James Ward-Prowse is just one away from equalling the Premier League record for the most goals scored from direct free-kicks, but it feels like he’s one of the last of a dying breed.

Free-kicks have provided some truly iconic goals and nearly every football fan will have at least one particularly memorable effort that sticks out in their mind.

They stand out because of the sheer technical ability – or extreme power – involved. It’s all well and good getting the ball beyond a wall of players, but to then also have the velocity and accuracy to beat a high-quality goalkeeper? Well, that’s another matter entirely.

Some players just seem to have the Midas touch in such situations. For many, David Beckham has been the standard bearer among free-kick takers in the modern era, but there are plenty of other names that ‘the streets won’t forget’.

Shunsuke Nakamura and Juninho Pernambucano had incredible reputations for scoring from direct free-kicks; Lionel Messi made the skill a key part of his repertoire; even Cristiano Ronaldo scored lots despite also hitting walls with the regularity of a squash player.

But if it seems like free-kick specialists are dying breed, it’s because they sort of are. James Ward-Prowse feels like one of the last players that fans of opposing teams genuinely fear when standing over a deal ball within 30 yards of the goal.

It being a dying art only makes us at Opta Analyst more interested in the numbers behind the free-kicks, though, so we’ve trawled through all the relevant Opta data (from the start of 2006-07) for the top five European leagues to bring you the definitive guide to free-kick takers.

Trigger Happy

Spoiler alert, it’s not really going to be possible to conclusively prove who the best free-kick taker was over our identified period because it kind of depends on how you determine that and where you draw the line (or spray the foam, if you will).

So, you’ll have to make your own conclusions there… We did promise to provide the stats, though, and we’ll follow through on that at least.

It probably won’t come as a huge surprise to learn that over the 17-season period in question, Cristiano Ronaldo (492) and Lionel Messi (456) attempted the most direct free-kick shots. After all, they consistently played for some of the biggest clubs and they were at that level for the vast majority of the time we’re looking at, so clearly they’ve a few advantages there.

Nevertheless, it’s a pretty huge gap to the rest; Zlatan Ibrahimovic (235) and Andrea Pirlo (227) are the only other two players to break the 200 barrier. So, with that in mind, Messi (41) and Ronaldo (31) leading the way with the most goals also shouldn’t come as a shock as they’d registered way more attempts than everyone else. By that logic, you also won’t be surprised to learn who holds the record for direct free-kick goals in the Champions League

But how do those goal figures look when considered as a percentage of their total free-kick shots? This of course is where we get a better idea of a player’s efficiency from free-kicks, considering the frequency at which they score from them.

Ronaldo scored 6.3% of his free-kicks in the top five European leagues, roughly one in every 16, while Messi was up at 9%, approximately one in 11. When looking at the rest, we have to filter out players who’ve only taken a few; for argument’s sake, we put the cut-off at 30 free-kick shots as that’s enough to draw up a list of players who at least took set-pieces on a semi-regular basis for more than just a season.

lionel messi free-kicks

Of the remaining 391 players, the best conversion rate belonged to Diego, the former Brazil midfielder who played for Werder Bremen, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Atlético Madrid during the period in question. For those clubs, he took 84 free-kick shots and scored 13 of them for a conversion rate of 15.5%. That puts him slightly ahead of former Paris Saint-Germain full-back Siaka Tiéné (15.2%), though the Ivorian’s five goals came from 33 attempts, less than half of Diego’s total, further highlighting the dead-ball quality of the Brazilian. Essentially, for every six free-kick shots he attempted, Diego scored a goal.

Similarly, Ward-Prowse’s ability to maintain a high success rate over an even larger number of free-kicks reflects well on him. He’s attempted 128 in the Premier League and scored 17. That’s a conversion rate of 13.3%, putting him 10th among those to have taken at least 30 shots over the period in question, though only one other player in the top 30 for conversion rate took over 100 shots, and of those above him just Juan Mata (9/60, 15%) and Diego recorded more than 47 attempts.

james ward-prowse free-kicks

In total, only six players have managed more than a 10% conversion rate from 100+ free-kick shots, including Ronaldinho (11/107, 10.3%) – so, while we aren’t going to say this player or that player was the best at free-kicks, Ward-Prowse’s record holds up incredibly well.

He boasts an efficiency most players could only dream of, and then there’s a few who’d have been happy to just score one…

That’s right, we ought to also shine a light on those with – how to put this politely? – an admirable, albeit questionable, self-confidence from free-kicks. Two stand out here: Pascal Berenguer attempted 112 shots from free-kicks for Nancy without scoring any after the start of 2006-07, while Christian Romaric (109) endured similar profligacy for a handful of clubs in France and Spain.

You’ve Got to Love a Trier

Of course, looking at totals over such a long period potentially causes us to miss interesting outputs over shorter spans, so we’ve also crunched the numbers on a season-by-season basis as well.

It’s fair to say this chucks out a few names who are blasts from the past, with the majority of the players to tally the most free-kick attempts in a single season long since retired. This reflects a few trends that we’ll come to in a bit, but first we need to dedicate some attention to the aforementioned Juninho, a bona-fide icon of kicking the ball really hard from just about anywhere.

