Why is scoring from free kicks on the rise?

Posted by Michael Cox

Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty ImagesLuis Suarez's recent antics from free-kicks mean that goalkeepers ought to study such dead ball tendencies the same way they watch penalties.

Liverpool striker Luis Suarez's pinpoint free kick against Norwich on Wednesday night was a spectacular goal -- but it's also something we've come to expect. Not simply because the Uruguayan inevitably ran riot to record a hat trick, his third against the Canaries, but also because it was yet another goal scored from a free kick -- one of the defining features of this Premier League campaign.

The statistics confirm the suspicion that free kicks have been particularly important so far this season. Data from WhoScored.com reveals that the conversion rate of direct free kick attempts is 11.9 percent, almost double last season's 6 percent mark. It's a similar story when you consider the proportion of all goals scored from these scenarios -- 6.5 percent, up from 3.3 percent.

This is partly because some individuals have suddenly become prolific from dead-ball situations. Wayne Rooney scored more direct free kicks in the first month of the season than he managed in his previous eight campaigns combined, while Yaya Toure had never scored one for City before this season -- he's now managed three in the league, and another in the Capital One Cup.

From a defensive perspective, free kick concessions are often considered moments of individual brilliance that are impossible to defend against, but recent goals have raised serious questions about defensive sides that have made surprisingly basic mistakes. Rather than attempting to discover why teams have been so prolific on free kicks -- probably an unanswerable question -- it's worth considering the defensive issues.

Positioning of the wall
Suarez's previous goal from a free kick was in the 3-3 draw against Everton. He curled it around the wall from 30 yards and into the bottom-right corner, from his perspective. It was a superb goal, particularly because of the lateral movement of the ball. The trajectory was similar to that of Roberto Carlos' famous goal against France in 1997 -- nowhere near as dramatic, of course, because Suarez was curling the ball with his instep, rather than slicing across it to get "reverse" movement.

It was, however, a poor goal to concede. Suarez scored almost exactly the same free kick at home versus Manchester City last season; against Everton, keeper Tim Howard's wall wasn't positioned far enough to that side of the goal. The role of Steven Pienaar was peculiar -- he stood to the side of the wall, essentially creating a gap for Suarez to shoot through, but regardless of whether the South African was supposed to be a part of the wall or not, Howard should have ensured his post was covered.

That would have meant leaving more of the opposite part of the goal open, of course, but that is the side Howard himself was protecting. Suarez rarely blasts free kicks toward the goalkeeper's side -- he instead attempts to shoot above the wall and put the ball into the near corner. Goalkeepers must learn the free kick tendencies of opponents almost as keenly as they study penalty-kick styles, and Suarez must have been delighted when he saw the position of the wall.

Michael Regan/Getty ImagesKyle Walker's blunt, efficient free-kick goal vs. Man United exploited a key flaw in set-piece defending: the jumping wall.

Should the wall jump?
Kyle Walker's goal against Manchester United on Sunday was the simplest free kick you'll ever see. The position was left of centre, extremely close to the Manchester United area -- probably no more than 20 yards from goal. Walker stepped up and absolutely smashed the ball, which seemingly parted the wall and only allowed keeper David de Gea time to palm it into the net.

De Gea immediately jumped up and expressed his dissatisfaction at the wall, a common approach from goalkeepers, of course -- they have a tendency to blame everyone but themselves. But in this case, everyone else was asking the same question. How did the wall not block the shot?

The reason was simple: The wall jumped and Walker's shot was drilled underneath. But why, in that situation, was the wall jumping in the first place? Powering a shot underneath the wall is nothing new -- Ronaldinho was a master of it, Andrea Pirlo did the same, and Lionel Messi referenced them both when he did the same last year.

It was understandable that the wall jumped when facing free kicks against those players. Didi, a fine Brazilian international in the 1950s, invented the "folha seca" ("falling leaf") free kick, played high with great topspin. Ronaldinho can dip a ball brilliantly. Messi has chipped some great free kicks into the net. And Pirlo is a master of the long-range floater over the wall, one that seemingly accelerates toward goal extremely late in its flight.

But Walker is entirely a blaster -- he doesn't have the finesse of those players. The wall jumped in unison, which suggests they were under instruction, but against Walker and from that range, the wall should have been rooted to the ground.

Goalkeepers should probably wait
Manchester City striker Alvaro Negredo's free kick goal against Swansea on Sunday was particularly curious. Swansea keeper Gerhard Tremmel, surprisingly chosen in goal ahead of Michel Vorm, seemed to be standing behind his wall as the free kick was taken. It's highly doubtful whether he could clearly see Negredo's shot, but his central positioning is unusual -- generally, the wall blocks one side, the goalkeeper covers the other. In his scientific look at football titled "How To Score," lecturer Ken Bray believes that a defensive wall generally covers about 75 percent of the goal -- first and foremost, the goalkeeper's job is to protect the remainder.

Tremmel's fatal mistake, however, was that he took a step in the wrong direction at the moment Negredo hit the shot, anticipating a shot chipped over the wall. Instead, Negredo went for a powerful shot into the far corner. The central positioning, combined with a step in the wrong direction, means Negredo's task was simple. It was a tremendous strike, granted, but ultimately it was simply a smash into the far corner -- there was no finesse required, no wall to block that angle of shot, and no goalkeeper there to save it.

Ultimately, the shot was hit toward the side Tremmel should have been protecting -- yet he was at least 3 yards from the ball as it crossed the goal line. That implies a severe miscalculation, probably in terms of that initial movement. How often does a goalkeeper concede a goal in this manner? West Ham manager Sam Allardyce rued Jussi Jaaskelainen's similar error against Everton earlier this season. "Jussi took half a step to his left for [Leighton] Baines' first kick and would have saved it if he had stayed where he was," Allardyce complained.

Ian Walton/Getty ImagesWest Ham has been on the receiving end of a few free-kick goals, yet their biggest problem is conceding free-kicks in the first place.

If you don't concede free kicks, you don't concede free kick goals
On the subject of Allardyce, earlier in the season he complained about his side's bad luck at conceding free kicks. Baines scored twice in the same game from free kicks (completely different in nature, too) but hasn't managed another in the Premier League since. Jermaine Pennant cracked in a beauty the week before against the Hammers, too.

However, Allardyce also acknowledged his side were guilty of conceding the free kicks in the first place.

"The disappointing thing is that we conceded the free kicks. There was no need to make either of the challenges in the Everton match," he later admitted. Indeed, last season West Ham conceded 471 fouls, second-most in the Premier League behind Stoke. That record has improved considerably this season, but positioning of the fouls notwithstanding, it logically makes the Hammers more vulnerable to set-piece goals.

Last season, when Stoke lost 1-0 at the Emirates via a deflected Lukas Podolski free kick, then-Stoke manager Tony Pulis complained about the fortune of the strike. "We deserved something from the game," he insisted -- and Podolski's goal was certainly lucky. But, again, Stoke conceded more free kicks than any other side in the division. On that day, they committed 13 fouls compared to Arsenal's three. Who was more likely to score from a free kick?

This is also something Manchester United manager David Moyes should be considering following Walker's goal Sunday. United conceded a number of free kicks in dangerous positions. It's difficult to believe that the injured Michael Carrick would have allowed United to be so slack in that zone -- his positioning is superb, and as a result he commits just 0.8 fouls per game.

It's an obvious point, perhaps, but you don’t need to worry about the wall's positioning, whether the wall jumps, or the location of the goalkeeper if you don't concede the free kicks in the first place.

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