A Treatise Against Vanity Set Pieces

This piece originally appeared on the TheRoyalFrontier.com

The opponent trips your player twenty-five yards from goal. The referee issues a yellow card and signals for a free kick just outside the opponent’s box. The home crowd erupts with anticipation. Finally, our persistent pressure is rewarded with a clear chance on net!

The referee draws a foam semi-circle to mark the spot of the foul and prods the opponents back ten paces, sentencing them to their own box. The sleek and sexy star striker strides to the ball and delicately places it atop the turf in order to achieve optimal knuckle action. The striker crosses himself, looks to the sky and studies the net as he backpedals.

Hands on his hips, he consults with his teammates. What for? Will he dare forgo this glamorous opportunity, this free kick, which has been bestowed upon him as the club’s Star of Stars? Oh hell no. This free kick is his ego’s sustenance, the pinnacle of vanity in team sports. And so the teammates separate, assuming their auxiliary positions. In this moment, they have no more agency, no more influence on the outcome of this kick, than the thousands of anxious spectators ringing the pitch.

The star stands poised. A statue. He continues to glare beyond the ball, beyond the wall of nut-clutching obstacles, beyond the bellowing goalkeeper and into the net, his prize. The television cameras zoom in on his smoldering eyes. My goodness! What great television!

The Star of Stars crosses himself once more, puts his head down and approaches the ball. He winds up, his arms spread wide, his left foot planted, his right ankle locked, toes pointed to the ground. His leg unleashes fury upon the dimpled ball, propelling it ever forward

UNTIL!

-The ball soars up, up, UP above the bar and lands thirty rows into the crowd behind the net!  Huzzah!

-The ball gently plops into the goalkeeper’s waiting chest! Bravo!

-The ball smashes into the wall and caroms twenty yards behind the kick-taker, thus launching the counterattack! L’Magnifique!

I love the Theater of the Free Kick, but I hate the all-or-nothing free kick strategy. It almost always produces nothing but a goal kick for the opponent. The kick-taker rarely even puts the ball on net.

I first started thinking critically about this when I read Soccernomics, a 2009 book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. Soccernomics, which is titled Why England Lose over in the UK. The book applies analytics to unmask inefficiencies on the pitch and in the transfer markets. The authors also make predictions about the future of soccer. For example, they include a brief paragraph about the inefficient use of free kicks from near the penalty area. Here’s what they say about the issue:

“[A] free kick should be the perfect opportunity to pass. Your opponents retreat nine yards and they need to put two or three people in the wall in case you shoot. That leaves vast spaces to pass to runners in the penalty area.” [p. 170]

The authors predict that teams will eventually start mixing up their free kick strategies. They just have to consider the stats proving how many delicious goal-scoring opportunities they waste.

The issue gained prominence earlier this Fall when a stat showing that Cristiano Ronaldo scored on only 2 of his previous 88 free kicks as of late-October popped up around the internet. 

Six years after Soccernomics, very few teams run plays.  Here are my assumptions as to why people drastically overvalue the direct free kick from 20-35 yards out :

1. The occasional goals are so spectacular and memorable. David Beckham built his legacy on his ability to occasionally bend the ball into the net from a free kick. Free kick goals become folklore.

2. It’s hard work for the coaches to develop new plays. The players then have to repeatedly practice the plays, which takes time away from other parts of training.

3. Free kick responsibility appeases the 100 million Euro star — and the club chairman that bought him. Think Carmelo hogging the last shot in every close Knicks game.

4. Most importantly — It’s a well established soccer convention to which coaches, mostly former players, are accustomed. It’s hard to disrupt the status quo in order to implement some gimmicky Xs and Os plays. Think baseball scouts and GMs ignoring on-base percentage pre-Moneyball.

5. It’s made-for-TV drama, like a baseball pitcher staring down a batter in a high-leverage situation.

In 2011, Chris Anderson and David Sally broke down free kick inefficiency using data from the first half of the 2010/2011 English Premier League season in their blog “Soccer by the Numbers.” The two later published a book called The Numbers Game based on the blog. Like Soccernomics, The Numbers Game shines a revealing light on inefficiencies in soccer.

Anderson and Sally found that English Premier League teams scored 1.35 goals per match. Free kicks created only .038 of the 1.35 average total, which equals about 3% of all goals. So teams rarely score from free kicks, but as the authors explain, that alone does not necessarily mean free kicks are inefficient.

So here’s the data to demonstrate that lone-wolf free kicks are inefficient:

Accurate Shots

Teams averaged just .22 accurate shots on goal from free kicks per game. Chelsea skewed the league average with their .7 accurate shots per game. Meanwhile, nine teams were at or below .1 accurate shots from free kicks per game.

The next graph depicts the number of goals per total shots (not just accurate shots). Blackburn was able to score every fourth free kick. They’re a bit of an outlier. Meanwhile, seventeen teams scored fewer than once every ten chances. Of those, ten teams failed to score a single goal from a free kick.

Ratio of goals

Now consider the USA’s free kick play against Belgium in extra time of their World Cup match. They ran an elaborate bit of trickery you might see in a college basketball game. And they very nearly tied up the match.

The play’s moving parts, especially Dempsey peeling off the back of the wall, completely fooled Belgium. The only reason the US didn’t score was because Dempsey couldn’t quite settle Wondolowski’s laser pass. Nevertheless, that play was genius!

What’s more, the USMNT executed it almost flawlessly after just a few weeks of training together. Imagine the clever set pieces clubs could execute when they train together for an entire season.

The free kick provides a team with such a unique opportunity  to catch the opponent literally flat-footed. It would be especially useful for an overmatched club desperate for a edge against a stronger team. Yet, teams too often waste this opportunity by letting their professional kick-taker blast the ball over the bar.

In a sport lauded for creativity and artistry, free kicks in the attacking third typically provide bland, lazy conformity.

Let’s replace the lonely Theater of the Free Kick with the Artistry of the Free Kick Collective.

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2 comments

  1. “Basketball-like” is also the adjective I applied to the USWNT’s first goal in the WWC final: Lots of pre-kick motion in many directions, and a pass into the box on the ground!

    Of course the direct corner into the net is a freak occurrence, but the idea of creative, different things a defense isn’t used to guarding on a free kick? I hope this becomes a trend.

    PS I got here via Uni-watch.

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