The Lost “Arts” of Crossing and Heading.

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.

Soccer - League Division One - Chelsea v Bolton Wanderers - Stamford Bridge

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

23 thoughts on “The Lost “Arts” of Crossing and Heading.

  1. As usual John spot on…..I was in fact coached by you when I was a kid in Bethnal Green (lived across the road to your mum and dads prefab) which served me well thanks…one of my best seasons as a striker in senior football was scoring 24 goals 18 of them headed goals…as you say don’t think this would happen as the game is played at the moment

  2. Hi Gary. Nice to hear from you. Heading has become a restricted skill in today’s game and scoring with the head or setting up chances for supporting players are not often seen.
    What schools did you go to? I expect you played in the street and school playgrounds — our Wembley’s !

    • Hi John,I went to Mansfield jnr boys school…..when I was due to secondary school you can to see my parents in Thornaby House and convinced them not to try and send me go Sir Robert Montyfury school…ended up movong to Cambridgeshire. …always played on the cobble streets, played from the minute we got out of school till it got dark, playing one twos off the kerb or the nearest parked car, footwear didn’t matter either, shoes, plympsols, wellies didn’t matter as long as we could play….always find your articles interesting John, takes me back….take care

  3. By the way…I have been living in Pledeliac for the last 13yrs….a small village in Brittany. …were I am a goalkeeping coach..we have 4 senior teams,but more importantly we have an amazing school of football starting with boys and girls of 5yrs…if you are ever in the area please look me up….

  4. Hi Gary. Nice to hear you are involved in the game. Do you notice any difference between French snd British football beliefs and development methods? We tend to be copyists of other nations playing styles…….at present we’re captivated by the Spanish ‘Ticki-Tacki’ style…….what next!

  5. In a talk that Dave Bassett, former Wimbledon FC Manager, gave last year at the London Football Coaches Association, he bemoaned the poor preparation given to set plays by teams these days, especially from corner kicks, free kicks from wide areas and the reduced use of long throw ins. He admitted that he and his coaches used to spend hours practising and rehearsing these restarts and the skills which were required in their successful execution. He particularly cited the example of Dennis Wise, who stayed behind in the afternoons after training to practice his crossing, becoming so good that he could practically land the ball on an exact blade of grass.
    As John says in the article, in this country we are too intent on slavishly following trends which we see from the best teams abroad, regardless of what our own inherent football strengths are and so, as John points out, we are suddenly weak in something that we were once good at. The only team in the Premier League that currently shows evidence of seriously working hard on corner kick routines is West Brom and although I don’t know their actual stats, I’m sure that their relatively comfortable League position is due in no small measure to this aspect of their play.
    We are too quick to condemn a team as being ‘direct’ in its playing style in the same way as we over-praise another team for being ‘possession-based’, because their passing count regularly runs into double figures in getting from one end of the pitch to the other. I particularly recall a comment which Ron Greenwood made to Alan Curbishley many years ago when the midfield player was being transferred from West Ham to Birmingham City. Curbishley had grown up at West Ham, progressing through the junior teams into the first team. Ron Greenwood pointed out to him that the coaching which he had received throughout his years at the club, prepared him for whatever playing style his future first team life had in store for him. Birmingham were known as a ‘direct’ team but under Jim Smith they worked hard at developing their style and making it work. Curbishley used different parts of his skill-set to be an effective player in a team with a different playing style from West Ham.

  6. Hi all. Recently, there has been considerable attention given to the medical problems that may be due to heading – these concerns may well be correct. Therefore, the teaching of heading throughout the whole of the development period must be carefully introduced and carefully practiced. The use of practices from junior to senior levels should begin with balloons — light-weight plastic balls — deflated footballs, before using match type balls. The type of practices should also be carefully constructed with attention on competitive aerial contact by designated opposition to be with an open hand and not the head. Heading is an important skill in the game and there should be more thought on how to provide safe and suitable practices for our young players.

