Why do Liverpool cross so much?
It isn't a sign of frustration. So why do the Premier League champions do it?
Hello, there’s no David today but he has been my sounding board for this newsletter. In fact, I’m surprised he’s not taken out a restraining order yet.
Anyway, I’m once again focusing on Liverpool. Having looked at how the Reds could evolve their forward line last week, I’m going to look at why the Premier League champions are so fond of crosses.
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That’s one word that often springs to mind when Jurgen Klopp’s side are relentlessly firing in crosses as they attempt to find a way past a low block. I will admit, it can be bizarre to watch. Liverpool’s famed front three are all under 6ft, as is Diogo Jota. They’re regularly coming up against defenders who tower over them, yet Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson show no hesitation at all about putting the ball into the penalty area.
However, it’s only really bizarre because of the preconceptions pretty much every single person has. As kids, you stick the tall kids upfront so that you’re able to go long. Their height gives them an advantage in the air. Ideally, you’d partner them with a speedster so that those overhit balls forward aren’t wasted.
Generally speaking, the taller you are, the more chance you have of winning those standing start aerial duels. But heading is a skill that can be worked on. Players can improve their leap, work on their movement and master the timing of their runs to make up for their lack of height. Tim Cahill once beat Peter Crouch in the air to score in the Merseyside derby, despite the nine-inch height difference.
Liverpool don’t have the tallest attack, but they do possess players who are deceptively good in the air in Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Jota. Klopp and his coaching staff haven’t willingly turned into this team, though.
The Reds ripped through the Premier League with their breathtaking counter-attacks and high energy pressing. So, inevitably, the opposition retreated. They shored up the centre of the pitch and sacrificed the wide areas. In the process, they forced Liverpool into becoming a possession-based side. In this scenario, you have two options. The quixotic one is to load your midfield up with playmakers in the hope they can create an opening. The realistic one, the one Klopp opted for, is to change the point of attack.
There was a transitional period, whereby the midfield would have a lot of sterile possession, but then Trent Alexander-Arnold was introduced, Philippe Coutinho was sold and Andrew Robertson made his way into the starting XI. That was during the 2017/18 season. Interestingly, Manchester City and Liverpool were ranked first and second respectively for crosses attempted in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 campaigns. Pep Guardiola and his expensively assembled squad know the value of crosses.
The Merseysiders are often accused of being a direct team. Again, the word direct as negative connotations because of preconceptions that direct football isn’t good football. But when you think about it, this style makes complete sense for a Klopp team.
At Dortmund, he famed for controlled chaos. Gegenpressing gives off the impression that it is instinctive when in reality it is rehearsed. Pressing triggers are worked on in training and though it looks frantic, it’s synchronized. Klopp once said that no playmaker in the world could be as good as a counter-pressing situation. The system might’ve changed, but the mindset hasn’t.
Long balls forward create pressing opportunities, especially when there’s the threat of pace in behind. Virgil van Dijk doesn’t create many chances with his raking passes forward, but that isn’t necessarily the purpose of them. The best example of this is the match against Arsenal earlier on in the season.
Mikel Arteta praised the Dutchman afterwards: "We tried to put them under as much pressure as we could but Van Dijk plays 60 yards to [Mohamed] Salah and they are out.”
It was his incomplete passes, though, that really highlighted his worth to this team. On a number of occasions, he clipped the ball into the left channel and Rob Holding would get there before Mane. The Liverpool No.10 would then press the Arsenal centre-back in parts of the pitch he didn’t really want to be in and the hosts would regain the ball in the final third.
Crosses offer a similar sort of controlled chaos.
Football is random, it’s what makes it what it is. The Premier League champions have managed to figure out ways to predict some of the randomnesses due to who they’ve hired and the technology they have available to them. Tracking data, for example, allows analysts to look at body shape and spatial awareness. With enough knowledge, you can almost predict where players will position themselves and how will react to certain situations. It won’t be perfect, but you can play the odds.
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I’m of the belief that this is why Liverpool are big on crosses.
Every cross is different. The build-up differs, the exact delivery spot differs and the situation won’t ever be the same. Yet many of the crosses put in by Robertson and Alexander-Arnold share similarities.
If you look at those highlighted, the Reds are creating 1v1 situations and then banking on the better players winning their battles. Spamming crosses sounds like a pointless tactic. But if one of these works out, it is going to result in a high-value effort.
There are countless examples of it. The above two result in goals whereas the two against United don’t. Crossing is an inventive way of levelling the playing field when opposition teams have every outfield player behind the ball. You go from being outnumbered in central areas to having three 1-on-1 battles if the ball is right.
Not only does it potentially create a goalscoring opportunity, but it can also be used to disrupt defensive lines and give Liverpool the chance to counter-press.
It doesn’t matter how compact and assured you are, a cross needs to be dealt with. This often has a domino effect.
As Alexander-Arnold picks up the ball in the still above, United have seven players in the zone highlighted, Liverpool have two. For this to result in a goal, it needs to be precise.
He aims for the back post, with Curtis Jones making a late dart into the area. Victor Lindelof does enough to limit what Firmino can do with the cross, but the ball bounces up and remains in the area. Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire both look to stop Salah picking it up, with the centre-back getting there first and nodding it clear.
This sequence results in the above. Salah, Firmino and Jones are relatively free in the area, James Milner is unmarked on the edge of the box and can pick up the ball while Thiago and Gin Wijaldum are following up play. There are only five seconds between the two stills but the situations dramatically differ. One cross did that.
It might seem insane, especially when there’s a bit of a drought, and it might be monotonous, but in the absence of Van Dijk and his ability to play those passes from deep, crosses are Liverpool’s best way to carve out chances and create counter-pressing situations.
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