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How to defend the KDB cross

|| (Assuming, of course, that it's even possible to) ||

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Mark Thompson

Oct 01 2019

4 mins read

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Somewhere in the EA Sports FIFA offices, youngsters with coding degrees and Masters in Angry Birds are adding ‘the Kevin de Bruyne cross’ to next year’s game.

By now, I think we’ve all seen that type of cross before: coming from the shoulder of the box, rather than from out wide; curling perfectly to the back post, a trajectory that neither goalkeeper nor defenders can read early enough to deal with.

But how, if at all, can teams deal with them? Let’s tackle it.

First of all, prevention. Against Everton, De Bruyne could have bought a plot of land and set up a brick-and-mortar business in the space he had to make the pass.

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What had happened was that Lucas Digne, Everton’s left-back, had been beaten by City right-winger Riyad Mahrez further up the field. Central midfielder Fabian Delph came across to cover and face Mahrez, but Digne recovered by going back to his position, rather than filling in the space that Delph had vacated (and that De Bruyne slipped into).

This is understandable, in some ways. I wouldn’t want to leave Delph one-v-one against Mahrez on the edge of the box either.

In the shot above we see Gylfi Sigurdsson trying, in vain, to get back, as well as Alex Iwobi. De Bruyne is probably Iwobi’s, certainly one of those two midfielders’, player to pick up once it becomes clear that Digne is going back to left-back.

But it’s not as if this was an easy pass, nor was De Bruyne under zero pressure for his first minute assist against Watford (although it wasn’t a lot of pressure either).

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Prevention is better than anything else, of course, but if De Bruyne manages to let loose, what then? I think that, as a defending team, you need to assume the worst about the flight of the ball.

De Bruyne has a knack of getting an incredible, truly incredible, trajectory on the ball. A normal cross from this area would probably look something like this:

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But the way the ball actually went was more like:

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I wasn’t sure whether it was just the camera angle playing tricks on me so I took a look at the replay angles and, sure enough, just take a look at how much the ball moves in the last couple of yards right before it hits David Silva’s foot.

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That’s magic. Close to, if not genuinely, unplayable. It skirts the defensive line as if Pep Guardiola had drawn it from on high.

As a defence, I think that you’ve got to assume the ball’s going to be good enough to pick out a player and act accordingly. If you back off and get touch-tight to attackers anticipating the cross, you’re not likely to be in any trouble if De Bruyne decides to do something differently. Just make sure you move the defensive line back up a few yards.

However, if the ball’s in flight, I think that you’ve got to play the player rather than the path of the ball like you might usually deal with a cross. With this freakish trajectory you’re more likely to misjudge it, and given that Manchester City’s average height in attack has got to be noticeably sub-six foot, Premier League defenders should be more than a match for their forwards in a physical one-v-on aerial duel.

I’m also interested in the role of the goalkeeper for these crosses. Ben Foster gets screwed over in the above example by the fact that the cross goes so close to Sergio Agüero in the middle of the goal, but would Jordan Pickford stand a better chance of saving Gabriel Jesus’ header this weekend if he’d been back on his line? (that’s a genuine, rather than a rhetorical, question).

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Anyway, there you go. If you want to defend the Kevin de Bruyne cross:

  1. Don’t give him so much damn space to hit it
  2. Accept that the delivery will be magical and adjust accordingly
  3. Go tight player-to-player at the back…
  4. …and play them, rather than the flight of the ball, because the flight will both beat and deceive you.
  5. And maybe goalkeepers could do something differently although what, I’m not entirely sure.

This may well be something that I come back to. Stay tuned.

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