  7. In the past footballs were much harder, not least because they collected water. Also, to connect with the head against the point where the ball was laced up to inflate the bladder, was particularly painful. Most, if not all, of the dementia victims so far suspected from constant heading of a football, came from that era.
    However, as John points out, we must give greater attention to the way in which this skill is coached, particularly in the early stages. There are sponge footballs available for young players when the skill is first introduced which I think would be ideal. It is a good idea that John suggests to use an open hand when opposition is first introduced so that the young players concentrate on the head and body movement that should be made. Also, I notice that, on many occasions,when children are introduced to heading they immediately receive a ball thrown through the air by a partner. This is very often received with the top of the head, very painful and potentially damaging. It should be ensured that the child holds the ball out with his/her hands just above head height and releases it to bring the head forward to meet it squarely with the forehead every time. Only when ball contact is made constantly with the forehead from self-serving should another server be introduced.

  8. Hi. all. I was. Extremely fortunate to be part of a unique coaching trio; Malcolm Allison – Terry Venables and myself. There was constant discussion, differences of opinion in numerous locations from Manager’s office to practice areas to cafes pubs and national sports centres — with salt and pepper, vinegar and sauce bottles plus anything that could be used to make a tactical point. We talked and practiced the pluses and minuses of free-kicks for and against, variable corner-kick methods, throw-ins and of course tactical variations in playing systems.
    It was a time when pro.players needed to become coaches for salaries during a pro. career were never sufficient to allow for a lifetime of luxury as is possible today. The move from playing to coaching entailed gaining various coaching qualifications but more importantly, for people who believed the game demanded a deeper development and playing outlook the time was rich wiith opportunities to put ones beliefs into reality. Both Mal.and Terry, were great believers in taking the concept of the game forward and this also suited my beliefs. From talking to practising to playing there was a constant desire to search for improvement from Academy to First-team.
    It was a great shame that the trio eventually went their different ways, but this period provided the beginning of a different approach to teaching, practising and playing of the game.

  9. Hi John…The recollections of your time spent in the company of Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables makes fascinating reading. That was an era when there was so much thought given to playing and coaching questions and it is no coincidence that some very fine and innovative coaches were produced as a result, in this country as well as abroad.
    I can’t help thinking that at the present time, our National Association has failed to provide a lead in encouraging this ‘free thought’. The line of thought that stems from them is that there is “The FA Way” and anything else is frowned upon. It is a source of great regret, in my opinion, that the regional Coaching Associations, which used to thrive up and down the country, have now all but disappeared. Even the London Football Coaches Association is struggling desperately to recruit members and the one in Surrey is in similar straits.
    In my opinion, the FA Licensed Coaches Club has led to this situation. The mandatory requirement of a set number of CPD (Continual Professional Development) hours per year, depending on coach qualification level, has created an attitude of mind among coaches, to attend the required number of FA events and then ignore any further coach education opportunities during the year because the CPD requirement has been met.
    Coaching, whether in the multi-billion pound environment of the Premier League and Champions’ League, or in the park down the road, is a never-ending commitment which demands a lifetime’s study and insatiable hunger for knowledge.
    The FA has failed to provide this lead.

  10. Hi Steve. The FA have certainly directed coaching in this country down a very structured, robotic pathway. There is a massive skills gap between our game than so many of our foreign opponents. We have fallen into the hole that awaits those who play the game with players who have minimal playing ability. from Goalkeeper to advanced attacking players, there is an over-reliance on support and a lack of individualism. Where are our true creative players who can keep the ball and deliver it when necessary in a positive way? Teams should be made up with 11 individuals …even GK’s… who can ‘go it on their own’ or combine with others when necessary……simplicity is not ‘genius, simplicity is an option….. great players decide to to play simply when situations demand it……..basic players play simply because that’s the limit of their ability. … AND POOR COACHING IS RESPONSIBLE !

