Some partnerships develop over time, some are instantaneous, some are instinctive - but for Anders Limpar, his effective understanding with Arsenal’s strikers was developed purely through practice and hard work.
The Swede joined Arsenal from Italian side Cremonese in 1990 and, during his four years at the club and the two-and-a-half seasons he spent in the blue corner of Merseyside after leaving north London, established himself as one of the most exciting wingers in English football.
Anders was revered at Highbury. His guile and intelligence bewitched full backs, his precise delivery so often found a red shirt. No match more emphatically summed up his creative capabilities than a 4-2 win over Everton - who Anders supported as a boy - at Highbury in December 1991, in which the wideman provided all four goals for Ian Wright.
"For me there was a real satisfaction involved with setting him up. I was really proud to make assists for anyone, but especially for Ian Wright"
“He was like a goalscoring machine,” Anders remembers. “I was proud to play with him and worked with him after pretty much every training session in my first six months at the club. We probably spent 20 minutes to half an hour every day after training together working on crosses and finishing. For me there was a real satisfaction involved with setting him up. I was really proud to make assists for anyone, but especially for Ian Wright.
“Training-wise, I did exactly the same thing with Graham Stuart up at Everton. He was such a clever player as well and was born to be a goalscorer, just like Ian Wright. I remember Ian would be mad if you didn’t play the ball to him like we had practiced. He really wanted to score in every game and sometimes I felt his fury if I didn’t give him the right pass. He was just a winner.
“At Arsenal we didn’t really work much on crossing during training. Ian and I would stay behind afterwards with a couple of young players and a goalkeeper. It was in my interest as a new player to settle myself into the system, so we worked really hard after training pretty much every day. I was an out-and-out winger.
“Nowadays, wide players come more central because that’s what the modern game dictates. I wasn’t allowed to do that, I just ran down the line. My job was to provide crosses, so I guess I was an old-fashioned winger. The 4-4-2 system was more strict then than it is nowadays.”
Anders made 116 appearances for Arsenal, winning the First Division in 1991 and helping the team to complete an FA and League Cup double two seasons later. He attributes that success both to the well-drilled mechanics of the team and to George Graham’s meticulous preparation.
“It was easy to play with those players,” he says. “Michael Thomas and David Rocastle were so good in the middle and provided us wingers with the ball. It made it easy to play in those days.
“I was blessed to have Nigel Winterburn behind me. He was a pleasure to play with. He would do his defensive job, give the ball to me and let me do the rest. If I failed with my defensive work, he would be there. He made me look good and I have to say it was easier to be a winger then than it is now.
“If you’re out of position nowadays, you have to work so hard to make up ground. We were more static because we played a 4-4-2. Modern football is fluid. The relationship with your full back is so important as a winger. When I played, all 10 players had to defend.
“If I didn’t do my job, I would have George Graham all over me screaming ‘get back, get back!’ I have no regrets about that because we all had to defend and that was probably why we let so few goals in. We were a damn good team defensively as well as going forward. It was a different game 20 years ago. English football was more strict than it is now.”
Anders’ crossing ability helped him to set up many goals in an Arsenal shirt and he has special memories of one particular assist for Wright at The Dell.
“There was a match at Southampton, I think it was in September 1991, where Ian Wright scored a hat-trick and I set him up with a really good assist.
“I can remember thinking that we had a really good connection from the start. He was so clever with his runs and for me to supply him looked harder than it was. Alan Smith wasn’t that mobile, he was good in the air, but Kevin Campbell and Ian both made unbelievable runs. They made us wingers look good.
“We worked in practice every day on where to put the balls in and what runs they would make. Often their runs would dictate my next move, and before I crossed the ball, I knew what they were going to do because I saw it so often on the training pitch. It wasn’t a one off when it worked, we practiced a lot and that was the reason.”
That hardworking attitude stems from Anders’ childhood.
"I played a crossing game pretty much every day from when I was six until I was 15 and that set me up to become a good crosser. It was my best attribute as a player"
“I practiced an unbelievable amount as a little boy,” he recalls. “Growing up, we had a game in Sweden where you could only touch the ball twice. A lot of that game involved shooting and crossing, and we would do that almost every day. I played that game pretty much every day from when I was six until I was 15 and that set me up to become a good crosser. It was my best attribute as a player.”
