Over six years ago, in February 2014, Manchester United broke the Premier League record for 81 crosses in a game. Only 14 of them connected with a red shirt and Fulham center back Dan Burn announced that he “hadn’t headed as many balls since the conference”. Ever since that game, crossing seems to have been doomed in terms of being an effective attacking tool in the modern game. The world of analysis has also had a major say, showing the ineffectiveness of it through the lens of chances and goals created. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of crossing and still up. I grew up watching Manchester United with Beckham feeding Cole and Yorke, and so many youth training sessions were dominated by crossing and finishing activities, so I’m very much biased here. But, although I completely agree with the numbers, I want to challenge the statement that crossing is completely redundant and use the NC Courage as an example.
I will start by saying yes, I completely agree that crossing in traditional methods today is largely ineffective. But first, I think it’s important to explain what ineffective crossing looks like. An example is in the picture below from that infamous game which, from an attacking standpoint, is set up like many teams today with one forward and two wide attackers. When defending crosses from wide areas using this system, it’s pretty easy and simple to defend against: One full-back applies pressure to the ball, one defender marks the forward, weak side full-back takes the opposition and the other spare center back either doubles up to help, or tracks the incoming runner from midfield. Not a lot of decisions for defenders to be made here. Try this 81 times and you will probably struggle to score at most levels.
Now compare this with the NC Courage and you see a few differences. On Saturday we saw midfielder Debinha involved in two goals from crosses, finishing one from close range. Similarly, in the closing minutes, when Haley Mace was released on the right hand side, center back Becky Sauerbrunn stepped across to cover and Debina's movement in the box created space for Jess MacDonald to find the winner. You can see below that there were two goals from crosses, two different types of service. So what makes that so much more effective?
Firstly, I think it's important to look at how NC set up tactically and the pictures that potentially creates. With a 4-4-2 box midfield, the two center forwards naturally match up against the opposing central defenders. With the willingness of all Carolina forwards to run into the wide channels, they can drag out an opposing center back. This is very effective in transition when the opposition have used the full-back in the attack and is disconnected from the back four, or if the full-back steps forward centrally to occupy an attacking midfielder .The speed of Williams, MacDonald, Hamilton, and (most recently) Mace, is matched with a real willingness to go into these areas. When one center back is pulled out, the other center back partner must mark the other center forward, watch for runners, and organize the box… which is a big ask at the speed at which the Courage attack. This gives attacking midfielders like Debinha space to run into and score. Unfortunately I got a first hand view of this myself on the bench in Chicago in 2018 when we played them and you can see this in the example below. You can see that Casey Short pushes forward to close down Crystal Dunn, and Jess MacDonald then uses the space that she has vacated. The other center forward has occupied the opposite full back, and Debinha exploits the space at the back post to score.
What makes this so difficult to defend against, is that if you are considering keeping your center backs at home, the Courage and Debinha are good enough to combat this also. With the central space covered by the center backs, Debinha then looks to target the space around the full-back on the weak side. Depending on space available and the type of cross, she can attack on the inside or outside shoulder. Again, I had the misfortune of watching this one up close in the NWSL Championship Game in October last year. You can see in the clip below that we (Chicago), do a good job of regaining the shape of our back four in transition, but Debina’s positioning is key. She plays on the outside shoulder of the full-back until the cross comes and and then positions herself between the full-back and center-back to finish from close range.
Here are a couple of other clips that Debina taking up similar positions in the box, resulting in goals or opportunities for NC Courage.
Above all, what makes this movement so effective for me is it forces the defenders to not only physically recover into positions quickly (which is not easy against the tempo that the Courage play with) and it also challenges them to make decisions. With fatigue and teams playing in their first competitive games in almost 9 months and without pre-season friendlies, there will be lapses in focus and communication inside the 90 minutes. The margins are so slim at the highest level and the difference between Debinha being inside or outside the view of a center back can be one or two yards. That, however, is all she needs. It will be interesting to see moving forward how teams deal with it.
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