To say the former Lyon star was persistent would be an understatement; his 70 free-kick shots in the 2006-07 Ligue 1 season is by far the most recorded in a single season. He also ranks second (60 in 2007-08) and fourth (53 in 2008-09); there was no angle too acute and no distance too great. Across those three seasons, he managed 11 goals, with five of those coming in 2008-09.

The only other players to get within 20 of Juninho’s video game-esque tally of 70 attempts in 2006-07 were Cristiano Ronaldo (55 in 2011-12, 53 in 2010-11 and 50 in 2008-09) and Juan Arango (50 in 2008-09), the talented Venezuelan dead-ball specialist who made a significant impact at Real Mallorca and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

None of those mentioned managed to top our charts for the most free-kick goals scored in a single season on record, though. That figure is six, and three players managed to achieve that total in one campaign – one of them doing so twice.

Messi tucked six away in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons, with his 14.6% conversion rate in the latter his best record in a league campaign (minimum seven attempts), while Ronaldinho and Hakan Çalhanoglu also reached that total in 2006-07 and 2014-15 respectively.

Yaya Touré is worthy of a particularly special mention, though. During his almost legendary 2013-14 season at Manchester City, he boasted an incredible efficiency from free-kicks, scoring four of a possible seven. That 57.1% conversion rate has been bettered by only one other player to register at least five attempts in a single season; Gabriel Boschilia scored three of his five free-kick shots for Monaco in the 2016-17 campaign (60%).

Yaya Toure goals 2013-14 Premier League

Now we go from one extreme to the other. Over our designated timespan, there have been six instances of players attempting 30 or more free-kick shots without getting a single goal – unsurprisingly the aforementioned Berenguer (33 in 2008-09) and Romaric (36 in 2006-07) are both among them with Alessio Cerci (32 in 2013-14), Arango (34 in 2009-10), Marcos Assunção (34 in 2006-07) and, the holder of this particular unwanted record, Fabrizio Miccoli (38 in 2009-10).

A Rare Commodity

Make no mistake, the prominence of shots direct from free-kicks has changed dramatically over the past 18 years or so. In the 2006-07 season, there was an average of 642 shots taken from free-kicks across the top five leagues, and that figure is skewed slightly by the fact the Bundesliga has fewer matches. Two years later, the average was 100 higher, with 742 the median across these competitions.

Last season, however, the average for the five leagues was 305 free-kick shots over the full season, with Serie A recording the most (340). As such, there were only 87 free-kick goals scored in those leagues combined, which is less than half of the 183 we saw across the same competitions in the 2008-09 campaign, for instance.

Although isolated figures, these are indicative of the general decline in the frequency free-kick shots since 2006. In fact, we even saw the first instance (well, on record!) of a league failing to even reach double digits for free-kick goals in 2021-22, as just nine were scored in La Liga – suffice to say, that conversion rate of 2.8% is also the worst on record.

The 2008-09 campaign is also the point at which we have the data to look at things in a little more detail, specifically highlighting free-kicks in the final third (i.e. those that are more likely to be in shooting range); there were 7.8 per game across the top five leagues that campaign, and 1.9 of those were shots. That works out at roughly 25% over those competitions.

final-third free-kicks that are a shot

Last season, however, those averages were at 4.4 and 0.9, the lowest on record, having steadily dropped pretty much every year since 2008. That means only 18.8% of free-kicks in the final third were recorded as shots in 2022-23 compared to 24.6% in 2008-09 despite the median distance to goal decreasing to 27.6 metres from 29.5m over these years.

free-kick distance to goal

It seems fair to suggest VAR has had an impact. Each league’s record low for free-kick shots has been registered since the technology was introduced (for 2017-18 in the Bundesliga and Serie A, 2018-19 in La Liga and Ligue 1, 2019-20 in the Premier League). Fouls generally decreasing has contributed to this, which itself is partly down to referees having the added backup of VAR (make up your own mind on whether that’s a good thing or not!). Officials also exercise greater leniency these days, showing more willingness to let play go on for marginal calls, with the graphic below highlighting a reduction in fouls given in the final third as far as Opta records go back.

free-kicks in the final third

But we can’t just point to VAR and referees. Between 2008-09 and 2015-16, there was a decline in the average number of free-kick shots per league every season. Then it went up ever so slightly to 448 from 445, but since then it’s continued to decrease year on year, without exception. The gradual decrease started way before VAR was introduced.

Another possible explanation lies in the increased trust in data analytics, and metrics such as expected goals (xG); it could be argued teams are putting greater thought into their choices around free-kicks, concluding their scoring probability might be higher if they play crosses into the danger area as opposed to going for goal from distance.

Considering the money involved in modern football and the potential value of any marginal gain, maybe it’s understandable such goals are nowhere near as prevalent as they were not so long ago.

But at the same time, maybe it’s all just part of a cycle? Perhaps we’ll become so used to free-kicks not being sent straight towards goal that defensive tactics – or the personnel themselves – improve to counter the threat. As such, maybe a new trend will emerge as a result that sees greater emphasis on shooting whenever the opportunity arises.

As long as we still have a few free-kick conservationists left like Ward-Prowse, this endangered species will hopefully endure.

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