Crossing – like swearing and mixtapes – just isn’t like it used to be | Jonathan Liew | Football

Cross 1, from Héctor Bellerín on the right, loops harmlessly towards the penalty spot. Cross 5 from Kieran Tierney is pinged low and tapped away by Eric Dier at the near post. Cross 7 forces Harry Kane into a scrambling clearance. Crosses 12-15, delivered in quick succession between 43 and 44 minutes, are all headed away. Cross 19 hits Steven Bergwijn and goes out for a throw.

Like all the best performance art, Arsenal’s attacking display against Tottenham revealed itself only in stages: slowly building us a universe, generating its own mesmerising, percussive logic. Cross 30 from Willian sails over Hugo Lloris, over everyone. But – surprise – this merely hastens the onset of cross 31, from Dani Ceballos on the opposite flank, which fails to beat the first man.

As the minutes tick away, as determination gives way to desperation, you begin to glimpse a strange beauty in this permanent bombardment, an analogue for the essential futility of human endeavour. Cross 42, delivered deep into injury time by Tierney, is humped clear by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. Inevitably, back it comes: cross 43 from Bukayo Saka, headed behind for a corner. Is there time for cross 44? There is, from Willian. It’s headed away.

Like it or not, some statistics end up becoming you. David Moyes’s Manchester United once put in 81 crosses against Fulham, a number that seemed to crystallise his era, that on some level continues to define him. The temptation will be to see in Arsenal’s 44 crosses on Sunday a similarly liminal moment for the Mikel Arteta brand: his Waterloo, his jumping the shark, his Dan Burn.

Underpinning all this is a curious and very modern assumption, one adopted by the punditry class, the regular fan and the internet’s banter-industrial complex alike. “They huff and they puff, the ball goes wide, no cuteness, no cleverness, so it ends up being a cross,” observed Graeme Souness on Sky. “Were we opening up the Spurs team?” Alex Scott asked. “No, we were putting crosses into the box. That isn’t opening up a team to create chances.”

Somehow, crossing has become a sort of shorthand for bad football: for aimless, headless-chicken punts. Never mind that this is one of the hardest and most visually appealing skills in the game. That the two most prolific crossing teams in the Premier League last season were Liverpool and Manchester City. That in among the duds, Arsenal’s most threatening moments came from out wide. Who will speak out for the poor, traduced cross?

‘Their problem wasn’t crossing: it was bad crossing, slow crossing, crossing without a plan.’ Photograph: Catherine Ivill/AP

The first thing to note is that crossing contains multitudes. The Fifa games offer three crossing options (high/driven/low), but in reality there are hundreds: outswinger, inswinger, floated, swirled, skimmed, clipped, dinked, smashed, early, on‑the‑run, cut‑back, the long diagonal, the short diagonal, near‑post, far‑post, the deep, the D, the rabona and plenty more besides. There’s the cross specifically designed to win a corner. The cross that’s really a shot. The shot that’s really a cross.

Then you have its leading proponents and like handwriting no two crossers have ever been the same. Gary Neville used to shuffle them in like he was wearing slippers. Marc Albrighton’s seem to hang in the air for hours. Bolo Zenden delivered his crosses almost reluctantly, as if what he really wanted was to keep dribbling: over the line, into the stands, out into the car park, away to freedom.

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These days, at the elite end, the cross is more of a precision instrument: an extension of the modern percentage game with its fixation on automatisms and controllable outcomes. This is why, like swearing and mixtapes, crossing just isn’t what it used to be. Let’s be clear: the level of skill is as good as ever. There are some brilliant crossers: Kevin De Bruyne, Andy Robertson, James Rodríguez, Hakim Ziyech. But such is the miniaturisation of the modern game that you rarely glimpse their true range.

Take Ziyech, a man who essentially plays one kind of cross – the little dink to the far post with his left foot. He probably plays the others brilliantly too. But Chelsea’s game is so honed and stylised that we may never find out. I love Ziyech as a player but as a crosser? Give me Beckham, Wilcox or Hinchcliffe any day of the week.

The real problem isn’t with crossing itself, but the way we talk about the game: the motifs and narratives that wind themselves around teams and players like weeds. You see it in the vaguely sneery way people talk about Stewart Downing or Chris Brunt: this idea that crossing, like heading or set pieces, somehow lies outside the core of the modern game, a relic of a pre‑concussion age.

Anybody who saw Sunday’s game will know what Arsenal were trying to do: with the centre blocked and no real playmaker, they simply went where the space was, creating overloads out wide. Tierney is one of the best crossers in the game. What they lacked was an aerial presence and bodies in the box. Their problem wasn’t crossing: it was bad crossing, slow crossing, crossing without a plan.

And yet, fairly or unfairly, this feels like one of those tags that might stick. Being 15th in the league will do that to you. Moyes has rebuilt his career at West Ham but if you go on YouTube you can still watch those 81 crosses against Fulham, sped up and set to the Benny Hill music. Unless Arteta can turn Arsenal around sharpish, this might also be – so to speak – his cross to bear.

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