An analysis of how Lionel Messi overtook his rivals to become the undisputed best freekick taker in the world.
When Messi goes to take a free-kick, we are already thinking about the celebration.Ivan Rakitic
Leo Messi is the best freekick taker in the world. But he wasn’t always. This article will analyze the science behind his freekicks, his style and how exactly he, more than doubled his number of successful freekicks per season, over time.
Let’s take a look at the numbers
Here is a graph that shows the amount of free-kicks Messi has converted per season. A staggering increase. From scoring one free-kick the entire season to scoring nine (15/16). Messi has an average of 7.25 freekick goals per season in the previous 4 complete seasons, compared to a 1.65 free-kicks goals per season in his first 4 complete seasons since converting his first-ever free-kick. Messi has made 4 freekicks during the 19/20 season, which at the time of writing, is on an indefinite hiatus due to health regulations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Time for another absurd chart.
This chart shows the amount of goals scored by different entities over the last 8 years. All of the ‘entities’ are clubs, except for one. Lionel Messi isn’t competing with players anymore, he’s competing with teams. Over the last 8 years, Messi has converted the most free-kicks out of every club in the world. Taking this insane statistic even further, over the last 5 seasons Messi has scored the most free-kicks (obviously) with 22, while Juventus is in second with 15 free-kick goals. There is a difference of 7 free-kick goals between an individual in the first place and a team in second place.
The science behind Messi ‘s freekick technique
Messi’s leg when taking a free-kick has an angle of 50 degrees. He places almost his entire boot on the ground before hitting the ball, giving him stability, balance, and control in the shot.
To improve his accuracy, he arches his shoulder and chest to caress the ball, hunching his body to a more appropriate and compact position.
SPORT asked professionals and experts in the field about his free-kick genius. The Department of Physics at the University of Barcelona stated that he uses the Magnus Effect to consistently put the ball at the back of the net from a set-piece.
This effect is the phenomenon by which the rotation of a body creates a force perpendicular to the line of motion, affecting the trajectory. The pressure on the lower surface of the ball is greater than the pressure on the upper surface, resulting in a curved trajectory of the ball.
How Messi improved his free-kicks
So finally… how did Messi improve his free-kicks? Practice. Practice. Practice. The exponential increase in the number of free-kicks converted per season completely obliterates the baseless and incorrect myth that ‘Messi is all talent and no hard work!’. If you are average at free-kicks, you don’t just magically wake up one day and develop a better technique without putting work into it. Messi put work into it.
A report by MARCA states that Messi his way of hitting a ball in training early on, using plastic dolls as a barrier between him and the goal.
I have stayed back many times after training to practice my free-kicks.
– Lionel Messi
“You get used to shooting in a specific way and discover your best form. In the end, everything is training and practice”, Messi explained in the report. He also emphasized the importance of practicing and watching and studying everything there is study so that nothing is left to chance.
By staying back late after training, practicing and watching – is how Lionel Messi improved his free-kicks. Messi also spoke to ESPN about his free-kick style.
I like to hit the ball over the players’ wall but from time to time I like to mix it up a bit to confuse the goalkeeper.
– Lionel Messi
Messi’s free-kick style isn’t unique. What’s unique is how consistent he is with emulating that same style. Sometimes, most times – the goalkeepers actually know on what side of the net the ball will go to and yet they can’t do anything about it.
More training and more determination are what has led to more free-kick goals. When you combine a freak of nature and an extremely hardworking machine, you get Lionel Messi.
Is Messi the best in freekick taker in history?
Messi is the best player in history but he is also the best freekick taker I have ever seen.
– Lucos Olaza
Lionel Messi is the best player in football history. He is also the best free-kick taker in the world. But is he the best free-kick taker in football history? It’s up to opinion… for now. Personally, I think he is the best ever. His technique, his consistency – just how easy it is for him – I mean, it’s more surprising when Messi misses a free-kick nowadays.
Statistically, he still has some work to do. Messi has accumulated a total of 52 free-kicks in his career, and the top of the free-kick food chain is Juninho with 77 free-kicks. But then again, statistically, Juninho converted 77 free-kicks in almost 20 years, while Messi has made 52 successful free-kicks in just 10 years.
Let’s do some math.
Messi currently averages 7.25 free-kicks per season (based on the 15/16, 16/17, 17/18 and 18/19 seasons. Messi’s most recent seasons with the most similar free-kick tallies). Assuming that Messi plays till 2023, and scores an average of 7 free-kicks per season (can be astronomically higher or even lower), he’ll score 21 free-kicks over the course of the next three seasons (excluding the current, 19/20 season). That will take his free-kick count to 73 free-kicks. Juninho’s free-kick count is 77. The calculated 73 free-kicks does not count the number of free-kicks he could still make in 19/20 (when and if the season is resumed), so if Messi scores 4 more free-kicks this season, or has anomalous seasons in which he scores more than the predicted 7 free-kicks, he could make history and claim the throne as the player with the most free-kicks ever.