Those modest beginnings would pave the way for a fine career. But what are the fundamentals when crossing the ball?
“A lot of it is down to your balance,” Anders explains. “When I took on a full back, if I passed him, I would float it in. If I didn’t, I would have to cross it, because he could reach it with his cross otherwise. I preferred to float the crosses because I had more accuracy that way. My biggest aspect was being able to see runs and then to play people through. I had good delivery with both feet and I think that was probably my best attribute.
“When I look at the modern era, David Beckham was definitely the best crosser of a ball. He wasn’t a winger but he had the ultimate touch in my opinion. If I could teach a youngster how to cross a ball, I would teach them 100 per cent how Beckham did it. He and I actually had the same technique. I’ve seen a few videos where he’s teaching kids how to cross and shoot, and I did exactly the same thing without knowing.
“It’s amazing how that technique was so similar, with the balance, the position of the foot being flat to the ball, leaning to the side and putting your arm in the air. We were really similar with our technique. If I crossed the ball 100 times, 95 of them would be floated, because I was so confident of reaching my target in the box. I haven’t seen a player cross a ball as well as Beckham for a very long time.”
So, with the scores level in the last minute of a big match now, would Anders still be able to produce a quality cross?
“Oh yes, of course,” he smiles. “That would be typical me. I did it a few times as a player actually. I was so comfortable when it came to setting people up.”
Top Five Goals from crosses LAST season
Olivier Giroud Cross: Nacho Monreal
Goal: Olivier Giroud
Everton 2-2 Arsenal
August 23, 2014
Giroud's last-minute goal salvaged a point at Goodison Park early in the season, but much of the hard work was done by Monreal in the left wing position. Aaron Ramsey had initially over hit his cross from the right, but Monreal didn't give it up. From near the corner flag he swung the ball back into the box and Giroud, in a central position six yards out, barely had to leave the ground to steer his header past Tim Howard for a dramatic equaliser.
Kieran Gibbs Cross: Calum Chambers
Goal: Kieran Gibbs
Anderlecht 1-2 Arsenal
Constant Vanden Stock Stadium
October 22, 2014
Another dramatic late goal, this time to level the tie before an even later winner in Belgium. Arsenal were a goal down with the game in the 89th minute, when both full-backs combined to grab the equaliser. The ball was worked wide to Chambers on the right. He was in plenty of space, but elected to send in a first-time cross. It was deep, and too high for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the middle, but Gibbs arrived at the far post, outside the six-yard box, to volley home left-footed.
Alexis Sanchez Cross: Calum Chambers
Goal: Alexis Sanchez
Arsenal 3-0 Burnley
November 1, 2014
Alexis demonstrated he's also a goalscoring threat with his head against Burnley, largely due to another deep cross from Chambers. Arsenal had struggled to find a breakthrough against the Premier League strugglers, and didn't open the scoring until 20 minutes from time. Chambers received the ball level with the edge of the penalty area, halfway towards the touchline, took a touch then aimed lofted cross into the middle. Alexis arrived, jumped between two Burney defenders, and powered a downward header into the net.
Danny Welbeck Cross: Santi Cazorla
Goal: Danny Welbeck
West Brom 0-1 Arsenal
November 29, 2014
The only goal of the game was a great interchange between Cazorla and Welbeck. The Spaniard picked up possession in the West Brom half, knocked the ball past Andre Wisdom and sprinted to the byline on the left flank. He got to the ball just before it went out of play and swung in a first time left-footed cross. Welbeck, six or seven yards from goal, with a standing leap, powerfully connected with the ball to power home the winner. Goalscorer and team-mates immediately ran to celebrate with Cazorla.
Olivier Giroud Cross: Alexis Sanchez
Goal: Olivier Giroud
Arsenal 4-1 Newcastle United
December 13, 2014
Alexis showed his prowess as a creator, as well as a taker, of chances with this fine cross in the home win over Newcastle. Giroud's pass from near the centre circle forced Alexis wide, near to the byline on the right wing. He took a touch to control the ball before it went out of play, then looked up and stood a high cross up to near the penalty spot. Giroud had continued his run after the initial pass, and arriving at speed he leapt above the static Newcastle defence to plant his header beyond Tim Krul.
