The art of the free kick has become one so practised in the modern game that the poses of the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo as they line up a shot are now instantly recognisable. Ronaldo’s routine puff of his chest and is more iconic than Jonny Wilkinson’s stance before a conversion back when England won the Rugby World Cup.
However, as the statistics show, Ronaldo is not quite as lethal from a dead ball as one might expect, while there are much lesser known players that fare significantly better. We have filtered out any player to have less than 5 shots from direct free kicks, to find out which of the regular free kick takers from across Europe’s top 5 leagues have the most success, and who should be spending the summer working on their technique.
When it comes to those to have had the most success from free kicks last season, Davide Brivio of Lecce leads the way, having scored 2 of his 5 attempts on goal, resulting in a 40% success rate. Those two goals were his only strikes in 26 appearances all season – he only had 8 more attempts all season, none of which were converted. When it comes to shooting, Brivio is clearly someone who prefers a stationary ball.
Second in the list is Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, who has, of late, been heavily linked with a move away from Craven Cottage to a bigger club, and for obvious reasons. It is a rare thing to find a player who can play in both midfield and attack, can use both feet and is good in the air – he scored 9 goals with his right foot, 2 with his left foot and 4 with his head in Premier League games last season. What is more, Dempsey has a very good record from free kicks to boot, having taken just 6 all season, but scoring 2 of those.
Yet more impressive is Sebastian Larsson’s record from dead balls. The Swede scored 3 of his 10 attempts from direct free kicks this season, and his 30% conversion rate is the best of all players in Europe’s top 5 leagues to have 10 attempts. His 3 strikes was the most by a Premier League player last season (and the same tally that Lionel Messi managed), yet all of them came before the turn of the year, and he may well have been disappointed that he did not add to his tally in the second half of the season. Interestingly, 9 of his 10 attempts came in 2011, and it may not be outrageous to claim that teams became wary of giving away free kicks around the penalty area when playing against Sunderland given Larsson’s threat.
Also worthy of a mention are Europe’s top 5 leagues’ top scorers in terms of free kick goals. Santi Cazorla of Malaga, Beñat of Real Betis and Brest’s Bruno Grougi each scored 4 goals from such situations, though the latter did so from just 22 attempts, resulting in a vastly impressive free kick conversion rate of 18.2%. The versatile midfielder was key to his side’s season, scoring 9 goals in total, and his set piece ability is of great worth. Cazorla, meanwhile, scored his 4 goals from 26 attempts, while Beñat took 27, resulting in respective conversion rates of 15.4% and 14.8%.
Stick to the day job!
At the other end of the spectrum, some players remained their team’s chief set-piece taker with little or no positive result all season. Francesco Totti can boast the worst record of them all, and it may have been down to his sheer reputation and confidence in his own ability that he persevered with shooting. However, the veteran Italian tried and failed to score on 28 occasions from deal balls – more times than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. He did, however, score 8 goals from his 72 shots in other areas of the game, and will continue to defy his years for at least another couple of seasons.
Dani Benitez (24) and Gaston Ramirez (17) had the second and third most shots without scoring, of the 116 other players from across Europe’s top 5 leagues that had 5 or more attempts from free kicks without scoring. All of them may well have their roles reconsidered if they do not improve in the off-season. However, some big name players who will undoubtedly retain free kick responsibilities – if not for their ability then just for their egos – despite rather unconvincing results from last season.
When it comes to players that scored at least one free kick, the player with the worst conversion rate is Italy’s passing master Andrea Pirlo. Such an impressive season for the veteran saw him lead Juventus to the Serie A title and almost win player of the tournament at Euro 2012. However, during the domestic season he scored just one goal from 30 deal ball attempts, giving him a conversion rate of 3.3% - the worst of all players that scored from a free kick.
One could argue, however that Pirlo was unlucky with his shots, having his the target 9 times, only to be denied by the goalkeeper, and also hitting the woodwork twice. On the other hand, 18 of his 30 attempts either failed to make it past the wall or missed the target completely.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not fare much better, scoring once from 29 attempts, and his 3.4% free kick conversion is only marginally better than Pirlo’s. Ibra hit the target with 11 of his shots, but, nonetheless, a player of his ability and stature might reasonably be expected to be more effective.
Finally, Portugal and Real Madrid’s star man, Cristiano Ronaldo had a remarkable 54 shots from set pieces, opting to ‘have a go’ from just about anywhere on the pitch, from positions that others would elect to cross the ball without question. Of those 54 attempts, he only forced a save from the goalkeeper 12 times, and missed the target or hit the wall a rather excessive 40 times, with 21 of those sailing high or wide of the mark. His free kick conversion rate of 3.7% is significantly lower than many would think he would have managed. He does adopt much the same attitude with his whole game as he does for free kicks, and certainly seems to play with a well known phrase in mind; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’. Ronaldo may well continue to fail, but you can count on him not to give up, and for that he should most certainly be praised.