Every month we bring you the complete Gunners guide to various techniques that make up the beautiful game. This month we take an in depth look at free-kick goals.
There’s always been something particularly thrilling about witnessing a direct free-kick fly into the top corner of the goal. Perhaps it’s due to the precision and curl required to get the ball over the wall, back down again and beyond the goalkeeper.
Maybe it’s the rare nature of seeing a set-piece taker actually score with an attempt – less than six per cent taken in the Premier League so far this season have found the net.
But scoring two, in the space of a week, from an almost identical distance and curled into exactly the same place? That’s precisely what Brian Talbot did for Arsenal at Highbury in September 1984.
“Newcastle and Liverpool – 1984, two in a week,” he remembers. “How could I forget? They were that accurate that it really was impossible for the goalkeeper to save them. They went over the wall and right into the corner with a lot of pace so the goalkeeper had no chance.
“I remember thinking before the one against Liverpool that if I put it in the right place and with enough pace, Bruce Grobbelaar wouldn’t be able to save it. I thought he was a bit too far over the other side and if I could get it over the wall and on target, it would be a goal. I have to admit there’s a bit of luck involved,” he adds.
“You have to make sure you catch it right and with those two in the same week, I placed my shots and made good contact with the ball.”
Talbot’s set-piece success drew plenty of plaudits at the time, with commentator John Motson likening his goal against Liverpool to then-Ballon d’Or winner, Michel Platini. But ‘Noddy’, as he was affectionately referred to during his time in north London, was only on free-kick duty because a certain team-mate was not in the side.
“I took free-kicks occasionally but there was always someone in the team that wanted to take them,” he says with a smile. “When I first arrived, we had Liam Brady. During the season that I scored two in a week, Graham Rix would always want to take them, so you’d just let him get on with it. He was keen to take them all the time, as was Charlie Nicholas when he arrived.
“Graham wasn’t playing against Newcastle or Liverpool, which opened the door for me. I didn’t insist on taking them when he came back into the team, though.”
Talbot would often take out mannequins after training and stay behind practicing free-kicks. But what are the fundamentals required to be successful?
“You have to keep your eye on the ball,” Talbot explains. “It’s important to assess the situation too. Look at the wall, look at where the goalkeeper is and then decide what you’re going to do. The goalkeeper will decide where you put the ball.
“If you look at him and see where he’s standing, and where the wall is positioned, then concentrate on your delivery and your technique and get that right. If the goalkeeper or the wall aren’t in the correct starting position, you can exploit that.
“You need to be flexible too,” Talbot, who played 327 times for the Gunners between 1979 and 1985, explains. “If you’re planning on going for placement and then see a gap in the wall, that opens up the opportunity to put more power into the shot.
“Generally speaking, people do try and get theirs up and over because goalkeepers usually organise their wall well. If they don’t though, and decide to place the wall too far over to one side and the delivery is accurate, the ‘keeper won’t be able to get across.”
Talbot identifies Glenn Hoddle and Peter Lorimer as the best free-kick takers from his era, and says David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are the standouts from the last decade. He feels that changes in the design and weight of matchballs, coupled with advancements in technology, have aided modern-day set-piece specialists.
“Peter Lorimer would smash them in,” he says. “His power and pace beat everybody, including the goalkeeper. His shots used to go past the ‘keeper before he could move. We’ve always seen goals scored from set-pieces, be it from free-kicks, corners or penalties. Maybe it’s highlighted more now because there’s more television and more media attention.
“Players now can hit the ball with more pace because they are more powerful now than ever. They seem to have no backlift and can still hit the ball really hard. Those factors together make it difficult for the goalkeeper to judge the flight of the ball.
“The technique, the attention to detail and the things you watch now – because people watch games constantly now – is important. I’m amazed by the intensity of the preparation and the post-match analysis. Things are so deep and involved now.
“People can look at things in so many ways and identify why things have or haven’t happened. Those minor details can be very important because they help to make performances better. The same goes for free-kicks. Players can get all the information they need now, whereas we just learnt on the training pitch.”
The famous five
Thierry Henry AS Roma 1, Arsenal 3 Stadio Olimpico November 27, 2002 UEFA Champions League This goal capped an outstanding individual display from Thierry Henry in the Eternal City. Arsenal trailed to an early Cassano strike in the Stadio Olimpico when the French star took a grip of this Champions League group game. He planted a low side-footed shot into the far corner to peg back Roma and then fired the visitors ahead with 23 minutes left, slamming a rebound past the keeper after his initial header was saved. The coup de grace was delivered with 15 minutes left. Sylvain Wiltord was fouled just outside the area and Henry sized up the situation. He stepped forward and curled a beautiful free-kick beyond Antonioli and into the top corner.
