Depending on who you talk to the Portland Timbers’ 48 crosses on Saturday evening in Vancouver are either proof positive of Portland’s domination of the Whitecaps or an indiction of plenty of possession without any real ideas in the attack.
Both perspectives, however, paint with too broad a brush. Perhaps as much as any stat, the open-play crosses statistic lacks the nuance to, in isolation, provide meaningful insight into the game. The reason comes down to one simple, self-evident truth: Not all crosses are created equal.
Nonetheless, let’s start with a look at the chart of open-play crosses against Vancouver. The first thing to notice is, well, that’s a lot of red. Of their gaggle of crosses, the Timbers completed four of them - although, as we’ll see in a moment, even that number is a little bit deceptive.
The other thing to note is the crosses were coming from a variety of spots on the field - from the byline and from deeper positions; from near the touchline, and from the edge of the box.
The paradox of the cross is that while it can be an effective way to ripen a goalscoring chance, it’s also a great way to end an attack. Although rebounds and recoveries off of clearances certainly happen, more often than not a cross will bring about the end of a buildup for better or for worse.
The importance of being selective with crosses, then, is clear; an ill-advised cross can kill an otherwise promising attack. What, then, are the characteristics of a good cross?
First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the quality of the ball sent in or the finish applied to it. Although those are certainly of manifest importance, they don’t really lend themselves to tactical breakdowns. Rather, we’re looking into the situation in which the cross is sent in. Put another way, the question we're looking into here is whether it’s a good idea to cross in a particular situation or if the player should be be a bit more patient and pull the ball down.
Positioning, as we discussed a moment ago, is certainly one of the factors to consider in assessing the quality of a crossing situation, but it’s not the only one. In addition to the position on the field from which the cross originates, the phase of the attack in which the cross is hit, the presence and marking of box targets, and the other options available also affect the quality of the decision to send a ball into the box.
Let’s take a look at a few crossing situations from the Timbers’ loss to Vancouver.
Here, Rodney Wallace is sending a ball into the box from a deep position on the left wing. As crosses go, this is not a dangerous one. As noted, it’s from a deep position, which means the lengthy flight of the ball will give defenders plenty of time to pick up its path and, at very least, contest any header a Timbers player could apply. Second, it comes very late in the attack, which Is to say the Vancouver defense is well set both in its own box and in its shape farther upfield. It’s lightyears easier for a defense to respond to a cross like this when it’s set as opposed to in transition. Third, and related to the second point, although the Timbers have three targets in the box, they’re pretty well blanketed by the ‘Caps defenders.
So this first example is not a productive cross. Pretty much regardless of the venom Wallace puts on this cross (and, as it turned out, he didn’t get that much on it), the cross is very unlikely to cause a problem for Vancouver’s defense. But before we jump up and down on Wallace, let’s look at the other options. Simply put, there weren’t many. There really isn’t a productive pass Wallace has available at the moment, with the best option probably being to play a bit of a reset ball back to George Fochive for the Timbers to work the ball around in search of another opportunity. So, while Wallace’s choice to cross here isn’t ideal, it can’t be said he squandered much of an opportunity.
Now let’s look at Jorge Villafana’s 45th-minute ball in toward Maximiliano Urruti. Although this comes from a similar position as Wallace’s cross, it’s in a little bit more dangerous situation for two reasons. First, it’s a little bit earlier in the attack, which is clear on video, but suggested in this freeze-frame by the fact that everybody in defense is in motion here, and, specifically, Vancouver’s midfield is retreating. It's not that early, however, as indicated by the fact that the Whitecaps Backline is pretty well entrenched. Second, Urruti has worked himself into a nice spot between the centerbacks. Although the gap isn’t enormous, it’s big enough that if Villafana sends a perfect ball into the box, Urruti may be able to float away from the defenders enough to get a good head to it. But, with a cross from that distance and Urruti’s modest pocket of space, the ball would have to be perfect.
But there’s a reason why Villafana’s decision to whip a ball in here is arguably more scorn-worthy than Wallace’s above, and that’s the run Darlington Nagbe is (sort of half-heartedly) making. Whitecaps right back Steve Beitashour has come out to try to deny Villafana’s service. This is significant because it leaves a sizeable piece of space in behind Beitashour for Nagbe to run into. If Nagbe were to receive the ball there, all he’d have to do is beat Matias Laba one-on-one in space (a daunting task for every player in MLS not named Darlington Nagbe) to get turned toward goal. And if Nagbe gets turned toward goal on the byline, the Timbers are in business; Urruti can crash the goalmouth and Wallace can make a run to the penalty spot. So, although Villafana’s cross wasn’t of the most garden variety, the better option here was probably to spring Nagbe into the space vacated by Beitashour. For economics nerds, this is a great example of how opportunity cost can come into play to make an otherwise decent cross look like a poor decision.
In the first half, however, there were a lot of crosses like Villafana’s and Wallace’s. Although there were a few of the more dangerous variety, too often the Timbers were settling for whipped in balls that were at best speculative at times to the detriment of better opportunities.
