Nearly a fortnight after the Confederations Cup, memories of the competition remain fresh. One relates to the official match ball, the Cafusa, Top Replique. Conspicuous by their absence were complaints about it.
Ironically for a tournament with the Copacabana and Ipanema as its backdrops, no one moaned as many have done in recent World Cups and European Championships that it was a beach-ball. For once, the players were happy with it and it showed, no more so than among those taking free-kicks.
It’s hard to remember a competition featuring so many goals scored from them. Andrea Pirlo marked his 100th appearance for Italy by curling one beyond Mexico goalkeeper Jose Corona at the Maracanã. Luis Suárez whipped one past Iker Casillas, a fine consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat to Spain. Brazil got in on the act too. Neymar caught out Gigi Buffon with a precise effort that found the top corner. And this was just in the group stages.
Later on in the competition, the third-place play-off between Italy and Uruguay felt like a free-kick-off between Alessandro Diamanti and Edinson Cavani. Every one of their set-pieces became an event. So one of the questions prompted by the Confederations Cup is a simple one: who is the best free-kick taker playing in Europe’s top five leagues? Some of the results from the analysis were predictable. Others were unexpected.
It will come as no surprise to discover that one of the two top scorers from free-kicks last season in Europe’s top five league was Pirlo with five goals. Level with him is another Italian who should by now be familiar to those who watch Serie A. It’s Catania’s deep-lying playmaker, the 29-year-old Francesco Lodi who many feel should be Pirlo’s deputy together with Marco Verratti in the national team.
His statistics are more impressive than those of his illustrious colleague. Lodi scored the same number of goals from free-kicks as Pirlo but with fewer attempts: 30 compared with 37. He therefore has a higher conversion rate: 16.7% as opposed to 13.5%. Impressively, Lodi forces more saves too [10 in contrast to 8] and was therefore more accurate: 50% compared to 35.1%.
Few players are as dead-eye as him. Francesco Totti was as precise: 15 of his 34 attempts worked the goalkeeper and one hit the woodwork. Marco Reus, the Bundesliga’s top free-kick scorer with three goals, and Lazio’s midfielder Hernanes were each more accurate than Lodi and Totti, at 52.6%. No one, however, brought more saves from free-kicks last season than Mario Balotelli. Of the 34 he struck, 18 gave the `keeper something to do.
Only one player was more accurate, his figure as high as 61.5% in this regard, and that was Lyon’s Clément Grenier. Their president Jean-Michel Aulas has dubbed him Juninho Pernambucano’s ‘Little Brother’. Just like Pirlo, who dedicates a chapter of his biography to the time he spent trying to master Juni’s technique, Grenier, on the recommendation of Joël Bats, the member of Lyon’s backroom staff who helped the Brazilian become one of the greatest free-kick takers of all-time, got a load of his videos and “swatted up on it.” His studies paid off. The goals he scored in back-to-back games against Nice and Rennes were, by his coach Remi Garde’s definition, “Juninhesque.”
Incidentally the player with the highest conversion rate from free-kicks across Europe’s top five leagues is also doing his business in Ligue 1 and his identity is perhaps the one that will raise the most eyebrows. Bastia’s 22-year-old Tunisia international Wahbi Khazri scored three, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but from only 15 attempts, bending them beyond the goalkeepers of Bordeaux, PSG and Brest to make the net swell. His rate of return from free-kicks was 20%, which makes him definitely one to watch next season.
But back to Juninho’s legacy. Another player inspired by him is Tottenham’s Gareth Bale. He said as much at PFA Player of the Year ceremony as he collected the prestigious award. “You use everything - the valve, the floor, everything,” he said. “You just keep practising the technique. I’ve been practising it for a while now. The first one to do it was Juninho at Lyon and obviously [Cristiano] Ronaldo then took it to the next level and it’s something that works. I’ve been practising it for a while and obviously it has paid off.”
What’s interesting here is that because Bale scored so many spectacular long range goals last season, two of which were free-kicks in the league. However, there’s a sense of anticipation now every time he steps up to take one, which is perhaps disproportionate to his success rate.
That’s not to say he’s like Roberto Carlos who, after making his name scoring a series of them at Inter and then living off the swerving outside-in goal against France in Le Tournoi, was overrated as a free-kick taker. Like Ronaldo, however, when Bale scores from one, it’s typically so memorable as to cancel out all those that have either gone wide or been blown into the stands.
No one missed the target with more free-kicks across Europe’s top five leagues last season than Bale [13 from 27 attempts]. More consistent and the most prolific among those taking them in the Premier League was Norwich’s winger Robert Snodgrass: 3 of his 16 efforts went in. They were against West Brom, Swansea and Southampton, while one came back off the woodwork.
Funnily enough, the unluckiest player in this sense last season was Lionel Messi. Five of his free-kicks struck the post or the bar, though three did manage to find the space in between. However, his total wasn’t enough to get the better of Ronaldo in this regard, who celebrated four.
Still, considering how he made more attempts from free-kicks than anyone else last season, adopting that dramatic wide stance no fewer than 49 times, perhaps he should have scored more. Messi’s conversion rate was actually marginally higher at 8.8% compared with 8.2%. Intriguing, eh?
So when calling to mind Europe’s best free-kick takers, by all means think of Pirlo, Bale, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic but spare a thought for Lodi and Snodgrass and keep an eye on Grenier and Khazri for the future.