By John Cartwright
Since football pitches have become large versions of ‘Bowling Green’s in appearance and quality, so the game of football played on them has changed in terms of playing style and methods. Ball possession has become easier than when having to play on the mud-bound surfaces of the past. However, use of longer forward passing and crossing has declined and along with it the use of heading of the ball.
Opportunities to use either of the types of delivery already mentioned with quality, timing and accuracy has waned. Teams, when defending, are now retreating into their own half of the pitch to reduce space on the ground and unlimited, ‘space in the air’ goes unused. This congestion has created ‘fightball’ areas where limited talent is unable to keep possession and either lose the ball to the opposition or are reduced to negative sideways and backwards passing.
A lack of playing variation within our game has always been a major problem – in the past there was too much focus on the long-ball forward, now there is the fascination with ‘statistical possession football’; -the long-ball period developed heading and crossing qualities but reduced ‘on-the-ball’ ability. Today, there is more opportunity to display basic passing skills but there is a lack of penetrative intent.
Heading the ball, whether from crosses or from occasional longer passes, has shown a marked decline in individual skill. The opportunity of using the head to control, pass or score with must be re-emphasised within our coaching and development structure. Crossing is also such an important part of the game that it should be a priority part of all development programs. It seems that there is little attempt to vary the crossing of the ball here and many teams fail to utilise the ‘space in the sky’ preferring the near post ‘bender’. Variations on crossing are limited in many instances to these hard, driven deliveries across the six yard box, many of which are not always the best option available. The ‘chipped’ cross to the back post is almost a lost art as is the pull-back from goal-line to the edge of the box.
Crossing is a version of passing and should contain all of the same essential requirements; – look before striking the ball – decide on best crossing option to use – use the correct skill for the job – provide the correct delivery speed – ‘pin-point’ the cross accurately. Unfortunately, most of these basic aspects go unrecognised and most crossing situations have become either too predictable or poorly delivered.
Likewise, the heading of crosses has also suffered a marked decline in quality. The positioning by receivers in crossing situations is often incorrect; too often they fail to recognise a best position to enter – they fail to ‘lose’ a marker and use ‘push and shove’ in preference to ‘movement and checks’- or stand in a spot that does not allow for a run and jump for the ball. Heading, at goal or as a ‘knock-down’ for a supporting player are both vital scoring methods in a crowded ‘box’. Those who teach the game must not forget the importance of variation and use it as required in games.
The ‘pass – pass – pass’ phenomenon playing style that we see today has failed to recognise the importance of aerial ability in attacking play. Too much attention has been directed to passing stats. whilst crossing and heading have been given less interest. Penetration, whether on the ground or in the air is the game’s ‘opening of the gate’ for goal-scoring and crossing and heading are vital parts in the overall playing requirements of successful teams