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Analysis

The art of a Lionel Messi free-kick

Prajas Naik

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Header Image by Imago

Lionel Messi makes taking a free-kick seem plain sailing, but he has transformed such challenge into an art thanks to a wide number of unparalleled skills.


We all are quite aware of the dangers of a Lionel Messi free-kick. We know the insane statistics. And we all know that each time Messi takes a free-kick, he’s probably going to shoot for goal. Yes, even from 35 yards out. But why is it that the Argentine magician manages to find the net more times from a free-kick than entire teams like Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus? Hard work is certainly the main reason behind his knack for scoring from set pieces. But what other excellent skills work in Messi’s favour that allow him to be so prolific from the set piece? Let’s find out.

Technique

It all begins with technique. Over the years, Leo has perfected his technique to achieve remarkable accuracy. Each training session, every match and thousands of missed tries later, Lionel Messi has now perfected the art. He takes short run-ups, yet still manages to score, generating the necessary power by using the perfect technique. Instead of trying using pure power or stylish techniques, Leo focusses solely on improving the classic curve ball. In watching all of Messi’s free-kick goals one after the other, an improvement is seen in the positioning of the strike.

❛ Thinking about his free-kick now, I still can’t believe he scored it. I actually thought he was going to take it short. I have told you how good I think Ali [Alisson] is, but Messi put that shot in the one area Ali couldn’t protect. The whip, the pace, the precision – it was absolutely perfect ❜

Jordan Henderson
Liverpool captain on Messi’s goal against the Reds in the 2019 Champions League semi-finals

As we come closer to the present, the ball seems to gradually move closer and closer to the post, almost fitting snugly in the top corner. His goal against Liverpool last season in the Champions League was almost the perfect example of the same. Jan Oblak, Iker Casillas, Alisson Becker…All of the best keepers in the world have, at the peek of their powers, fallen prey to Leo’s accuracy. Even with their arms stretched to the limit and the wall perfectly adjusted, Messi still manages to put the ball out of the goalkeeper’s reach.

Versatility

The next skill Messi has developed that helps his free-kick is his versatility. Most would try and aim for the far corner curling the ball into the goal. But Messi has shown that a bit of unpredictability is also an ingredient on the road to success. With his constantly changing target, not only does he aim for the far post, he also goes for the near post, under the wall, around the wall and a couple of times even through gaps in the wall. He always keeps the keeper guessing which way to dive. With the keeper uncertain, Messi is free to choose which direction to shoot in order to pick the lock.

Judgement and vision

Adding to his perfect technique is his immaculate judgement and vision. An ability he demonstrates throughout his playing style, free-kicks are no exception. He has gradually attained the perfect judgement of the ball, knowing exactly how to strike it, how much power to use and which direction to shoot in. Through his experience, the Barcelona captain has developed an understanding of the motion of the ball, which allows him to be more accurate and on point. He can also find little openings which allow him to score even the unlikeliest of goals.

Alisson Becker Liverpool Barcelona Champions League Camp Nou Lionel Messi free-kick

Not even the best goalkeepers in the world have been able to cope with the supremacy of Lionel Messi from a free-kick | Photo by Catherine Ivill via Getty Images

Confidence and reputation

Finally, it all boils down to confidence. Being one of the best ever certainly does give a player quite a lot of confidence, but his contribution to the rest of the game allows him to take risks other players think twice before taking. It gives him the audacity to try and score a free-kick by simply chipping the ball over the wall. He can risk missing quite often because he manages to redeem himself over the rest of the game. His reputation does him a favor as well. Simply his name is enough to make opposition players nervous, and when he is standing there over the ball plotting the perfect shot, it tends to lower your morale and increase his chances of scoring even when he should have failed.

Hard work, vision, versatility and confidence are just a few of Lionel Messi’s qualities that make him so deadly from the set piece. Yet they are an integral part of what goes behind the net swaying as the ball is flawlessly guided into the top corner by the blaugranas‘ number 10.


See more

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• Barcelona, a big spender: a shock?

