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In World Cup, will U.S. soccer’s reliance on crosses be its downfall?


The World Cup has long been one of soccer’s great testing grounds. From the great Brazilian 4-2-4 to the Dutch Total Football and recently Spanish tiki-taka, trend-setting tacticians have used international competition to roll out their innovations. Even if no one is changing the game, there will still be a wide variety of tactics on offer in Brazil.

I have developed a few statistics that can more broadly evaluate tactics and tactical differences between soccer teams. Does this team let shots fly from anywhere the pitch, or do they pass up lower-expectation chances and work to get the ball into the danger zone in front of goal? Do they try to pierce the defense through the middle with through-balls or do they prefer to work the ball wide and ping crosses into the box? These statistics further have defensive corollaries.

The most telling tactical statistic is Cross:Through-Ball ratio. This compares the number of shots the team attempts that are assisted by crosses to the number of shots attempted assisted by through-balls. In the Premier League this season, Arsenal and Liverpool had the lowest Cross:TB ratios, while Hull City, Crystal Palace and West Ham United had the highest. More “progressive” attacking sides tend to eschew the cross, which produces lower-expectation shots, in favor of central attacks and through-balls.

This does not mean that all crosses are bad or that all though-balls are good, but fancy stats tend to suggest the superiority of the latter. Shots assisted by through-balls are converted to goals at rates 50 to 100 percent better than other shots from those areas, while shots assisted by crosses are converted at rates 33 to 50 percent less.

My data sources do not provide enough data on African and Asian sides to include them in the comparison. Further, Ecuador has been left off the graph because its Cross:TB ratio is undefined. I do not have a single Ecuadorian shot assisted by a through-ball in my database.

Toward the top of the graph, we can see the effects of Spain’s tiki-taka, as well as the more direct but still centrally focused attacking styles of South America’s best teams. And at the bottom we have the United States.

The U.S. team, in 32 matches for which I have sufficiently detailed data, has attempted only three shots assisted by a through-ball, compared to 105 shots assisted by crosses. Cross:TB ratio has two components: a team’s tendency to create shots with crosses and its tendency to create shots with through-balls. If we break them down, we can see that the US appears at the edges of both graphs.

With a rate of over 50 percent of danger zone shots assisted by crosses, the U.S. rates as one of the more cross-happy sides in the international game. America is not a radical outlier. England, Croatia and Ecuador show similar rates of crossing.  So this is not to say that the United States never attacks through the center. But compared with the other teams competing in Brazil, Juergen Klinsmann’s system places much less of a premium on building attacks through the center.

The key for America’s high Cross:TB ratio is showing up at the extremes in both graphs. Croatia and England, by contrast, also play a significant number of through-balls, signifying a mixed attacking strategy that can build attacks either down the flanks or into the teeth of the defense. Only Ecuador compares to the United States in its standing in both crossing and through-ball rates.

These numbers do not rigidly map to team quality. A mixed strategy like Croatia’s can be just as effective as a more ideological system like Spain’s. But in general, a determined focus on crossing is a weapon of the weak. The leading Cross:TB sides in European competition tend to be mid-table or lower competitors whose managers are looking to stretch inferior talent. These statistics suggest that is Klinsmann’s opinion of his team as well.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A.

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