  11. I thought that it was disappointing to read the comments of Ajax coach, Peter Bosz, after the Europa League Final against Man Utd on Wednesday night. He expressed the view that Ajax were the only team trying to play football and that United were relying on long balls. I think he missed the point because the short passing football of Ajax into feet and trying to play passes through United’s defensive block, was not working. They should have put balls into the space behind the defence but did not attempt this alternative until late on. Bosz is said to be a disciple of the late Johann Cruyff and anyone taking inspiration from the Dutch genius is to be praised. But Cruyff would have looked for alternatives earlier in the match if the original game plan was not working. Ajax are a very young team with a lot of potential and no doubt some of them ‘froze’ on the night. But it is no use blaming the approach of the opponents if they adopt tactics which give them control of the game. Everyone knows that Mourinho will do anything, within the laws, to win.
    I think that Paul Ince, on TV duties, called it correctly when he said that if you can’t play passes through the defensive block then you must either play round them or over them.

  12. Hi John…If Arsene Wenger keeps his job as Arsenal’s Manager then a much more penetrative performance than is often the case, by his team in the FA Cup Final yesterday, may have a lot to do with it. At last Arsenal got the ball into the space behind their opponents’ defence with some regularity and Sanchez, Ramsey and Ozil were a constant danger with their movement . It was almost a role reversal between the two teams because usually it is the new Premier League Champions who have given lessons in penetration, as you pointed out in a recent post. Arsenal, often criticised for indulging in over passing, played and pressed with an intensity and pace which prevented Chelsea ever getting into the game. It was clear from his demeanour on the touchline that Conte was not happy with his team’s performance, but Arsenal never released their grip.
    Arsenal’s recent improvement seems to have coincided with the switch to a 3-4-3 system, ironically the same one employed by Chelsea for most of the season and which turned their season around when they adopted it. As far as I am aware, this is the first time this season that a team employing the same formation have comprehensively beaten them. I am surprised that Conte persisted with the same formation as Arsenal and did not make a tactical change with the Gunners winning all the 1 v 1 battles. Taking off Pedro and Costa seemed strange and unhelpful, though Moses’s stupid second yellow card made an already difficult situation almost impossible.
    But anyway, perhaps we are now beginning to see a move away from the ‘possession for possession’s sake’ which has been all too prevalent during the last few years.

  13. Hi Steve. Being able to play and then coach the game of football to high standard requires a constructive upbringing from junior through to senior levels. It must provide careful introduction of vital aspects of the game that are suitable as practical and playing standards of those involved. The ability to make complex decisions required in match-play can only be achieved during thoughtful, realistic practice/playing sessions throughout the whole development period. All supplementary aspects of the game must surround the core ingredients of skills and game understanding for excellence to occur; too often this has not been the case and effort not ability has become the major factor in playing standards.

  14. Last week I went on a Coaches Study Visit to Atletico De Madrid. The visit created many topics for discussion, but one of the most interesting for many of us on the tour, was how much importance the club attach to the history and traditions of the club. The Atletico staff stressed how much the club has always been one for ‘fighters’, in the true sense of the word. They use the word ‘fighters’ meaning mentality, attitude and a never-say-die spirit. Their current coach, Diego Simeone, epitomises that strength perfectly and the last few years have seen him guide the club to the top of both the Spanish League and European Club Competition.
    Atletico are in the process of moving to a new stadium, but they are meticulous in moving all items of the club’s history from their old ground to adorn their new home. Their history is important to them and is all part of the mentality. I cannot help but wonder if we in this country are as careful with our history and traditions when a club is uprooted or when new owners take over. Atletico are by tradition the club of the working class district of Madrid, rather than the more affluent part which is where Real Madrid are based. Atletico are determined to retain that same supporter base on which the club has been built since its year of formation in 1903.
    In England I find that too many clubs promote a tacky image these days with little respect for the history and traditions on which they were built. All the Atletico coaching and back room staff who spoke to us were knowledgeable and informed on their club’s history and it was clearly important to them. They showed great pride in their club which was clearly important to them.

  15. Hi all. About a year ago at a session I gave for the LFCA, I demonstrated a ‘different’ ‘ approach to defending against frontal and flank free-kicks. I see, week after week, goals being scored from these situations that need not occur if a different defensive set -up as I suggested was applied.
    I have often been described in negative ways over the years for my beliefs about tactical and skill requirements for the game——those beliefs, however, have been ‘reluctantly’ introduced into much of coaching methods here. —- perhaps, my opinion on defending against free-kicks will be listened to by our footballing academia. —- and used, without respectful acknowledgment as usual.

