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#FIFA World Cup

The use of wide areas: More goals from crosses

FIFA, 19 May 2023

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With mid-blocks becoming more common as the preferred out-of-possession phase in 2022, there was more space to exploit in wide areas, and some teams proved very effective at exploiting this space to create chances.

There were 45 goals scored from crosses at FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ compared with just 25 in 2018. In addition, an increase of 12% in attempts on goal from crosses was also registered (Figure 1).

Goal-scoring efficiency from crosses (the percentage of attempts on goal from crosses that resulted in a goal) increased from 12.6% in 2018 to 20% in 2022, meaning one in five attempts at goal from crosses in Qatar resulted in a goal. 

According to FIFA Chief of Global Football Development Arsène Wenger, this trend is a likely consequence of the fact that the mid-block was the preferred out-of-possession game phase utilised at the 2022 competition by defending teams.

"The centre was blocked as many teams defended in blocks, and crosses are more difficult to defend."  

England scored the most goals from crosses with six (compared to zero in 2018). The Netherlands scored five (having failed to qualify in 2018) and France were third-highest ranked with four (compared to one in 2018). Spain and Ghana both scored three goals each from crosses (Figure 2).

Cross locations

An analysis of the locations from which crosses resulting in goals were delivered shows an interesting trend. Compared to 2018, there was a significant increase in goals from crosses from the wide right and left channels in 2022. Eighteen goals were scored from crosses from wide right compared to just four in Russia, while 14 goals came from crosses from the left, compared to just six in 2018.

In contrast, there was little to no fluctuation in the number of goals scored from crosses originating from the right and left inside  the penalty area. 

Former World Cup winning centre-forward Jürgen Klinsmann observed that it was difficult for teams defending in blocks to release their full-backs to stop crosses. 

"In previous years, one of the most important jobs for a right or left-back was to block crosses", he said. "But now, with teams defending centrally and narrow in mid and low blocks, the full-backs are playing very close to their centre-backs to protect the inside space. This makes it difficult for them to get out to wide channels quickly enough to stop crosses or to get sufficient pressure on them to reduce the quality of the deliveries."

When teams are defending deep in low-blocks, they face a similar problem when it comes to getting sufficient pressure on the player in possession to stop or affect the quality of the cross from other areas. If the defender vacates their position in the block, this can leave space for the opposition to play into or through. However, staying in the block and not putting pressure on the player in possession makes it easier for them to deliver high-quality crosses into the penalty area.

Clip 1. Antoine Griezmann (FRA) delivers a high-quality cross from the wide left channel, from which Olivier Giroud scores with a one-touch finish.
Clip 2. Wout Weghorst (NED) scores with a one-touch finish, after Steven Berghuis has time and space to deliver an inch-perfect, early cross from the wide-right channel.
Clip 3. Cody Gakpo times his run perfectly and scores with one touch, after De Jong has time to execute a perfect early, lofted cross.

Klinsmann believes this will remain a conundrum for coaches in the future as they consider how they can release defenders early enough from the defensive blocks to allow them to defend with physicality and purpose in wide areas. For centre-forwards, on the other hand, this development presents great opportunities. 

"Centre-backs nowadays are more used to defending when the ball is in front of them and not when it is coming in from the sides. They can also be static as the ball is delivered, meaning good timing and movement from the attacking player combined with an ability to finish in one or two touches means high-quality crosses can be very difficult to defend and great opportunities to score," he added.

Types of crosses

In FIFA's Football Language, there are six types of crosses: inswinging, outswinging, driven, lofted, cut-back and push crosses.

The biggest changes in 2022 as compared to 2018 were observed in push crosses and driven crosses. A push cross is played when a ball is delivered from any crossing zone using the inside or outside of the foot. It is delivered with moderate pace, but with a degree of intention and accuracy. A driven cross is a ball played from any crossing zone and delivered with speed and power, whether on the ground or in the air. This type of cross tends to be delivered with a straight trajectory.

Push crosses increased by 38% from 210 in 2018 to 289 in 2022 while driven crosses decreased by 47% in Qatar, from 419 in 2018 to 222 in 2022. There was also an increase in the number of goals scored from push crosses rising from four in 2018 to 10 in 2022 while goals from lofted crosses increased by the same margin.

Analysing the number of goals scored from crosses also reveals there was a rise in the number of goals scored from cut-back crosses, with seven in 2022 compared to just two in 2018. A "cut-back" cross is a ball that is played diagonally backwards from close to the by-line, and is aimed at a team-mate inside the penalty area.

Clip 4. Jordan Henderson scores for England from a cut-back cross.
Clip 5. Julián Álvarez scores fro Argentina from Lionel Messi's cut-back cross.
Clip 6. England's Phil Foden delivers a push cross from which Saka scores.
Clip 7. After winning the ball back, England score when Phil Foden converts from Harry Kane's driven cross. 
Clip 8. Spain's Álvaro Morata scores from a push cross.
Clip 9. Kylian Mbappe scores for France from Dembele's inswing cross.
Clip 10. Ghana's Jordan Ayew delivers an inch-perfect inswing cross for Mohammed Kudus to score.