On one hand, it seems extremely difficult and practically impossible to get those kinds of numbers in that kind of time, but on the other hand, it’s Lionel Messi we’re talking about, what is impossible to him?
Ronald Koeman and a case of poor game-management
Ronald Koeman has had a rollercoaster of a start to life as Barcelona manager. He had an excellent opening week, claiming a thumping 4-0 home win against Villarreal as well as a 3-0 away victory at Celta Vigo, but since then, things have started derailed.
From no goal against and seven for in his first two to six apiece over his last four matches, the Catalan side seems to be crumbling under the immense pressure being placed on their shoulders. The cherry on this miserable cake was his poor game-management against Real Madrid as Barcelona chased the game for the last 30 minutes, eventually succumbing to a 3-1 loss.
The starting line up
Dest – Pique – Lenglet – Jordi Alba
Busquets – F. De Jong
Pedri – Lionel Messi – Coutinho
On paper, this is one of the best starting line ups that Koeman could have played against Real Madrid. Sergiño Dest was finally playing in his rightful position, Jordi Alba was back from injury, Sergio Busquets was there to provide defensive aid to de Jong and Pedri, a 17-year-old in phenomenal form was deservedly called up to play. Normally, this should have been a good game given the perfect blend of the zeal and zest that comes with youth and the calmness and composure that comes from the experience; however, it was anything but.
Busquets has seen far better nights in his time as a Blaugrana. In the game, he was often poorly positioned, lost possession countless times and was simply incapable of playing through the pressure imposed on him by the defending champions.
Pedri meanwhile made little to no impact. This was to be expected given the fact that he is most influential when playing down the middle but Koeman decided to use him as an out and out winger instead with no explanation.
Pedri was no by means poor; but was a lot less influential than what he can be. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Perhaps due to his injury, and the fact that he was completely out of position, Philippe Coutinho wasn’t as effective as he has or could have been. Jordi Alba had a rather good first half and easily could have had two assists, but his influence decreased as both the game and his legs wore on.
Real Madrid were forced into making their first change early on, but unlike his counterpart, Zinedine Zidane made a tactical change at a time when the player in question had adequate time to make an impact. Given the fact that Pedri, Coutinho, Busquets and Alba simply weren’t having their day, and that Koeman had five substitutions at his disposal, he should have taken them off well before the 82nd minute, when his first change was made.
Keeping in mind the strength in depth that the hosts had on the bench, Koeman should have made like for like changes in the team to both add some of the much-needed dynamism in play as well as maintain a structured shape when in possession of the ball. Instead, he opted for the following:
- Antoine Griezmann for Fati
- Ousmane Dembele for Busquets
- Fransisco Trincão for Pedri
- Martin Braithwaite for Alba
These substitutes served to worsen the team’s functionality in possession, as no one was anywhere where they could actually make an impact on proceedings. The formation essentially went from what was a fairly balanced 4-2-3-1 to a 3-1-6 and with no clear plan for how the six forward players were to position themselves.
Subbing off Alba for a striker seemed like a bizarre decision. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Even with Junior Firpo and Miralem Pjanic at his disposal, players who would help in ball circulation while maintaining a reasonable offensive shape, Koeman decided to patch up the holes he saw in the team by adding more attacking players but this inadvertently made them bigger.
The Dutchman made the same mistakes against Getafe, bringing on Riqui Puig for Sergi Roberto in the dying minutes of the game. Not to mention he subbed on Braithwaite for Frenkie de Jong which crumbled the team structure.
What does this tell us about Koeman?
Sergio Ramos scored the penalty that put the visitors in the lead in the 64th minute. There was more than enough time, for Koeman to think of the changes that he could make which would — at the very least — last 25 minutes.
While the sample size is rather small, thus far we could say that he doesn’t seem to have a plan B whenever the team is in a losing position and that his fear of defeat impedes his judgment. Koeman had an abundance of quality on the bench but has made deplorable use of it. This stems from either out of a complete lack of trust in his players’ suitability in the team or distrust in his own tactics.
As a result, the players on the pitch, such as Griezmann – who made just a single touch in his short cameo role – were just as clueless, if not more than their manager.
Where do the improvements lie?
There is obviously an improvement in the football that the team is playing thus far in La Liga. As Jose Bordalas said, Barcelona is more direct than they were in previous seasons but this exuberance can only last so long, especially with players like Busquets who are on the wrong end of thirty. In games like this or the one against Getafe, the manager needs to have a clear and concise plan in mind on what to do whenever the team is trailing.
Bartomeu is gone, and Koeman’s fate lies in the hand of the new president. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)
While he could be forgiven for a shaky start to the campaign, he will not be given a lot of time, not as much as Ernesto Valverde got, especially given a change in administration due very soon. Xavi is a clear target for most of the presidential candidates and if Koeman wants to keep his job beyond this season, then he needs to work on his squad management. This can come by shaking up the setup from time to time and showing some more faith in what is one of the best, most complete squads Barcelona has had in years.