In the third extract from the new UEFA EURO 2016 technical report, the expert panel look at how crosses have become increasing important sources of goals.
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The diversity of team shapes at UEFA EURO 2016 did little to obscure a common denominator.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets (Spain), Eric Dier (England), Milan Škriniar (Slovakia), William Carvalho (Portugal) and, more often than not, Oliver Norwood (Northern Ireland) supplied comparatively rare examples of single screening midfielders.
Other teams preferred to use two controlling midfielders to protect the back line and provide a blend of creative and defensive qualities to abort opposition attacks and launch their own. Screening midfielders were often quick to add their presence to a back line that in some matches totalled six.
"The preference for such a compact, deep defensive block, coupled with really fast transitions, made it difficult to find space to play in behind defences," England Under-21 manager and technical observer Gareth Southgate said. "So the choice of attacking players and attacking methods became one of the key decisions the coaches had to make."
Thomas Schaaf pointed out: "Centre-backs clearly focused on closing off routes through the middle, and opponents, even when they threw players forward, were often reluctant to penetrate through the centre because there was a greater risk element attached to loss of the ball in that area."
Mixu Paatelainen added: "We saw a lot of teams operating well-organised narrow defending and this underlined the need to find a way around the block, bearing in mind the difficulties of playing through it. I think that’s why we saw a greater number of crosses."
His assessment was endorsed by the statistics. With 24 teams, there were evidently more crosses in France than at the 16-nation finals in 2012. Averages, however, make for more reliable comparisons.
UEFA EURO 2012 yielded 811 crosses at 26.16 per match, versus 2,079 crosses at 40.76 per match in 2016. There can be no argument that an increase of 56% represents a significant trend in terms of teams' preference for channelling their attacking along the flanks.
This mirrors the trend in the UEFA Champions League, where the 2015/16 season featured a 24% increase in the number of goals from crosses and, including cutbacks, 35% of the open-play goals had their origin in deliveries from the wide areas. In France, a high percentage of the scoring chances clearly came from crosses.
Although the numerical totals of Croatia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Switzerland and, above all, Portugal are affected by the amount of extra time these teams played, the data provide an indication of the average number of crosses per match and the percentage of successful contact with a team-mate.
Inswinging crosses delivered with the 'wrong' foot emerged as a valuable asset in terms of delivering the ball into the twilight area between defenders and keeper. The value of this manoeuvre was highlighted by the Wes Hoolahan cross from the right that allowed Robbie Brady to head Ireland’s vital winner against Italy and spring one of the surprises of the tournament, sending his team into the knockout stage.
A similar left-footed delivery from the right set up Birkir Bjarnason at the far post to earn Iceland a precious draw against Portugal. And a right-footed delivery from the left by Andrés Iniesta was met by the head of Gerard Piqué to give Spain a belated breakthrough in the defending champions' opening match against the Czech Republic.
"What has changed from the past," says Southgate, "is the areas from which crosses are delivered and the type of crosses. There have been a number of inswinging crosses, which tallies with teams increasingly playing opposite-footed wingers, while cutbacks have also become more and more part of the game, as you don't see so many wingers running to the byline and crossing from those wider areas."
In individual terms, Italy wing-back Antonio Candreva set the benchmark by delivering 22 crosses from the right in two games before injury ruled him out of the tournament. Kevin De Bruyne delivered in excess of ten crosses per game, the Belgium forward posting one of the highest success rates of the tournament: 37% of his crosses were received by a team-mate.
Similar figures were posted by Croatia right-back Darijo Srna, the supplier of 43 crosses in four games, with a success rate of 35% – way ahead of his England and Spain counterparts. (Kyle Walker and Juanfran registered 14% and 12.5% respectively).
A low success rate was a salient feature of Germany's wing play. Toni Kroos emerged as the most prolific, with 42 crosses at a success rate of 21%, while Thomas Müller (12.5%) was midway between the two full-backs Joshua Kimmich (23%) and Jonas Hector (6%).
"Full-backs and wingers were obviously the main suppliers of crosses," Peter Rudbak remarked, "with an emphasis on wide players cutting in to open up spaces for the full-backs to run into. But the quantity of ncrosses is one thing and quality is another.
"So, as coaches, we need to pay attention to developing their ability to deliver good crosses at the end of their runs, as this is now fundamental to the team's attacking potential."
The above article appears in the official UEFA EURO 2016 technical report: DOWNLOAD NOW