The Art of Crossing is not dead… but it’s on life support
English football is back and man is it great! I’ve always held an affinity for the English leagues as growing up in Ireland that was the most accessible. Every Saturday afternoon at 3 pm the national broadcaster RTE would air a game and then, if you were lucky enough to have the BBC from England, Match of the Day on Saturday nights was a must-watch. As I was watching West Ham v Wolves on Saturday something struck me that I had known for a while but re-emerged stronger than ever. Crossing is a dead art.
I’m old enough to remember players like Kingsley Black, John Barnes, and later on David Beckham. All of whom were magnificent crossers of the ball. In fact, that and free kicks were probably Beckham’s greatest attributes. Give him half a yard and he’d float a lovely ball in, right onto the head of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham, or Van Nistelrooy to finish. But sadly the art of crossing is dying, if not already dead. And it’s not something new.
I remember watching Theo Walcott when he played for Southampton. As a 16-year-old kid it was obvious he had talent. His pace alone ripped Luton to shreds on the 11th of December 2005 much to my dismay and it was obvious to me at that point he would go on to much bigger things. A little over a month later he had signed for Arsenal after playing less than 30 games for the Saints in the second tier of English Football.
At the time Arsenal was constantly challenging for titles with Chelsea and Manchester United and the move came as a little bit of a surprise. A lot of it probably had to do with the media hype surrounding this English born youngster, but for pure development, I couldn’t help but wonder if a move to a mid-table side would have been better for Walcott. The opposite argument was he would now be training with the likes of Thierry Henry and how could that not make you better?
And it did. There’s no doubt about it. Theo Walcott now is far superior to 16-year-old Theo Walcott, even if things ultimately didn’t work out at Arsenal for him. But one aspect that never got better for the England international was his crossing. He had the pace to beat people but his final ball always seemed aimed into an area rather than to a specific person. It still hasn’t changed at Everton as he’s grown as a footballer. And although I’m singling out Walcott he’s not the only one.
I watched parts of the Wolves v West Ham game and was shocked at the lack of crosses into the box (everyone seems to want to play it in now) and when one was put it how weak it was. Even the Brighton v Arsenal game. Brighton equalized from a short corner played back to the taker who then pushed the ball into an area. The fact Arsenal can’t defend to save their lives meant it ended up in the back of the net but it wasn’t a great cross if you could even call it that.
The lack of great crossers could be down to a change in style for most clubs as wide players have become almost distinct in favor of marauding full-backs. Beckham got space a lot of times due to the overlapping runs of his full-back Gary Neville but with formations changed often the full-back is the one having to make space himself and cross. While it is a dying breed there are a few who are trying to revive it and one player, in particular, is Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne. Speaking about the City star in 2019, Neville, now a Sky Sports pundit, said:
“David Beckham and Steven Gerrard are two of the best crossers I have seen on the right side in the Premier League. He matches them in terms of the quality he delivers. He is intelligent and the timing of his movement is perfect. You are never in doubt that his cross is going to go exactly where he should do. [It] took me back to playing with the best crosser of the ball I played with – David Beckham. Teams ordinarily tucked in narrow and tight but that tactic never worked against Manchester United. You had to get out and close him down and make sure he couldn’t get the ball out of his feet. Even from deep positions, the crossing was out of this world. De Bruyne is repeating the level of quality and precision from that inside right channel that Beckham produced for United and that is not something I would see again in the Premier League for a long time.”
In 2013 I had the pleasure to speak to former Luton player and club Legend Ricky Hill. One topic we touched on that I will always remember was former Luton player David Moss and his ability to cross a ball and find a man rather than an area. “I see so many of these so-called Premiership stars, England Internationals, they never pick anyone out with a cross. They put balls in areas. Mossy used to put it on your head. Don’t move. Just put it in the net”. Since Beckham’s exit that art has become obsolete. Here’s hoping De Bruyne can lead the charge to change that.