Paul Merson Ipswich Town 1, Arsenal 2 Portman Road April 10, 1993 Division One The Magic Man scored a couple of stunning free-kicks, but this was arguably the best. At least 10 yards outside the area (the defensive wall lined up next to the D), and just left of centre, Merson stood hands on hips weighing up his options. Then, after his run up, he struck a fierce right-foot shot over the wall and into the top left-hand corner. Clive Baker in the Ipswich goal was rooted to the spot, well beaten by the speed and flight of the ball.
Mikel Arteta Arsenal 3, Aston Villa 0 Emirates Stadium April 8, 2012 Premier League Sheer power from the Spanish midfielder. Arsenal were awarded a free-kick centrally, fully 30 yards from goal in the final minute of the match. Arsenal were already 2-0 up so Arteta had nothing to lose as he began his run up. He connected full-blooded with a right-footed strike which soared over the wall and beyond the diving ‘keeper’s out-stretched left arm. This remains the only free-kick he’s scored for Arsenal, after being something of a specialist in the discipline at Everton.
Cesc Fabregas Arsenal 3, Aston Villa 0 Emirates Stadium December 27, 2009 Premier League Martin O’Neill’s team gave as good as they got for just shy of 60 minutes. Then Fabregas left the substitutes’ bench and entered the fray. Within moments he speared a 40-yard free-kick just over. Then a clumsy challenge from Richard Dunne gave Fabregas another dead-ball chance rather closer in and slightly left of centre. The captain eyed up his options and unleashed an exquisite curler which left Brad Friedel grasping at thin air as the ball arrowed into the top left-hand corner. The celebrations were long and loud as Fabregas sprinted to the Arsenal fans with his arms outstretched. And he added a second goal for good measure before limping off with the points in the bag.
Santi Cazorla Arsenal 3, Hull City 2 Wembley Stadium May 17, 2014FA Cup Final Perhaps the most important free-kick in the club’s history. Arsenal were trailing 2-0 to Hull City at Wembley in the FA Cup final, and the wait for a trophy looked set to continue. There were 16 minutes on the clock and the Gunners were awarded a free-kick some eight yards outside the area. Lukas Podolski was the left-footed option, Cazorla the right. The Spaniard stepped up and fiercely bent his effort up and over the wall and into the far top corner. Allan McGregor in the Hull goal got a glove to it, but couldn’t keep it out. The goal settled the nerves, and Arsenal went on to win 3-2 in extra-time.
The EXPERT VIEW
Former Arsenal and Northern Ireland midfielder, Steve Morrow has also managed in America’s Major League Soccer, is a UEFA A qualified coach and has worked as a match analyst for Arsenal. com. Now head of recruitment for the Arsenal academy, he is involved with youth player development globally for the Club.
“This is something players like to practice on their own, especially at the end of training sessions, so it becomes an individual thing.
“There are two main variations to direct free-kicks. There’s a more technical aspect, when players try to curl it up and over the wall. That takes a lot of practice. And then there is the option of direct power. Usually players prefer one or the other, placement or power.
“When I was playing at Arsenal, Paul Merson was always good at free-kicks, and actually Niall Quinn took a great free-kick too. He used to work on them in training and had a peculiar one where a player would roll it back to him and he would flick it up and volley it. I saw him do it in a couple of first team games as well as in training, and he always hit the target. That was down to great technique and practice too.
“Away from Arsenal people like David Beckham obviously spring to mind and I think the technique has improved a lot down the years. As far as coaching free-kicks is concerned, as I say, it’s down to individual practice. Repetition is the best way. We always have the mannequins and a bag of balls after training and players can spend ages out there perfecting their technique.”
on his favourite free-kick goal... I would say Santi Cazorla’s in the FA Cup final against Hull last season. It was a very difficult one, because it was from a long way out and psychologically at a very important point of the game. We were 2-0 down and that free-kick brought us back into the game. It was a trophy that we needed absolutely to win. It was a combination of difficult technical circumstance and difficult psychological circumstance. Together he got it all right and I think it will stay forever in the minds of our fans.
on what makes a good free-kick taker... In training you have many good free-kick takers, but it’s different in the game. In training you can take 10 chances, but what I think is very important is to remain relaxed and focused and take the right decision in the game.
on the best free-kick takers... Thierry Henry was very good at it, with either foot, Santi Cazorla too. I think Lukas Podolski could have been fantastic, but he didn’t take enough of them. I pushed him so many times to take them. The person with the best combination of technique and power is certainly Podolski. I’ve never seen a guy strike a dead ball like him. When he hit it, you just wanted to be out of the way. He had a short backlift, but maybe he didn’t take enough. I think one guy who could be good on free-kicks is Nacho Monreal.
But there are a lot of players ahead of him in the queue because usually defenders don’t get the chance. Previously Glenn Hoddle was very good, he could use both feet as well. Then you had someone like Sinisa Mihajlovic who was certainly one of the best in history. Roberto Carlos also was great, Ronaldinho too, and Diego Maradona was top. In fact Maradona was the best I saw at scoring from right on the edge of the box. He’s the only one I’ve seen who could get the ball to drop down from quite close in. In France Michel Platini was the best.
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