I play an online game called Hattrick. It’s rather basic stuff, very reminiscent of the days of Football Director and Soccer Boss back on the Amstrad. It turns out I’ve been playing it for over a decade. The main reason I’ve stuck around so long has been due to the community within the game. Those of us who are crazy enough to take it seriously have made it a lot of fun over the years.
I mention this because of the team name of one of those players, someone who played for years. He had named his team “Push It Wide, Boys!”, inspired by someone who sat behind him in games and used to shout this consistently.
Scottish football fans seem to have a real fondness for wingers. We had a number of players who were very good in those positions back when football rewarded wide play. The small, tenacious, skillful player is always popular in this country even if he’s not that effective. As my Geordie girlfriend likes to point out, Glaswegian guys seem to be “short-arses” in the main, so maybe they’re somehow more relatable.
Whatever the reason, you can be sure you’ll hear that a team needs more width when they’re struggling to create chances. That doesn’t just come from fans either. It’s a commonly proposed solution, so it should raise a question – just how impactful is crossing as a goalscoring threat?
It turns out, not as much as you’d think.
Statistics surrounding Scottish football are pretty rare. If you’re not reading something by @thespflradar, The Rangers Report or Dougie Wright, there’s not a lot left. As such, I’ve had to use stats and articles related to English Premiership clubs. To come up with the conclusions, I’m doing a bit of extrapolating and analysis of said analysis. If you feel anything I’ve done there is flawed, I’ll be happy to hear any feedback.
First up, a look at the advanced statistics from the Premier League in the 2015/16 season. The articles give a better breakdown of how the stats are compiled, but I wanted to concentrate on the percentage of chances in the danger zone from crosses (the danger zone being the 6-yard box, or within that width up to the 18-yard box).
That season, five sides had 50% or more of their most clear-cut chances come from crosses. Those were Aston Villa (62%), Crystal Palace (59%), Newcastle, West Brom and Bournemouth (all 50%). Those sides finished 20th, 15th, 18th, 14th and 16th respectively. Whilst a number of sides were between 45-49%, the level of success was certainly varied. When over 50% of your best chances come from crosses, it’s fair to suggest that’s a real focus of your attacking tactics. The fact that the sides who produced that didn’t finish outside of the bottom seven is a bit of a pattern that can’t be ignored.
Defensively, it’s worth noting that Spurs, who had the best defensive record in the league, also “conceded” the highest percentage of chances in that zone from crosses of anyone in the league. There were a few clubs who had fewer attempts against them overall, but let in more goals. If crossing was as effective as suggested, that would seem to be quite a strange statistic.
Of course, the quality of player is a huge factor in all of this, but the evidence for “getting it wide” so far isn’t the strongest.
From that same season, stats from elsewhere suggest that West Brom were amongst the sides who played the highest number of crosses per game on average. They were the team who played the fewest amount of short passes per game. They were also the side with the second lowest goals tally in the league. Only rock-bottom Aston Villa scored fewer.
Of the percentage of chances created in the six-yard box, West Brom were higher than anyone. The fact that a lot of their game was based around crosses, set-pieces and long balls, yet they scored so few goals, can’t just be down to strikers being poor. The very effectiveness of the tactics has to be looked at in a bit more detail.
Now to a stat which I’ll bet most don’t believe. According to articles online, only 1 in every 92 crosses produces a goal in open play in the Premier League. That’s akin to throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks in terms of effectiveness.
So why bring this up? There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, the biggest criticism of Rangers full-backs is that their crossing is poor. This is despite both being amongst the best in the league for assists in their positions last season. Neither of them would have said they had a good season either. If only one in every 90 or so crosses can be expected to bring a goal in open play, are we judging the quality of their crosses too harshly?
Secondly, Caixinha is now using a couple of approaches which aren’t as reliant on width. As such, in those games where teams do well in stifling our attacks, you’ll hear the “get it wide” shout coming from everywhere. It’s not something backed up by decent evidence at all.
Lastly, there’s a lot of excitement around the potential signing of Jamie Walker. One look at the forums and Twitter will show you how much Rangers fans think we need more width. I would very much like to see Walker signed, but it’s worth noting what Hearts fans say about him. They’ll advise that he’s better as an attacking midfielder than a winger. He plays on the left a lot despite being right-footed because he can cut inside rather than be a player who attacks the byline. If he’s signed, he’s going to come with the expectation of being a direct, pacey winger who whips in crosses. The reality is likely to be very different, which is why he’s been an effective player at Hearts.
There are, of course, exceptions to all of this, but the notion that it’s as simple as getting the ball wider and stretching the game to open teams up isn’t clear cut. A variety of goals will be scored by most sides over the course of a season. What the above suggests, though, is that the notion we should focus on wide play to open teams up and score is a flawed approach. By having some knowledge of the statistics, you can judge the impact of a wide player a bit more reasonably. Even the best in the world at crosses don’t produce 20-odd assists a season from them.
Any thoughts or feedback? Let us know @rangersnewsuk – we’d love to hear from you!