'Neill has asked for more from his wingers but has also urged his team to get the ball to Johnson more quickly: "Then he can cause problems."
The philosophy works for Norwich City, where the central midfielders Bradley Johnson and Alex Tettey consistently look to shift the ball out to the wing as quickly as possible -- particularly on the right, where Robert Snodgrass has been in superb form since joining from Leeds United in the summer. One of his crosses set up an early chance for Wes Hoolahan last week, and the same player had profited a few days earlier, as Snodgrass tormented the Spurs full back Benoit Assou-Ekotto for the second time this season before finding Grant Holt to nod the ball on. Attempts to resist comparing him to David Beckham (at his peak) have become increasingly pained, especially as his dead ball deliveries have been so consistently good.
Against Fulham this weekend he could have his former Leeds teammate Luciano Becchio to aim at, after a deadline day deal. Snodgrass set up 14 of Leeds' goals last season, three of them for Becchio as he hit his stride in the second half of the campaign.