The second half was a different story, however, as after halftime the Timbers did a much better job of working themselves into dangerous crossing situations when attacking from wide areas.
First, take a moment to watch this video of what it looks like when turning down a crossing opportunity (even a decent early-crossing opportunity), yields a much, much better chance. Most important, note that the whole sequence was unlocked by Villafana lining up the cross and pulling Beitashour out to the touchline before working the ball through Wallace back to Chara, who was occupying the space Beitashour vacated. So sometimes the best cross a team can hit is to not hit one at all, as the threat of the cross helps unlock the defense.
Okay, back to the freeze-frames.
Here we have a classic early ball - a cross hit in transition and before the defense is set. The benefit of an early ball is plain to see; by hitting the cross in transition and before opposing defenders have staked out their box territory Villafana hits the ball when his target (here Fanendo Adi) has space to run into and the defense has to track both the runner and the ball at the same time. That’s harder than standstill defense. Here, for my money, is the best early ball we’ve ever seen from a Timber. Though this one is nothing to shake a stick at, either.
Now let’s look at a wide box entry. Notably, here it’s not at all certain Nagbe is going to hit a cross, so soccer-lexicon purists are probably scoffing a little bit at the fact that I've included this in a piece about crossing. But it’s an attacking sequence from a wide area, so it’s relevant to our discussion. A wide box entry like this is very dangerous, as Nagbe has beaten the fullback, forced Pa Modo Kah to commit to stopping Nagbe’s run, and basically has created a three-on-two in front of goal. The most viable pass here is to spring Urruti on the byline, although a perfect cross may be able to sneak past the Whitecaps’ central defense and get to Adi. But the other thing to note here is how big the cutback area at the top of the box. This is a perfect time for a late runner from central midfield to step into that space and have a crack from the top of the area. Sadly, however, that’s a Will Johnson run. But, the point here is that the world is Nagbe’s oyster in this situation, as (especially if he had a late runner) he has a lot of options and they’re all pretty good.
This is what happens when a player is looking to send a cross from the byline. Byline crosses are dangerous for one primary reason - because the ball is near the byline, the offside rule is out of the play and defenders have to track their runners to the byline. Again, Urruti and Adi are crashing to the goal, as is Wallace albeit in a somewhat delayed fashion. Waston has Urruti pretty well marked, but Kah isn’t tight on Adi. There’s a chance there. Finally, although it doesn’t really look like it because there is a little traffic, but there’s a nice cutback lane if Alvas Powell wants to play Nagbe to the penalty spot. This is a product of the ‘Caps’ backline having to stretch to the byline - it opens space in the middle of the box for a late runner. As I alluded to a moment ago, you'll regularly see goals come from a cutback ball like the one Powell can play in this instance.
Finally, let’s look at a cross that is dangerous solely on account of the position from which it comes. A lot of our indicators of danger aren’t present here. It’s an early ball in transition, but the Timbers only have two runners in the box and both look well marked. But this is, nonetheless, a very dangerous cross. Why? Because it comes from so close in that it’s going to be difficult for Vancouver to respond to almost anything Wallace sends toward goal. If Wallace puts the ball at about the top of the six-yard box, it’s going to be hard for any Whitecaps defender to clear it cleanly in traffic. This situation is begging for a loose ball in the box after a Whitecaps defender gets a soft foot to Wallace’s cross.
And, in this instance, all of that is exactly what happens (although it’s worth noting Asprilla got himself into a pretty good position to finish the primary ball as a result of a little bit of lackadaisical marking by Sam Adekugbe). And a loose ball in the box like that is a disaster for a defense because it often results in something like this.
One final note on this play. Remember that red-splashed crosses chart from the beginning of the piece? Statistically Wallace's cross here was "unsuccessful," even if that is only true in only the most technical sense of the word. So, as this cross from Wallace demonstrates, even the distinction between "successful" and "unsuccessful" crosses on the stat sheet can be misleading.
But the bottom-line takeaway here is this: Not all crosses (and crossing situations) are created equal. Some, like those we saw a lot of in the first half, aren’t terribly dangerous - lending credence to the notion that the Timbers’ 48 crosses on Saturday were an indication of an attack without ideas. But others, like those we saw repeatedly in the second half against Vancouver, are very dangerous - suggesting the Timbers’ 48 crosses are not an indication of a lack of attacking potency, but rather a sign that the Timbers dominated Vancouver in wide areas in the attack and caused major problems for the Whitecaps in crossing situations.
So, although the Timbers’ 48 crosses on Saturday were certainly an eye-popping statistic, whether it’s a good or bad sign for the Timbers depends on the answer to another question: What kind of crosses were they?
Simply put, whether a team is effectively attacking from wide areas is a qualitative assessment that doesn't always lend itself to a purely quantitative analysis.
Okay, that wasn't "simply put," per se, but you get the point.