Steve Morrow on crossing
"It's vital that the wide players and the forwards have a good understanding" I think the most important thing to get right when crossing the ball is to pick out the right area. Obviously technique is very important too.
"It's vital the wide players and the forwards have a good understanding, and if you go out onto any training pitch you'll see crossing and finishing sessions"
"Generally we tell our wide players and full-backs especially to hit the right areas. Our strikers and midfielders will make specific runs, so we ask the wide players to find them with crosses, either the far post or near post for example. There are a variety of different types of cross. There's the low whipped in cross to the near post, or more driven balls across goal too. And you have deeper crosses with more loft which tend to be for the far post.
"We have great players in the team at the moment like Giroud and Alexis who are very good in the air and can get on the end of crosses. I don't think our team is a typical crossing side though, but that's partly down to how the game has evolved. During the 70s and 80s there was much more of an emphasis on putting crosses in. It's vital that the wide players and the forwards have a good understanding, and if you go out onto any training pitch you'll see crossing and finishing sessions.
"David Beckham was probably one of the best crossers of the ball ever in England, but he had a great understanding with his forwards, and seemed to know where players were going to be. Those things don't happen by accident, you need to practice it in training during the week.
"It's a big part of our training too. Increasingly the full-backs have to be able to cross, especially the full-backs we look to recruit at Arsenal. They have to be able to get forward with the ball, and once there, be able to show composure to put in quality deliveries. There are fewer old fashioned wingers now, so in most teams it's the wing-backs who supply the width."
Arsène Wenger on…
The secret of a good cross…
A cross has to be an assist, which means it is the final ball. When you make a cross, nobody other than your forward should touch it in front of goal. Too many people get into the habit of crossing the ball just thinking, ‘I hope somebody will be on the end of it’. When I was a young player, my coach told me that wasn't a cross.
A cross is a final pass and a final pass has to be absolutely perfect. When I was a young coach, I got my wide players to cross every afternoon because it had to be perfect. A good cross can also sometimes be a cut back. Defenders run against their goal and you know that you have midfielders who can arrive at the right time in the box.
The importance of partnerships…
You have people who have a natural ability because of their balance who can cross good inswingers or good outswingers. You have to analyse what are their strengths. It's important that they develop that technique and their vision. They also need to develop their connections with the people who play in the middle.
If you know that sometimes you have to cross the ball but you have no time to look, you know where your striker is because they say, ‘when you’re in this position I will always go to the near post’. Then you can at least concentrate on putting the ball where you think somebody will be. It’s better that you see him before you cross the ball but sometimes you have no time.
Your connections that you develop in training with the other players can help to be completely efficient. A good cross is also sometimes a cut back. The defenders run towards their own goal and you know that you have midfielders who are good at arriving at the right time in the box.
You know that you then have to work out whether to cross in front of the defenders or whether you cut back for the midfielder. That’s why it is important to have the technique, the vision and the habit to play with the players you always play with.
The best crossers…
I remember some tandems at Hamburg – Manfred Kaltz and Horst Hrubesch – who knew when one was crossing the ball the other was there to head the ball in and it worked even in the national team. There were plenty of people like that and what's more important is the quality of the delivery. Most of the time you have to get the cross around the defender, and sometimes behind his back. We have had many here like Lauren, Lee Dixon and Mathieu Debuchy is a good crosser of the ball.
I think Calum Chambers is a good crosser too and that is something Hector Bellerin will have to work on because he’s more of a guy who goes into the box than crosses from distance. On the left we’ve had many good crossers like Kieran Gibbs, Nacho Monreal and Ashley Cole who played here.
We had fantastic players on the left like Gael Clichy, but it is more the understanding, the timing of coming up from behind. In the last minute against Chelsea, you have a cross from Monreal which was a cut back that you want to see in the net because the timing of the run was more important than the quality of the cross. The timing of the run sometimes is even more important.
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