There have been just nine goals scored directly from free-kicks in the Premier League this season. Is the art of the set-piece specialist dying out?

The Premier League has been graced by some wonderful free-kick takers and dead-ball specialists down the years. David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Gianfranco Zola, Cristiano Ronaldo… and most recently, James Ward-Prowse.

But are free-kick goals dying out in England’s top flight?

There have been 1,166 goals scored in the Premier League this season, which is already the fourth-highest campaign on record, and there are still 23 matches left to play. Indeed, when only counting 38-game seasons, this is already the highest-scoring Premier League campaign.

But how many of those goals have come directly from free-kicks?

The answer is a meagre nine. Nine out of 1,166 goals. It is the lowest number of free-kick goals since the start of the 2003-04 campaign.

And while there is still time for it all to change, of course, it is a remarkably low number compared to the total of shots, and the quality of attackers currently playing in Europe’s toughest league. To put it into further perspective, there were 18 direct free-kick goals scored last season.

But, has there been a steady decline in the total free-kick goals year on year in the Premier League?

Between the start of the 2000-01 season and the end of the 2009-10 campaign, there were 321 goals scored directly from free-kicks, at an average of 32.1 per season. Yet in the following decade, that number dropped to 272 (27.2 per season).

Top PL FK takers

That drop-off is even more stark since the start of the 2020-21 campaign, with only 59 free-kicks ending up in the back of the net – an average of just 14.7 per campaign.

What could the reasons be for this?

Is it that, with more possession-based systems now in place, managers prefer their players to go short from free-kicks rather than go for goal? Perhaps.

Interestingly, since the start of the 2017-18 season, there has not been one campaign where the shot tally from free-kicks was over 400, with the highest figure the 380 in 2018-19. Before 2017-18, there were never fewer than 400 shots from free-kicks across an individual season, going back to 2003-04.

This decline is demonstrated by the graphic below, which shows the percentage of final-third free-kicks that are struck directly at goal. Since 2008-09, there has been an approximate 10% drop off.

Direct FK shots

In conjunction with this, the number of final-third free-kicks per game has also dropped quite dramatically across the past 16 years.

Whereas between 2008-09 and 2010-11, there were over six final-third free-kicks per game on average, that has steadily decreased to hover just above four per match in the last few seasons.

Direct FK final third

However, despite there being fewer shots, the average free-kick distance from goal has actually decreased since 2008-09, to the tune of 2.5 metres, going from just under 29m out to around 26.5m out.

One might think the closer to goal, the better the chance, though?

Direct FK distance

It is not as though there are not still quality set-piece takers or free-kick specialists in the competition, either.

Sure, there’s no Golden Balls, but Kieran Trippier, Bruno Fernandes and Trent Alexander-Arnold are some of the names more than capable of planting free-kicks into the top corner, while if Ward-Prowse had a free-kick 25 yards out while he was at Southampton, it seemed like it was as good as a penalty. He is, however, yet to score one in the league for West Ham so far.

There have been 264 attempts directly from free-kicks in 2023-24, with those strikes coming with a cumulative expected goals (xG) of just 16 – a measly 0.06 per shot.

But which teams go for goal most often?

If possession-based systems equated to fewer free-kick shots, then you might expect Manchester City to be down the standings. Instead, Pep Guardiola’s team lead the way, with 23 attempts. And they also lead the league for direct free-kick goals, having netted three of them. Phil Foden has scored two, with both of those coming in April – against Aston Villa and Brighton – while Julián Álvarez got the other in a defeat to Wolves back in September.

Well, City do have the ball all of the time, and are almost always on the attack, so surely that means more fouls, and therefore more free-kicks? Well, not quite. City actually rank 11th for fouls won, but they are first for fouls won in the final third, with 120 – so, around 19% of those free-kicks resulted in a direct shot. And, it’s still only three of 87 goals that have come from free-kicks for the reigning champions.

Next on the list for free-kick shots are Crystal Palace (20 – one goal), followed by Chelsea (19 – one goal), Bournemouth (18 – zero goals) and Liverpool (18 – one goal). West Ham and Brentford come next, with 16 each, though while the Bees have scored twice, the Hammers have not managed to find the net.

Villa, who have had 15 free-kick attempts, are the only other team to have scored a goal from such situations this term, meaning, as it stands, the nine free-kick goals have been shared between just six sides.

Man City have scored three free-kicks

On the flip side, Arsenal have had just six shots directly from free-kicks this term – the two title rivals are on polar opposite sides of the spectrum here.

Newcastle United, despite Trippier’s penchant for a banger, have only had seven such attempts (although their right-back’s injury issues may have played some part in that), which is level with Sheffield United, and no team to have had below 15 attempts has scored from a free-kick this term.

Bournemouth (18), West Ham (16) and Manchester United (15) are the teams to have had at least that many attempts, but have failed to score.

Indeed, these free-kick goals have also come in flurries, too, with three coming in the space of 22 days in April – Foden’s pair plus Alexander-Arnold’s effort in Liverpool’s win at Fulham.

Analysing this season’s free-kick goals in more detail, seven of them were scored from between 20m and 25m from goal, with Foden’s effort vs Villa coming in at 25.2m. The only anomaly was John McGinn cross from out wide against Manchester United back on Boxing Day, which was struck from 40m out and had an xG of just 0.02 but bounced past André Onana and into the net. That means one of this season’s nine free-kick goals was an accident.

Of the nine goals, the one with the highest xG was Ivan Toney’s clever – some might say crafty, given he moved the ball before the free-kick was taken – strike against Nottingham Forest, coming in at 0.11 xG. It is worth noting Forest goalkeeper Matt Turner did leave a gaping hole to his left for the Brentford star to find, though.

And, finally, which players have tried their luck the most this term?

Unsurprisingly, Ward-Prowse leads the way, having taken 15 of West Ham United’s 16 free-kick shots, yet he has not converted any of them, having scored three goals from 17 free-kick attempts for Southampton last term.

Man City’s Álvarez has taken 13, scoring once, while Palace star Eberechi Eze has scored once from 12 efforts. Man Utd midfielder Bruno Fernandes has taken on 11, while Burnley’s Jacob Bruun Larsen has gone for glory on 10 occasions.

Foden has an exceptional conversion rate, putting away two of his three free-kick shots, while Brentford’s Mathias Jensen has scored one out of three.

Raheem Sterling has converted one from four, Alexander-Arnold one from five, and Toney one from seven.

Perhaps 2023-24 will prove to be an anomaly. Going back over recent seasons, though, the trend is clear. No longer can we expect to see 20+ goals netted from sensational free-kicks – they are instead becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

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