Ice cream sales and murders. When one rises, so does the other. The positive correlation between the two has been used as an example of how correlation translation to causation isn’t exact.
It’s a moment that United fans will be able to know where they were when it happened. An early February Sunday night in 2014. Manchester United’s miserable season under David Moyes had its nadir moment. A 2-2 draw vs a Fulham that were rooted to the bottom of the table, managed by the former tactical mind of Alex Ferguson’s last years in the Old Trafford dugout, Rene Meulensteen. But it was one statistic that really captured the sullen mood of the whole game. 82 crosses. A Premier League record. Opined that this was symptomatic of the archaic football the ex-Everton man had employed, the words of Meulensteen and Dan Burn after the fact that were hurtful admonishments of the incessant, and largely ineffective, crossing. So you might be forgiven for crossing to have negative connotations attached for Manchester United fans.
It was a notion that was pretty much echoed across the board. Crossing, on the whole, as a primary tactic has been on a downward spiral. Manchester City’s 914 crosses during the 2019/20 would have seen them 8th(!!) in the league for crosses in the 2009/10 season, just two crosses ahead of Spurs. What is even more remarkable, the only team to finish in a top eight position, in 2010, and not be in the top eight crossers was Man City, placing in 13th place. Contrast that with last season, only four of the top eight placed in the top eight crossing teams. Yet, if you were to take the consensus, many would have you believe that the ability to put the ball into the danger has become more of a hallmark of a top team in recent years. Real Madrid back-to-back-to-back feat in the Champions League was characterised by their proficiency of postage stamp crossing, helped all the more by having the insane aerial ability of Cristiano Ronaldo. Liverpool’s full back duo of Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold says enough. Bayern Munich’s use of those in wide positions, Alphonso Davies, Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry, Ivan Perisic, Kingsley Coman and now Leroy Sane, speaks more to this testament. So do the Red Devils need to get with the times more?
But it would be more of a reversion. The high octane football that earmarked the reign of Fergie, much of it came from the fact that were incredibly good at getting the ball into the box, especially from crossing situations.
Prior to the game before the international break, the win over Everton at Goodison Park, United had not had a shot within the 6 yard box. Fashioning good looks in this area are so essential because the likelihood of it ending in a goal is incredibly high. It is what Guardiola’s Man City were fantastic at in their pomp, constantly squaring the ball across the box for tap ins. Even Pellegrini’s Man City were brilliant at it. Crosses or cut backs from the byline are great weapons in breaking down teams. This is what Ferguson’s United was brilliant at. The two below graphs, in this StatsBomb two parter, from Ferguson’s last season at the helm of Man Utd show our crossing positions being much closer to the byline and the goal and also the sheer amount of chances we were fashioning within the widths of the post
Man Utd by this point were not the most complicated team with regards to tactics. Getting the ball into the danger men feet was the primary objective and obviously teams set up in a way to deny this so it was important find a way around this. Much work was done on this. Meulensteen’s Three Ball Routine as much as it was for defenders, it was for the attackers and being alive to balls into the box from wider areas, even if one has already come in. United’s combination play with the wide players was imperative. Patrice Evra and Ronaldo down the left hand side were a terror to the opposition, the former more so with his crossing. Gary Neville and David Beckham had a similar partnership down the right in the years before that. Ryan Giggs crossing ability need not be forgotten either.
It was a combination of the team having a clear philosophy, with players technically able to fulfil the requirements. Being able to switch the variety of cross was even more important. Evra’s cross for Robin van Persie vs Liverpool in the 2-1 win of 2012/13 was different in style to Antonio Valencia’s cross to Wayne Rooney at the San Siro in 2009/10. Wes Brown’s measured cross to Ronaldo at the back post in Moscow contrasted Giggs’ cut back to Rooney at Stamford Bridge in 2010/11. It’s not just about being able to threaten with one cross but rather, with many.
So what exactly is the issue? Well, as usual, it is a combination of lacking tactical nous and proper personnel. It has been something Solskjaer has lamented for a long while, going back to April 2019. But before you even get to whipping it in, you have to fashion opportunities to do so and United are desperately poor at doing so.
