How times change. At the dawn of the Premier League the news that Chelsea wanted a rugged English striker to hurl himself at crosses, preferably after smashing through a centre-half in the brusque style of Kerry Dixon or Mick Harford, would barely have caused a ripple. Yet when it emerged last week that they were lining up a £20m bid for Andy Carroll – and then started making eyes at Peter Crouch – their fans were entitled to check their calendars to make sure it was not 1 April.
Reports on Sunday morning that Chelsea had turned their attention to the Roma striker Edin Dzeko suggested sanity had returned to the Stamford Bridge boardroom – until, that is, they were linked with Burnley’s journeyman forward Ashley Barnes hours later.
Carroll had eight injuries last season. Crouch turns 37 next week and has scored 10 league goals since the start of 2016-17. Barnes has 10 in 65 over the same period. They all have mixed records, to say the least. No wonder there has been bewilderment at Chelsea’s approach.
But perhaps there is something else here, beyond the players themselves – the question of why one of the world’s richest clubs seem hellbent on buying an ageing English meat-and-potatoes centre-forward to hold the ball up, create havoc, and get on the end of crosses speared into the mixer? Because in a game that gets faster and more fluid with every passing season, players such as Carroll – and to a lesser extent Crouch and Barnes – feel more of a curiosity than ever.
That narrative is reflected in the numbers. When Opta started collating records in 2003-04 there was an average of 51 crosses per Premier League game – a figure that was almost certainly much higher in previous decades. This season it is 38, the lowest on record. More intriguingly crossing accuracy, too, has plummeted to its lowest level. A 30% success rate in the Premier League used to be typical. This season it is below 22%.
One reason, as Opta’s Duncan Alexander points out, is that these figures include set pieces – and as teams increasingly play with only one, or even no, out-and-out striker, an increasing proportion of crosses will come from corners and free-kicks where defending teams have the opportunity to set themselves up.
But teams are more aware of the percentages, too. Data shows that only one out of 92 crosses on average leads directly to a goal – although, as Garry Gelade, a statistical consultant who works with Premier League sides has shown, it is a bit more complicated than that. After analysing 35,000 crosses in the Premier League between 2013 and 2015 in more depth – and, in particular, looking at what happened in the six seconds afterwards – he found that one in every 47 crosses leads to a goal.
Of course the location of the cross, along with a player’s delivery, will radically alter the chances of its success. Even so, when you compare the leading goalscorers in the 1992-93 Premier League with those this season, the difference is notable.
Twenty-five years ago, Les Ferdinand topped the scoring charts, with other big men such as Alan Shearer, Paul Wilkinson, Brian Deane, Mark Hughes, Lee Chapman, Ian Olney and Iain Dowie in the top 20. This season – with the honourable exceptions of Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Wayne Rooney and Álvaro Morata – the list is dominated by nimble speed merchants.
So why have Chelsea considered Carroll, Crouch and Barnes? Most put it down to the need for a Plan B at the end of games, when necessity dictates that a more cultured approach gives way to caveman football. But, putting aside the question of whether a side as good as Chelsea need a Plan B if Plan A is executed well enough – look at Manchester City – would Carroll, Crouch or Barnes really make a difference?
Carroll has scored only six times in 64 substitute appearances for West Ham, while Crouch’s record of 15 goals in 146 is not much better. Both men are a long way behind Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud, who has scored a staggering 17 goals in 60 Premier League games as a sub – better than one in every four appearances off the bench.
There is another reason to be cautious about a crude Plan B. Gelade’s data shows that, while the chance of a goal from a cross climbs as the second half goes on, after about 85 minutes the success rate plummets. Arguably that is because teams protecting a lead defend deep and in numbers – while those attacking get more desperate.
Yet while Carroll’s and Crouch’s playing style is fading out of fashion, the numbers clearly show they improve West Ham’s and Stoke’s goals and chance creation when they play. The stats for Carroll, in particular, are startling. Since the start of the 2015‑16 season West Ham have averaged 1.51 goals per 90 minutes with Carroll in the team – but only 1.13 without him. That equates to better than one extra goal every three matches or more than 14 in the course of a Premier League season.
Yet it is one thing improving West Ham and Stoke – quite another doing it at Chelsea. And, while the switch to Dzeko over the past 24 hours is a clear upgrade, Chelsea should have been targeting players of the future, not throwbacks to a different era all along.
The Guardian Sport