James Ward-Prowse aside, where have all the great free-kick takers gone?

Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse Credit: Alamy
Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse Credit: Alamy

With his winning strike against Chelsea, James Ward-Prowse took his total of Premier League free-kick goals to 17, just one behind the record-holder, David Beckham. He is that most old-fashioned of things, a free-kick specialist. And he’s about the only one left in the Premier League.

Managers seem happy to spend their time strutting their stuff by constructing complex tactical systems; maybe just training someone to curve it around the wall is somehow too simple. There is clearly a decline in free-kick goals across the last five years. The average is slipping from the mid to high 20s per season to the mid to high teens.

Only 12 have been scored so far this season and JWP has three of them. In 2020/21 there were only 15, the lowest since the Premier League started compiling the stats in 2006. In 2013/14, it was 34, the highest total yet.

But why? It would make sense if every club had a dead ball specialist wouldn’t it? There was a typical example in West Ham’s game against Spurs. One nil down, the Hammers get a free-kick on the edge of the box. Very dangerous territory. Said Benrahma, who isn’t a free-kick specialist, just kicks it high over the bar in the same way any non-professional in the sixth tier would have done. A goal at that moment would have changed the game. But it was wasted through lack of attention paid to training players to be able to consistently take good free-kicks from dangerous positions. It’s such a glaring error, a glaring blind spot.

Why not intensively train a couple of players to stick it in the top bin six or seven times out of 10? It used to be recognised as a great asset simply because in most games there are one or more free-kicks awarded around the edge of the box that can be exploited for goals by a high-skill free-kick. Right now, JWP is keeping Southampton’s hope of survival alive pretty much single-handedly via his dead ball prowess.

This raises a bigger issue of how often dead balls, whether corners or free-kicks, are simply wasted or disregarded in favour of more fashionable football foreplay. There is literally nothing more frustrating than a corner which fails to beat the first man. But we see it happen all the time, often repeatedly by the same player, in the same game. Surely that can be a fault trained out of players for the majority of the time? Seemingly not. Or perhaps no-one is trying, overlooking the dead ball in favour of what they perceive to be more sexy football.

The large majority of free-kicks are hit into the wall, over the bar or worse still, laid off to one side for another player to hit, by which time, as we all bloody well know, the defenders will have advanced on the ball to block it. Why don’t footballers understand what is so obvious to us? Don’t lay off a direct free-kick. It’s f*cking pointless. But we see it all the time by some of the more lunk-brained soccer brethren. It’s really a failure of coaching. It should be drilled into them not to do something so witless. That does suggest how little attention is paid to dead balls.

Then there are all those players whispering behind their hands to each other, hiding their high-falutin words of wisdom from lip readers, as though they’re plotting something incredibly complex and intellectual; a kind of state secret which must not be passed to the enemy. Then, after all the conspiratorial whispering and breathless preparation, someone just boots it into the wall in a completely hapless manner. It’s not that these players are not trying, it’s just that they don’t have the skill set. They should.

When CR7 was making Manchester United worse with his second coming, commentators sometimes anticipated every free-kick he took was going to end in a dramatic goal. But it never did because Ronaldo, once the free-kick king, had become utterly shite at free-kicks, forever blasting them over the wall and into the crowd. No amount of posing, puffing out of cheeks and deep breaths made the slightest difference. He missed over 70 across several seasons before eventually scoring.

Where is the new Juninho Pernambucano? It seems to me that any player prepared to put in the hard yards to get good at taking free-kicks could become invaluable and command a high fee and high wages. It’s a real USP and one that would be in demand.

The purr of anticipation as your team’s free-kick specialist picked up the ball was one of football’s visceral thrills going back many, many decades. One was even Goal Of The Season in the 1970-71 season.

In today’s England team maybe we’d get Kieran Trippier taking a punt. But that’s not the same as a real craftsman picking up the ball, placing it down and sticking it into the top corner, is it? Marcus Rashford can take a good free-kick, but he’s not a specialist either. And there are several players like that. Decent. But not superior. Not go-to. Not the way JWP is.

And it’s not just the specialist that has disappeared, where are the clever free-kick routines? Even if your club doesn’t have anyone who can consistently score from a free-kick, you can still work out a routine to get around a defence. In the World Cup, the goal Wout Weghorst scored for the Netherlands via an intelligent slotted pass from a free-kick, was shockingly brilliant simply because we don’t see that level of dead ball creativity any more. But again, you have to question why not?

A free-kick is such a good opportunity to at least test the goalkeeper, surely it’d be worth every club having an extensive grab bag of tricks and routines worked out in advance? Why can’t they be bothered? What else have they got to do with their time?

Perhaps dead ball brilliance has been outlawed by managers who think it is somehow cheap or old-fashioned to try to score from a free-kick? Something must explain it. Are fewer free-kicks being given within scoring distance? There are certainly plenty of highly skilful players around, we all love seeing a spectacular free-kick goal, so where have all the great free-kick goals gone?

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