Attack from the flank!
Burying the ball into the back of the net is what soccer is all about. Unfortunately, this is a lot easier said than done - which is why the better teams lose so often.
They will control most of the match, but fail to break through a packed-in defense. Then, in their eagerness to score, they will leave themselves vulnerable to a counterattack and blow the game.
Romania's elimination of Argentina in World Cup '94 was a classic example. With the score knotted at 1 in the 17th minute, Romania intercepted a pass at the top of its penalty box, made five quick passes down the right flank, then scored on a ground cross at the near post.
Forty-two minutes later Romania countered once more, this time from an Argentine corner. After receiving a cleared ball from just outside his penalty box, Dumitrescu raced the length of the field to the opposite penalty spot, where he laid the ball off to Hagi, who buried it high over a helpless keeper just inside the near post - two passes and 15.2 seconds after the comer at the opposite end.
With scoring so difficult, players and coaches have to accept the single, time-tested verities of the game, such as the potency of the wing cross.
This consistent goal-producer should be an integral part of every team attack. The wing cross produces goals for one simple reason: The flank areas are less well-defended, making them more [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] susceptible to scoring thrusts.
Goals are produced from first-touch shots off the crossed ball, from defensive mistakes that leave the ball on the floor in the box, and from poor defensive clearances that leave the ball farther out, but still in good secondary shooting zones.
TODAY'S FLANK GAME
The modern crossing game differs in one important respect from that of the past. Most teams no longer feature true wingers as they once did. The true wingers, who usually had little defensive responsibility, played wide and got behind the defense by beating the back defenders one-on-one.
By contrast, most modern teams play two attackers mostly inside. The Dutch are notable exceptions. All their teams continue to play with two wingers and a center forward.
Ajax of Amsterdam, one of the best club teams in the world, had two outstanding wingers last year in Marc Overmars and Finidi George, both throwbacks to the true-winger era.
Unlike the winger of yore, the modern flank player is unable to spend his energies exclusively on attack, though, of course, there are throwbacks.
Match analyses of hundreds of games confirm what Partridge and Franks said in a 1990 Soccer Journal article: "Set plays, crosses, and regained possessions in the opponents' defensive third of the field are the main sources of shots and goals scored."
Historically, wing play has contributed a high percentage of the scoring at the top levels of play. Consider the following: 29% of the 132 goals scored (38 goals) in World Cup '86 evolved directly from the cross.
Six of the Netherlands' 9 goals it its 5-game championship run in the '88 European championship involved a cross, a direct result of averaging 35 crosses a match.
Five of West Germany's 15 goals in its 7-game run through World Cup '90 came via the cross. West Germany averaged 21 crosses a match while allowing 12.
More recently, 6 of the 22 goals scored in US Cup '93 - Brazil (1), Germany (3), England (1), and the USA (1) - resulted from a cross, as did 9 of the 19 goals scored in the 8 second-round matches of Copa America '95.
And on a more local level, my U-18 Hurricane team, one of Florida's top club teams in 1995, scored 24 times from a flank service in 34 matches.
Traditionally, the cross is a national characteristic of teams like Germany, Ireland, and the English. For others, like Brazil and Columbia, the crossing attack holds less importance. They prefer a more creative play up the middle. And still others, like Romania and Bulgaria, prefer to strike quickly through sudden counters that catch the defense out of position.
The accompanying table highlights the importance of a flank attack at several different levels of play. Note: The team getting in the most crosses did not always win the match. For example, AC Milan lost to Ajax while putting in 33 crosses (19% of its possessions), while Romania beat Argentina with just 5 (3% of its possessions). Nevertheless, the team putting in the most crosses invariably reached the penalty box more often with its attack, and the more often a team does that, the more chances it usually creates.
FLANK CROSSING, WORLD CUP '94
Exactly 141 goals were scored in the 52 matches of World Cup '94, excluding those scored via the tie-breakers. 35 of these goals stemmed directly from a flank cross, and 7 other crosses led to successful penalty kicks. Together, they accounted for about 30% of the total goals scored.
Next to set plays, which contributed 55 goals directly and another 20 indirectly, the flank cross was by far the most potent offensive weapon in the tournament.
The 8 teams to reach the quarter-finals scored a total of 23 times via the flank cross. Sweden scored 7 of its 15 goals that way (a tournament high), Bulgaria 2 of 10, Italy 1 of 8, Brazil 3 of 11, Holland 3 of 8, Spain 4 of 10, Romania 1 of 10, and Germany 2 of 9.
The flank-cross scoring in World Cup '94 were split between aerial crosses (26) and balls played on the ground (16), between balls delivered to the near post (18) and to the far post (24), and between crosses delivered from inside the penalty box (16) and from outside the penalty box (26).
Most of the crosses were delivered either in the air from outside the penalty box to the far post (18), including all 7 that produced penalty kicks, or on the ground from inside the penalty box to the near post (9).