Taking the most contemporary example of Liverpool, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold often whip the ball in first time from layoffs and its efficacy comes from the fact defences are taught to push up as the ball goes back. Catching them in the middle of this process gives that extra edge for the attackers to run into space and onto the ball to get a good shot off. Then you have the cutbacks and drilled crosses. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov who were incredibly good at producing these during their pomp on the blue side of Manchester. But it is the work before the cross that really hinders this current United side. Circulating the ball well is what creates the opportunity to get full backs and/or wingers isolated against their opponent or even in overloads. Harkening back again to Meulensteen, he explained Ferguson’s philosophy of ‘attacking with purpose’ below:
“That was what we looked for – one-touch interplay in combination with runs. That created one v ones and two v ones with overlaps. The big thing for us in possession was rhythm. Top teams have the ability to create, maintain and change rhythm. When we played out from the back, our rhythm was slower, more deliberate. But when we got into congested areas in the final third, bam, it suddenly changed to fast one-touch”
United are no longer creating 1v1s, let alone 2v1s. The lack of width in the side is a primary issue. For many years, Man Utd have been a lopsided team, focusing invariably down their left hand side as the right hand side has often had a winger who comes inside far too early and often and a right back without the ability to contribute in the offensive phase. So far this season, 43% of attacks has come down the left. 29% has been down the right.
Right now, much of the attacking responsibility is in the hands of Aaron Wan Bissaka. Excelling in his defensive duels, his lack of doing so in our final third has increased the pressure on his shoulders. He has never been a full back who can put in a multitude of good crosses for the attackers to feed off. His best crosses have usually come while on the run and beating his adversary in a 1v1 situation but the problem with this is that he is not good at beating his man. With the increased burden on full backs to get attacking numbers on the board, his lack of ball playing ability is becoming an incredible hindrance. He contributes in the ball circulatory issue as well. So much so, he is now a big pressing trigger for other teams when they try to win the ball back.
The left hand side is barely any better. Luke Shaw’s technical prowess is considerably better but he has neither the intensity or intent that is needed to trouble teams. Overlapping, and doing so on a consistent basis, to create the space for his winger to get space to cross the ball in is imperative for a full back and Shaw continually fails to do so. His crossing ability has never been good. Ironically, his last two games saw him get assists with crosses into the box but he done so as a last resort. The bright side might come from Alex Telles, whose ability on the ball is without question. His physicality may come into question and if he will able to get up and down effectively to do both sides of his job but in an offensive sense, his addition could not have been more needed.
But it would remiss of me to criticise just the delivery. There are two parts to every pass, cross, long ball etc – the giver and recipient. In terms of being in the right spaces to receive the balls, United attackers have been lacking and it has been an issue for some time. You could argue the chicken and the egg in this regard – will the movement provoke the ball to be played or will the ball being played provoke the movement? Well, just like the egg and the chicken, the former must have come first. It can be tiring making those movements knowing that it is unlikely to come but on the event it does, it means a missed opportunity to get a good quality shot off.
It is reasons like this why despite the goalscoring forays of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood last season, many pundits in the media are incessant on Old Trafford lavishing a big bulk of their transfer budget on a premium number nine. The Frenchman has been challenged by his manager to get more of the poacher goals, something he began to do more and more as the season progressed but this season has been a bombsight in comparison, Martial not even registering a shot on target in the Premier League. Goals like the first vs Aston Villa, the third vs Newcastle, Liverpool at hime and third vs Sheffield Utd in 2019/20 need to become much more of a hallmark in the game of Rashford if he is being a good recipient of crosses into the area and Greenwood has yet to shown this ability really, often getting goals off the back of his sheer brilliance.
The summer signing of Edinson Cavani presents the ultimate litmus test for whether the movement or the pass is really the problem at United. The Uruguayan’s off the ball moves are perhaps the most revered in this generation – double movements, weaving in and out of the CB to create space, his famed near post runs from corners and set pieces, the back post stealth runs – he has it all in his repertoire. Being able to impart such wisdom on the three aforementioned attackers, formative in all their own ways. may help in the long run but if he were to get these goals in abundance while they still lagged, it would point to an issue in the forward areas.
Is there a sign?
When many saw the fact that United had not produced a shot in the six yard box, our ability, lack thereof, to get good, or any, crosses into the box was cited as major contributory factor. Statistically though, it is alike to the ice cream sales and murder – there’s a correlation (crosses into the penalty area completed and 6 yard shots attempted) but it isn’t the causation . The problems are much deeper. Crossing was and still is important to be a very good team but there is a reason why its use as a primary tactic decreased. It is actually one of the least efficient ways to get goals. Really, in my view, it is just part of an overall issue in our attack of being a poorly comprised team with terms of our positional play and intensity in our pass. Meulensteen spoke of being more deliberate in our passing within our third as we built play but as we progressed up the pitch, the speed of our passing increased with it. The further up the pitch, the higher the speed of passing. Our tepid and snail pace means we don’t disorganise teams enough to play through them and such is the slowness, we cannot even move it quickly enough to get favourable crossing positions. Of course, personnel issue will put a ceiling on it. We only need to look back at that infamous Fulham game to see what simply crossing more is going to do…