Time spent and efficiency in wide areas

Korea Republic spent the highest percentage (13.5%) of their in-possession time in wide areas. World Cup runners-up France, were ranked third with 12.4%. The average time per 90 minutes spent in possession in wide areas across the tournament was 4.1 minutes. Seven of the top ten teams with the highest percentage of their in-possession time spent in wide areas, progressed to the knockout stages. It is interesting to note that of the eight teams that progressed to the quarter-finals, England spent the least percentage of their in-possession time in wide areas, yet they scored the most amount of goals from crosses.

However, the most successful teams at the 2022 World Cup used less actions to progress possession and create crossing opportunities from wide areas.

This increased efficiency in wide areas gave opposition defenders less time to adjust and respond to the attacking threat. 

In addition, seven of the eight quarter-finalists performed better than the tournament average of 77 forward passes in wide areas per 90 minutes. 

Both finalists, Argentina and France completed a high percentage of their crosses and converted them into goal-scoring opportunities.  

CREATING CHANCES FROM CROSSES

The average cross completion percentage at Qatar 2022 was 28.9%, and the average percentage of successful crosses that led to direct attempts at goal was 59.7%. 

For the purpose of this analysis, a cross is deemed successful/completed if it reaches its intended target.

Both Argentina and France ranked above average for high cross completion/high conversion to attempts. They, and Brazil, were the only three of the eight quarter-finalists to register in this category. Canada, Ghana, Korea Republic and Belgium also rated above average for both metrics. 

England, who scored the most goals from crosses in the tournament (6), borderline registered in the Low Cross Completion/High Conversion to Attempts category, being minimally under the average for cross completion. 

Interestingly, the Netherlands, who scored the second most goals from crosses (5) are also marginally in this category, registering a fraction above the average for successful crosses leading directly to attempts, as are semi-finalists Morocco. Spain, USA, Cameroon, Denmark, Switzerland, Australia, Uruguay and Senegal were also categorised here.   

Germany, Poland, Portugal, Wales, Japan, Ecuador and Qatar are all in the High Cross Completion/Low Conversion to Attempts bracket, while Croatia, Mexico, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Tunisia and Costa Rica all registered in the Low Cross Completion/Low Conversion to Attempts category.  

Number of players in the penalty area for crosses

England, the team that scored most goals from crosses (6) in 2022, had the second-highest average number of players (3.84) in the penalty area when the ball arrived in there after being progressed from a wide area, and averaged 28 entries into the penalty area per 90 minutes.

The tournament average number of players in the penalty area 3.3, with Brazil registering the highest number of 3.88. Qatar and Poland registered the fewest while both finalists, Argentina and France were below the tournament average on this metric. Germany, Spain and Brazil registered the most entries into the penalty area via wide areas per 90 minutes.

In contrast, the Netherlands, who scored five goals from crosses, were among the teams that recorded the lowest average number of players in the penalty area when the ball reached it (3.2). France, who scored four goals from crosses, had a similar average of just over 3.2 players in the area when the ball entered after being in the wide area, demonstrating a high level of efficiency and an ability to reach their target players.

Clip 11. England had five players in the penalty area when Luke Shaw delivered the cross.
Clip 12. Korea Republic had four players in the penalty area when Cho scored from a lofted cross.

Summary

  • With the use of mid-blocks becoming ever more common as the preferred out-of-possession shape in 2022, there was more space to exploit in wide areas, and some teams proved very effective at exploiting this space to create chances.   
  • There were 45 goals scored from crosses at FIFA World Cup 2022 compared with just 25 in 2018. In addition, an increase of 12% in attempts on goal from crosses was also registered.
  • Goal-scoring efficiency from crosses increased from 12.6% in 2018 to 20% in 2022, meaning that one in five attempts at goal from crosses in Qatar resulted in a goal. Compared to 2018, there was a significant increase in goals from crosses from the wide right (+14) and wide left channels (+8). 
  • In 2022, push crosses increased by 38% (+79) while driven crosses decreased by 47% (-197) compared to four years previously. In addition, there was a rise in the number of goals scored from cut-back crosses, with seven in 2022 compared to just two in 2018. 
  • The most successful teams at the 2022 World Cup used less actions to progress possession and create crossing opportunities from wide areas.
  • The average number of players in the penalty area when the ball was in there following a cross was 3.3, while the average number of entries to the penalty area via wide areas per 90 mins was 26.5.  
  • Both finalists completed a high proportion of their crosses and converted them directly into attempts at goal, with both Argentina and France doing so with less number of players in the penalty area, further underlining efficiency.

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