MECHANICS OF THE DELIVERY
The four basic crosses that need mastering by flank players are shown in the diagram on page 59: the near-post cross into Area 1, the far-post cross into Area 2 or deeper into Area 3, the ball dropped back into Area 4, and the early cross delivered into the "second" box - an imaginary six-yard box extending from the top of the goal box to the penalty spot.
The defensive midfielder (DM) and one of the four back defenders (CB) fill the "second-touch" zones. They look for secondary shots, as well as ways to stop the opponents' counterattack.
Ideally, the crosser's last touch should redirect the ball inside, enabling him to take a few steps to run around the ball, approach it at a more acute angle, and square his hips to the target. This action will ensure him of pointing the non-kicking foot at the target.
The farther this foot is placed behind the ball or the more the crosser leans back, the more lofted the resulting cross will be. When, however, the crosser does not have the time to run around the ball, he will have to race to gain a step on the defender and, at the last instant, pivot on his non-kicking foot.
The delivery mechanics of the four basic crosses vary slightly but all are designed to produce first-touch shots:
Cross to near post: The inside of the instep should strike the center of the ball and, with only a slight follow-through, drive the ball head-high or low.
Cross to far post: The top, inside of the foot should contact the ball just below center and preferably to the outside so as to bend the ball away from the keeper, with the player again leaning back to derive loft.
Dropped ball: The ball is often hit more with the side of the foot through the top center. The pass is delivered on the ground, usually after the crosser has entered the penalty box and is nearing the goal line. This kind of cross is preferred by the Brazilians.
MECHANICS OF THE RECEPTION
The receivers depicted in the diagram are two strikers (ST), an attacking midfielder (AM), and an outside midfielder (OM). They make curved, timed runs into their areas. As the flank crosser (OM) looks up, just before running around the ball, the receivers should accelerate to arrive at the designated areas with the ball.
THE RECEIVER'S RUNS ARE CURVED FOR THREE REASONS:
1. To produce a funnel of opportunity (space A) at the ball where corrections for its path of flight can be made, instead of just a one-time chance resulting from the run made directly across its path.
2. To better exploit the blind side of defenders.
3. To enable the receiver to view the ball and the target along the same sight-line. Receivers should try to arrive at the ball at the last possible instant so as not to be caught standing flat-footed, awaiting the ball's arrival. Early arrivals will draw defenders, fool no one, and be easy to defense.
The best cross often is the one aimed directly at a defender. While the defender stands flat-footed and waiting, the attacker may step in front at the last possible second and use his momentum to power through the ball. England's Gary Lineker was a master at converting such crosses with a last-second run. In Mexico's 1986 World Cup, he won the tournament's "golden boot" award as top scorer with six goals. He scored five of them exactly that way and just missed another when the keeper made a super reaction save.
All five crosses came off Lineker's first touch - four from the ground, one volleyed, and one headed; four to the near post, and one far.
Any time the crosser holds the ball longer than expected or the runners arrive early, the latter should rotate into different areas. The key is to remain dynamic in this critical area fronting goal and to meet the ball just as it arrives with as much forward momentum as possible.
The cross also can be delivered early behind the defense. The crosser needn't wait to reach the endline. Once he gets behind the last defender, as the inside defenders and attackers race to goal, his best ball - the early cross - will frequently be the one dropped low into the path. Both defenders and the keeper will have a tough time dealing with a low ball played with pace into the second box.
DEFENSING THE CROSS
If the crosser stays outside the penalty box, the keeper should focus on the far post. Once the crosser enters the penalty box, the keeper's responsibility must shift to the near post. The keeper must cover these primary areas, then react if necessary to the opposite side of the goal.
The cross becomes dangerous for two reasons. First, the attention of inside defenders will often be drawn to the ball at the flank, making it easier for receiving attackers to make blind-side runs and fred open space. Second, the attack direction will suddenly change when the service is followed with a first-touch shot.
Scoring from a flank service requires two good plays - the cross itself and the shot that follows. The defense does not have to concentrate most of its attention on the wing area - the point of delivery. The real danger lies inside, where the cross is being delivered.
The defenders from the weak side and middle of the field must funnel back behind the ball to concentrate numbers in front of the goal.
Break-downs occur whenever the defense fails to cover weak-side runners or is victimized by tentative goalkeeper play.
Most high-level teams do a good job of defensing the cross in the air. They rarely fail to clear the ball or leave it on the floor in the box (to be cleaned up by an opportunistic attacker).
Check seven of the 12 matches documented in the table on page 60. The losers turned out to be the teams that put in the most crosses!
That kind of defensive play, however, is rarely matched in high school, club, and or even college play. The message: Keep driving those crosses into the box, they lead to more scoring chances.
Next month, we will look at a practice session designed to improve your flank-crossing attack.
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|Publication:||Coach and Athletic Director|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1996|
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