Individual Brilliance or Just Plain Good Luck?

With just over three months to go before the start of World Cup 2014, we have started to think of some of the incredible moments from, arguably, the greatest show on earth. One of the first memories that popped into our minds was the Brazil vs. England Quarter Final from World Cup 2002 and Brazilian legend Ronaldinho’s incredible free kick. This proved to be Brazil’s winner as they marched onto the final where they reclaimed the title that they had lost in Paris four years previously.

Having this in mind and following on from our recent post on corners, we decided to do an in-depth look at direct free kicks. Some of the greatest goals ever scored, like that of Ronaldinho’s, have been from free kicks where both skill and precision are of utmost importance. That being said, for every moment of brilliance, there are 10 free kicks that land up in Row Z!

As with our previous post on corners, we took a look at 20 leagues from across the world over the last 12 calendar months. The reason for this, as before, was due to the fact that different leagues start at different times and by doing this, we could get a more statistically sound analysis. One of the questions that we wanted to look at was whether the success of a direct free kick was purely on the shoulders, or feet as the case may be, of the taker of the kick or if it is down to the quality of both the defensive players on the field including the keeper and other factors.

Starting off with dangerous free kicks, and by dangerous we mean that the free kick ended in a goal or came very close to being a goal and not where the free kick was actually taken from. It has been claimed that free kicks are the one aspect of the game where it does not matter what the quality of one’s team mates are or even the opposition to a certain degree and rather it down to individual skill and requires a moment of brilliance by the person taking the free kick. Thus it is no surprise that the Champions League, the Premier League and Spanish Primera División are in the top 5 as those leagues are littered with football genius’. The surprising fact is that the top two are Turkey and the Netherlands with no place for more illustrious leagues such as the Bundesliga or Serie A. So perhaps it is true that a good free kick is all about the taker and nothing to do with the team as a whole.

In a swift response to this argument we can see the Premier League, despite having so many dangerous free kicks, also rates high when it comes to the number of free kicks that are blocked so maybe there is something about the placement of the wall. In all North and South American leagues, the referee uses a special spray to mark where the wall should be so that it is exactly 9 metres from the wall and thus there can be no encroachment on the kick itself. Despite this, however, the American MLS has the highest number of its free kicks blocked by the wall. So it doesn’t seem to matter if the wall is where it should be or if it has encroached slightly.

This is even further enforced when looking at those free kicks that either hit the woodwork or are off target. Three of the top five play in the Americas where the wall is exactly 9 metres away and despite given a better opportunity to beat the wall than their European counterparts, those players in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil seem to have trouble keeping their shots on target. So it would seem that it is down to the individual brilliance then? Whilst it could be argued that the Danish Superliga is throwing a curveball with the fact that they have the lowest number of free kicks off target yet, they actually have one the lowest percentages of goals scored from free kicks. Perhaps the quality and positioning of the keeper impacts the outcome, regardless of the quality of the taker of the free kick.

The next logical step would be to look at how many free kicks beat the keeper and the wall and land up in the back of the goal. With players like Juan Mata, Leighton Baines, Luis Suarez and Yaya Toure it is no wonder that 9% of direct free kicks in England finish in at the back of the net. Yet again, despite having the referee ensuring that the wall is exactly where it is supposed to be, there are no North or South American leagues making it in the top 5. It is looking more likely that a good free kick is down to the skill of the player taking the kick and nothing else. In one last argument against this theory we saw that, despite having a relatively high number of dangerous free kicks, only 2% of direct free kicks in the Champions League have resulted in a goal being scored.

We also noticed that, once again, Norway feature high up on the list of goals scored from a set piece. Only 2 games into the new Norwegian season, we saw that an incredible 13 of the 47 goals scored have come from a set piece situation. Clearly this is something that the teams in Norway spend time focusing on when in training. It was this fact that perhaps answers our initial question. Whilst individual skill is the main proponent in a successful free kick and can bypass any wall, regardless of distance from the kick, both the player and the team will need to spend hours practicing these routines if they are to have a high success rate.

Picture courtesy of:
commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robben_free_kick.jpg

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