Football is something that comes from within. Every minute spent watching or playing the beautiful game brings out emotions in ways nothing else ever could. This emotion embodied itself in FC Barcelona for me. Every piece I read or write, every moment I watch just multiplies my love for the club. The ability of being able to express this craze of mine is a remarkable gift for me. Its a gift that never stops giving.

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Analysis

A Detailed Look into Barcelona’s defeat against Getafe

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

Barcelona fell to defeat in Madrid, and Barça Universal brings a detailed analysis of how the visitors fared against the relentless Getafe.


Matchweek four saw FC Barcelona travel to Coliseum Alfonso Perez to take on yet another difficult opposition – Getafe. In recent years, Getafe have seen an uptick of fortune under manager Jose Bordalas, by opting to play a straightforward counterattacking style of football while staying defensively compact. It is easy to not classify their game as pretty. Still, they are highly effective – with constant disruptions to the game with a very physical style of play, they forced Barcelona to stay out of their box very effectively. The game indeed was gruesome to watch and ended in Getafe eking out a narrow 1-0 victory – their first over Barcelona in the league since 2011-12.

The Shape of the Teams

As the team returned from the international break with many of the players having played 180+ minutes, Ronald Koeman rang in some interesting changes. However, one could always argue if there were, in fact, enough changes and whether they made a lot of sense. Neto, Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Sergi Roberto at right-back, and Sergino Dest as the makeshift left-back formed the back-five, with the usual double pivot of Sergio Busquets of Frenkie de Jong.

Ousmane Dembele was back in action on the left-wing, Antoine Griezmann started in a false 9 role, and Lionel Messi as the nominal ‘right-wing’. The biggest surprise perhaps was the first start handed to 17-year-old Pedri at central attacking-midfield.

From the pass-maps and the following touch-based heatmaps, you can see that Messi did stay a lot wider than the “false RW” role he had under the previous two managers. Still, he kept interchanging slots with Griezmann quite a bit as well, especially in the deeper zones. The Frenchman had a lot of touches in the wider zones while tracking back. As such, and combined with his highly ineffective combination play with the midfield and the forwards, it does the beg the question as to whether it makes any sense to put Griezmann up top, or for that matter, as a starter in the team at all.

Also, de Jong’s role and influence in the game was in sharp contrast to the previous games and Busquets’ as well. Busquets influenced a lot of the central zones, while Frenkie tried to rattle wider, and deeper areas more, partly due to the absence of Jordi Alba.

Getafe came up with a highly asymmetrical 4-4-2, with very distinctively different lines of midfielders in possession, and very different roles of the wide players on two sides:

It was former La Masia youngster Marc Cucurella, playing as a left wide-mid, who was really the most adventurous of the lot and showed the most attacking prowess. In midfield, Mauro Arambarri had the freedom to drift around a bit while Nemanja Maksimovic stayed deep and patrolled in front of the defence, seldom venturing up.

Offence

This was a game with very little quality and very few clear cut chances. Getafe didn’t allow Barcelona to create a lot with extremely compact and physical defending. Barcelona enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession, but to no avail. They could have easily scored at least once in the first half through Antoine Griezmann, where they were clearly the better side. The biggest chances they conceded came in the second half – the unfortunate penalty, and counter-attacks in the late stages of the game.

Apart from the shots shown here, there was a dangerous moment where Cucho Hernandez had the opportunity to take a crack at Barcelona’s goal but slipped at the vital moment.

As for the goal, it resulted in a really unfortunate foul in the box by Frenkie de Jong. It came from a set-piece play pattern, and after the ball had pinged inside and outside the box a few times, de Jong tripped Djene Dakonam in the box as they both went for the ball.

Getafe, as was shown in the pass-map before, were not interested in deep build-up at all. They constantly went direct, staying true to their style of play. The attack pattern of swift transitions is clearly visible in the buildup to some of the shots they took, as shown below. These shots either came from forcing high turnovers or from speedy breaks from their own half with just a handful of passes only to transition over a large vertical distance:

In contrast, Barcelona were rambling, slow and sometimes clueless in the buildup, especially in the second half. There were two opportunities following two gorgeous buildups. The first one was intricate and involved a beautiful turn by the youngster Pedri to set up Dest, who cut the ball back for Messi. The Argentine’s left-footed precision shot evaded the Getafe goalie David Soria but cannoned off the post.

