x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Free kicks no longer a direct route to goal

Free kicks are not nearly the scoring threat they were just a few years ago.

Keisuke Honda, right, of CSKA Moscow is one of a dwindling number of players who are a consistent threat to score from direct free kicks. Getty Images
Keisuke Honda, right, of CSKA Moscow is one of a dwindling number of players who are a consistent threat to score from direct free kicks. Getty Images

From their perch at the top of Serie A, Roma are permitted to offer lessons to the rest of Europe on how to win tight matches.

They alone hold a 100 per cent record among top-flight clubs in the leading leagues, and they achieved their eighth successive victory this weekend in a way that has become unusual in elite club football. Both of the goals in their 2-0 win over Napoli came from dead balls.

Both were struck by the Bosnian Miralem Pjanic, the second a penalty, the first a direct free kick, elegantly curled past the defensive wall and beyond the Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

Afterward, Rudi Garcia, the Roma head coach, hailed Pjanic’s technique and likened the former Lyon player’s execution with a dead ball to one of the greatest.

“He can take free kicks like Juninho used to at Lyon,” Garcia said.

Not so much a blast from the past, that comparison with the Brazilian Juninho Pernambucano, as a lilting, curving, gliding reference to one of the game’s legendary specialists.

Juninho was probably known more than anything else for his direct free kicks. He had other assets, but he was most feared by opponents in the moments after a foul had been awarded against them anywhere between 18 and 40 metres from goal.

Juninho contributed a phenomenal 44 goals from direct kicks to Lyon in his eight seasons, a period of seven successive French titles and some notable runs in Europe.

Goalkeepers as good as Oliver Kahn of Bayern Munich and Victor Valdes of Barcelona were bamboozled by the peculiar way Juninho, apparently imparting very little spin on the ball, could make it deviate through the air.

But the phrase “free kick specialist” tends to be heard less at elite level these days. Juninho, 38 and at Vasco da Gama, now limits his innovations to the Brazilian league. David Beckham has retired, while Alessandro Del Piero is winding down his career in Australia with Sydney FC.

Their modern-day successors? The Real Madrid squad who line up against Juventus tomorrow night boast dead-ball technicians who can stand comparison with the days when every Madrid free kick drew a range of experts, lobbying for the privilege of hammering, toe-poking or massaging the ball goalward, with Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Fernando Hierro and Zinedine Zidane all queuing up.

Now Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo with his so-called “tomahawk” kick, Gareth Bale with his “knuckleball” and even Sergio Ramos. Juventus will have done their homework on how to combat all of these, knowing that, with Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco, they have experts of their own.

So, indeed, do CSKA Moscow, who tomorrow take on a Manchester City lately profiting from Yaya Toure’s dead-ball prowess from 20-plus metres out. Keisuke Honda and Rasmus Elm, the Japanese and Swedish CSKA midfielders, both have a special talent for beating a wall, though it has not helped their side win too many matches. CSKA recently have been on a poor run domestically.

And the plain fact is, Beckham and Juninho thrived in an age when the free kick was more likely to settle important fixtures. The proportion of goals scored from direct free kicks is declining, as Uefa statistics from the Champions League bear witness.

Seven years ago, goals from set pieces – which also include goals as a direct result of corners and from penalties – accounted for almost a third of goals in club football’s principal competition. By last season, they barely accounted for one in five.

Of the 368 goals scored in the 2012/13 group stage and knock-outs, only 11 came from direct free kicks. Why the change? Uefa’s panel of analysts reckon “observation of opponents eradicates the surprise factor”.

Because scouting has become so detailed, so well-researched, that coaches, goalkeepers and defenders can study and practice defending against the types of free kicks that might be used against them.

Greater emphasis has also been put on not conceding fouls in the traditional danger area. Teams now defend higher up the pitch, which means that most fouls more often are given away beyond the range where a free kick specialist might inflict immediate punishment.

Passing football is also in fashion, so teams such as Barcelona – despite having Lionel Messi, Neymar and Xavi on their staff – or Bayern Munich – for whom Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Alaba can all strike a mean dead ball – often choose the indirect approach, to begin a more elaborate move rather than take a potshot, when a wall lines up in front of them.

So, if over the course of the next two nights, someone like Honda, Messi, Pirlo, Bale or Robben registers a direct hit from a set piece, cherish it as a collectors’ item.

In the whole of last season’s Champions League, no individual player scored more than once from a direct free kick.