You know how it goes.
Manchester City come up against a team deploying a low defensive block. Try as they might they just cannot find a way through, so they revert to just lumping balls into the box to no-one in particular.
It seems a ludicrous tactic to try and win a football match, given City’s lack of a striker and the short stature of most of their attackers. Phil Foden, as good a false nine as he is, isn’t going to win many headers against the Virgil van Dijks of the Premier League.
Well, it may surprise you to learn that crossing has evolved from Pep Guardiola’s plan B to his go-to tactic this season, and it’s actually proving to be pretty effective.
Memories of the 2019/20 campaign are locked away in a deep, dark corner of many City fans minds. A season where City never really got going for any sustained period of time, Guardiola’s side routinely dropped points against ‘lesser’ opposition as Liverpool romped to the title.
As their title defence fell away, it was pretty clear what City’s fallback option was when things weren’t going well. In the 3-2 defeat at Norwich City, a game that City failed to control, they made 30 crosses. When Wolves won 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium, they made 31.
In the 2019 defeat to Wolves City resorted to endless crossing, but to little effect (Image: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images) In the 2-1 home defeat of Southampton, a game where City trailed until Sergio Aguero’s 70th-minute equaliser, Guardiola’s side made 57 crosses. Only twice had a Premier League team put more balls into the box from wide areas in a single Premier League game since 2003/04.
Guardiola defended his seemingly fruitless tactic at the time, explaining that opponents who packed their own penalty area didn’t allow City to penetrate the centre of the goal, so they had to go via the wings. In other words, City had little choice in the matter.
That year, no other team in the division made more than City’s 617 crosses. That fell to 438 – the 12th highest in the league – as Guardiola’s side regained the title last term, but fast-forward to present day and the same seems to be happening.
Over 11 games so far this term City have made 180 crosses, 21 more than Aston Villa and Liverpool in joint second (as per FBref). This year though, crossing appears to be more of a standard approach than a last resort.
Of the 22 goals that City have scored in the their title defence so far, eight have come directly from crosses. The 5-0 defeats of Norwich and Arsenal saw three apiece, while both of City’s goals in the 2-0 win against Manchester United came via that method (not to take any credit away from Eric Bailly’s moment of improvisational genius).
There is still a relationship between games in which City struggle to break teams down and the number of crosses they make; in the three league games where City have failed to score – away to Tottenham and at home to Southampton and Crystal Palace – they made 19 crosses on each occasion.
Joao Cancelo has made 30 crosses this season, the sixth most of all Premier League players (Image: Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images) However, high-crossing output is no longer solely associated with bad performances. Guardiola’s side made 20 crosses in the 5-0 mauling of Arsenal and 15 at Old Trafford. In the 4-1 Champions League defeat of Club Brugge, City made 15 crosses, three of which directly set up goals.
In the 2-0 win against Burnley, City made 20 crosses – a seemingly strange tactic given the physical advantage of Clarets’ defenders over City’s attackers.
But a remark Guardiola made in 2014 before his Bayern Munich side faced David Moyes’ United (coincidently the manager of City’s next league opponent West Ham), quoted in Marti Perarnau’s Pep Confidential, explains the approach.
“We need to score from the second-ball actions. Remember what I told you in August about what I learned from the Barcelona-Chelsea match in 2012? Well, this is the day we have had to do what I didn’t manage that day for Barca”, Pep said.
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“Seek out the rebounds in the box and punish the second ball wherever it lands in the penalty area.”
The Chelsea match Guardiola referred to was the second leg of the 2012 Champions League semi-final, where his Barcelona side were improbably held to a 2-2 draw and bowed out 3-2 on aggregate despite dominating the tie.
He said: “I told the players to cross the ball into the area but I didn’t get across to them that I wasn’t looking for them to score on the volley, but to win the second ball or the rebound and – pam! – score that way.”
Admittedly, it does seem bizarre that in the season where City don’t have a recognised striker, they are chucking more balls into the box than ever.
There is, however, method to the madness. Maybe we should just trust Guardiola on this one. After all, he tends to know he’s doing more often than not.
What do you make of City’s crossing tactic? Follow City Is Ours writer Alex Brothertonon Twitter to join the conversation and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.