But the best opportunity of the first half fell to Griezmann. Yet again, the creator was Pedri, who met the World Cup winner’s wonderfully timed run with a delectable through ball. Griezmann raced clear of Getafe’s defensive line and with only the keeper at his mercy, shot high into the stands. The buildups are shown below:

(To be noted: neither Antione Griezmann’s shot nor Cucho Hernandez’s shots were on target – they blazed over the goal-post. The visuals above should not confuse the readers.)

The majority of the rest of the shots that Barcelona took came from set-pieces or hopeful crosses into the Getafe box. Apart from the cross that was almost turned into his own goal by Erick Cabaco late in the game and the one where Lenglet failed to connect properly with Messi’s freekick, the rest aren’t even worth discussing.

Barcelona did manage a lot of successful takeons, way more than Getafe, but most notably perhaps, none successful in Getafe’s box. The bulk of these duels were restricted in the wide areas, where Dest and Messi showed good feet. In the central zones, only Messi and Pedri were skilled and silky enough to beat their marker.

Passing

Barcelona’s progressive passing took a bit of hit this game. Here is a compilation of the successful progressive passes by all Barcelona players shown below. Something that strikes out immediately – there was almost nothing down the middle. Frenkie could only exert his influence through passing in the wide areas. Both centre-backs heavily sprayed out the ball wide. The characteristic dagger balls from Lenglet that we have grown used to seeing was missing this game:

Next we take a look at the assortment of most threatening passes that Barcelona put together:

Just like the game against Sevilla, there were barely any successful entries into the box. Many passes were sprayed out wide, which only halted the progress till that point. Simply put, Getafe were just too compact and physical to allow anything constructive to happen.

Shown below are Getafe’s progressive passes by all players, and their most threatening passes. They were either mostly pinging long balls into Barcelona’s third or launching counters from the deep bypassing the entire midfield and trying to catch Barcelona out. Unlike the visitors, there were a lot more entries into the box mostly coming from wide areas.

The two passes that standout are Cucurella’s pass to initiate a fast counter, and Pedri’s ball to Griezmann. Cucho Hernandez led the Getafe side with 3 key passes, with Cucurella and Enes Unal with one each. For Barcelona, Dest had two key passes, and Messi and Pedri had one each.

 

Next we look at switches of play. There is an amazing distinction between the two. Getafe’s switch passes from the wide areas were mainly to attack Barcelona’s 3rd and the box. Barcelona’s switches mainly came in buildup phases, attempting to open up Getafe, almost exclusively in the middle 3rd.

The quantity used here to compare passes into the final third is called field tilt – it’s the number of final third passes completed by a team, divided by the sum of final third passes completed by both teams, expressed as a percentage instead of a fraction. It’s a stat introduced by Statsperform (previously Opta) to measure territorial dominance.

Barcelona completed a greater number of final third passes than Getafe, and yet had a lower number of box entries – this is simply unacceptable in the future. Shown below are the mean field tilts as well as the time evolution. Barcelona overall had much higher territorial dominance with 67%. The only times Getafe enjoyed a better share of the territory was in the first 15 minutes of each half, and they made their territorial dominance in the second half count with a goal within that 15 minutes of the restart.

Defence

As a short side note, PPDA serves as a proxy of pressing intensity. It tells us how many passes the team in possession is allowed to make in their own 3-5ths of the pitch before disrupted with a foul or a tackle or an interception by the defending team. Lower the PPDA numbers, roughly speaking, higher the pressing intensity upfield. Getafe are known as notorious pressers, but they didn’t try to press too high or too much against Barcelona – recording a modest PPDA of 11 as compared to Barcelona’s 5. Also shown is the PPDA time evolution below:

Getafe exhibited their best press between the 15-30 minutes of the first half, and then at the beginning of the second half. It was 15-minute slot when the second half started where they dominated territory and pressed extremely well, and eventually scored. Next, let’s take a look at the defensive activities heatmap:

Barcelona’s pressurizing defensive actions were mainly concentrated on the left courtesy of Dest, Dembele, and de Jong. In the box, Pique and Lenglet held their own for the most part, and Neto was a safe pair of gloves. In fact, the Brazilian stopped a great shot from Cucho late in the second half to prevent Barcelona from going 2 goals down.