  16. Hi John….The two goals which England conceded against Scotland from free kicks yesterday highlight the issue which you previously raised last year. Although they were expertly taken by Leigh Griffiths, the tactical set up which you suggested would have made the scoring of them much more difficult. I also think that the suggestion, made in some quarters, of dispensing with the defensive wall and allowing a free shot from distances of 25 yards and more, would give a keeper much more chance of saving without the obstruction of walls. With a defender on each post I think most of those shots from free kicks of that distance would be saved by most keepers.

  17. England’s success at the Under 20 World Cup, following the narrow defeat on penalties against Spain in the Final of the UEFA Under 17 Championship , is giving some grounds for optimism about the future of the England senior team, after so many years in the wilderness. With the reserve Under 20 team also winning the Toulon Tournament and the Under 21 European Championship due to start in Poland later this week, then a similar performance by our team in that competition and it will have been a very good summer.
    The big question, as always, will be how do we continue the development of these players so that they can win regular selection in their clubs’ first teams, preferably in the Premier League, and progress into the next England team up and ultimately into the senior England team?
    Looking at the England Under 20 squad which played in South Korea, it will be seen that there was a good representation from Everton. From this observation one can deduce that there is good coaching going on in the development teams of that club and the 1st team Manager, Ronald Koeman, has the courage and belief to give promising young players their chance in the 1st team. With his background as both player and coach at Ajax, where giving youth its chance has been the doctrine for many years, then the longer Koeman remains in charge at Everton then the better the long term future is for the England team. However, many clubs abroad, not least Barcelona, are keeping a close eye on Koeman’s work at Everton and he could be enticed away from this country in the not too distant future. Also, good though his work has been at Everton, Koeman is probably being given enough reminders that delivering trophies is what counts and dipping into the transfer market could be a threat to the progress of the young players who have been showing such promise.
    As ever, the financial success of the Premier League, and therefore the demands it places on all clubs within it, is one of the biggest obstacles to the development of high quality English players. I fear that we are destined to continue looking at the example of the German model, where there is the balance of a controlled number of quality foreign players with good native talent coming through on their conveyor belt, for some time yet.

  18. After the promise of our Under 20s in their World Cup triumph we come back to earth with the defeat of the senior side against France, who played with 10 men for half the match. Despite this numerical disadvantage, the French controlled the game, especially in midfield. Why were adjustments not made in this area because it was France who tweaked their formation to have the extra player in that midfield area? Glenn Hoddle explained on ITV how either Bertrand at left back or Ali at left midfield could have been moved inside to counter the threat and gain the numerical advantage England should have had. England also persisted in three at the back until the closing stages when they should have gone to two centre halves following the sending off of Varane.
    The central midfield area has been a problem for England for so long now. As Hoddle explained, unless a promising young English player like Loftus-Cheek gets sufficient game time in Chelsea’s first team to show what he really can or cannot do, then we just do not know if he is the answer. Maybe Gareth Southgate should play him in the next game whether he is playing first team football or not, just to find out.

    • Hi Steve. It’s about a lack of individualism. I am in the process of writing a ‘blog’ on this It comes back to poor development — too much emphasis on structured tactics and physicality.

  19. Of course you get numbers of superiority – when in possession – through movement into areas and/or placement as Hoddle advocated…Looking forward to the next Cartwright ‘blog’ though.

  20. England beaten by Germany again in a penalty shoot-out, this time in the UEFA Under 21 semi-final. But the Germans were the better team and deserved to go through to the Final. We have seen distinct promise, however, from English players this summer in Under 17, 20 and 21 age levels and the challenge now is to not only build on this potential, but to produce players of really top quality . For example I think that, in comparison to Spain and Germany, we are poor at isolating opposing defenders to create one versus one situations, where our players are regularly presented with good dribbling opportunities. So we continue to lack the game-changers and until we produce them we won’t get into the top bracket of international football.

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