Getafe pressured the middle third to great effect and targeted Dembele’s wastefulness on the left flank and Roberto’s lack of support on the right. The unsuccessful passes tell the story of very curious pass weights by several Barcelona players, but most notably Dembele who couldn’t seem to get anything right in the first half. Misplacing so many short passes – for a team like Barcelona- should be a crime.

In terms of turnover creations, Barcelona managed a few handfuls on the left flank, helped by a reasonably good left-back outing by Dest. Getafe created turnovers in the middle and defensive thirds mostly.

Of course, you can’t describe a Getafe game without mentioning fouls. Fouling is an extremely effective strategy by Bordalas’ men, and an obliging referee meant they got away with almost everything. Getafe committed twice the number of fouls as Barcelona – 20 to 10, and yet had only one more yellow card than Barcelona. Allan Nyom should have easily seen the red card – if not direct, at least by accumulation – but escaped with just yellow.

Issues

There were several issues. The passing weight remains an issue. It was an issue against Sevilla, at the Camp Nou. It was an issue against Getafe. Dembele had a torrid showing. This was his first start and the first bunch of meaningful minutes. But nothing on display was encouraging, and it remains to be seen how much faith Koeman puts in him in the upcoming matches.

The midfielders were mostly solid – and that’s about it. They failed to influence the game with incisive passes. De Jong was pushed deep and wide. Busquets had one good pass, and the rest were all simple.

In the absence of Alba, the left side is almost as dead as the right. Dest tried a lot, and he was along with Pedri, the only standout performer for the travellers. He had two key passes, and a couple of really admirable dribbles, going toe-to-toe with Nyom. But he wasn’t nearly close enough to being the marauding Jordi Alba. The Messi-left wing connection has been a super fruitful one over the last few years, and that was sorely missed yesterday.

Speaking of, Messi was not utilized well at all in this game. He wasn’t allowed to drift as much and stayed wide a lot more. He was also not a part of the buildup as much as Barcelona would have preferred. If this was a conscious tactical decision not to involve Messi too much, it is much better to let him rove near the goal so he can make the most of his stellar finishing.

One way or the other, Messi looks really uninvolved and it’s costing Barcelona. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

Griezmann continued to be underwhelming for Barcelona. He did nothing notable from the right-wing in the previous games, and he did nothing notable as the false 9 against Getafe. Barely involved in possession, he did make a good run only to smash a shot into the stands. At this point, it’s a fair call to try other attackers on the wing, especially with Fransisco Trincāo and Konrad de la Fuente waiting for quality minutes.

The refereeing was questionable, to put it mildly. Cucho Hernandez ran into Pique’s elbows and won a foul, with the Spaniard on the receiving end of a yellow. To even things a bit, the referee gave Mata a yellow for a soft foul on Lenglet. But nothing was more contentious than the elbow in the face of Messi by Nyom, who amazingly enough, escaped any card at all. He kept committing several fouls and was only shown a yellow after his 7th foul of the game, when in fact, he was lucky to survive that long.

The substitutes

For the first time, Ronald Koeman’s substitutes made no sense and brought no spark to the game. In theory, bringing Ansu Fati for Ousmane Dembele made sense, but it changed nothing in the broader context of things. Pedri did not deserve to get yanked before Antoine Griezmann given how well he was playing. Pique moving up to play striker late in the game meant there was no midfield bar Riqui Puig (getting his first minutes of the season) and Barcelona were easily countered. The subs were too late and made little sense.

Conclusion

It was an ugly game and required real motivation to keep watching. Barcelona needs to be much more direct – like the first two games. The Griezmann experiment probably needs to stop, and the excessive fluidity is coming at the cost of too many people trying to do the same set of things and occupying the same zones.

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