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.
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 ❜
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.
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.
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.
How Zidane’s Real Madrid beat Koeman’s Barcelona
The highly anticipated day of El Clasico, the clash of eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid finally arrived. The Blaugrana were just two points ahead of Los Blancos with the same number of games played. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are at their most vulnerable right now; recent losses to Sevilla and Chelsea had already demoralized the team. Additionally, Luis Suarez – their top scorer -, is injured.
El Clasico has incredible importance on its own. Add to that the fact that it will be pivotal in the title race, and it becomes apparent how much it means to both sides. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how Real Madrid managed to conquer Barcelona in a 2-1 victory.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 3-5-2 as expected. This formation is one that has contributed to Barcelona’s recent positive results significantly. Though this could be viewed as a 5-3-2 or even a 3-5-2-1 at times, the basic principles remained the same. Barcelona would look to build up from the back. The backline of Ronald Araujo with Clement Lenglet and Oscar Mingueza on either side of him was the platform upon which the team would build-up.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets would be the deepest player, with Frenkie De Jong and Pedri Gonzalez as the two interiors. These two youngsters would operate in the half-spaces as their roles entail, but they would drop back and join the attack as well. Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest, the two wing-backs, would look to stretch the opposition and would be positioned high up the field.
In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman would operate through the centre as Messi would usually drop back and have the freedom to move across the pitch.
Zinedine Zidane has often been labelled as someone who manages big egos well but doesn’t have tactical expertise. Purely a misconception, this match was an example of how well the retired midfielder sets up his team. What was most admirable was how Zidane finds the perfect role for his players’ profiles.
Real Madrid were deployed in a 4-1-4-1. Casemiro would play between the lines, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos just ahead oh him. This formation could also be viewed as a 4-5-1, which would be a 4-3-3 when attacking. In defence, Eder Militao and Nacho were the centre-halves with Lucas Vasquez and Ferland Mendy as the full-backs. To support the midfield as well as the attack, Vinicius Junior and Fede Valverde would act as wide midfielders.
Karim Benzema, the number nine, would drift into the channels or drop a bit deeper as required. He was the key to Madrid’s fluid attack. There would be a constant staggering between Benzema, Vinicius, and Valverde. When Benzema dropped deep to fight for the second ball, Vinicius and Fede would move forward and provide passing options. At times, Vasquez would overlap, which was Valverde’s cue to drop back. The players would also switch roles.
Madrid’s defensive organization
After getting a lead, Real Madrid were still proactive but to a lesser extent than earlier. They would even have five players defending at times, transitioning into a 5-4-1. Their timing and organization was impressive nonetheless. As we see in the image above, Ousmane Dembele is about to receive the pass. Immediately, Casemiro presses him, while other players start moving forward to close the distance to possible passing options. This meant Barcelona had little time on the ball deep in Madrid’s half.
The pressing shown by Los Blancos was very fine-tuned. The players were unsurprisingly not hesitant to play a physical game as well. As the earlier image shows us, Ousmane Dembele would receive the ball ahead of the defense and attempt to involve other players. Pedri and de Jong were the most obvious passing options. However, for them, the passing would more often than not be out wide. This was forced due to Madrid’s structure which prevented them from playing through the middle.
Arguably one of Barcelona’s strongest moves is when Messi plays Jordi Alba through between the full-back and centre-halves. Though it was effective at some points in the match, this was clearly something Zidane expected. When either full-back would have crossing options, the full-backs would look to block the cross.
Simultaneously, the centre-halves would track Barcelona’s attackers Messi and Dembele. These two being the only two forwards, Mingueza’s goal was one of the few times the team actually had more players looking to attack. Casemiro would be in the box looking to clear the ball or cover for any defensive holes.
What went wrong for Barcelona?
Ronald Koeman’s team selection was well-thought-out. Shifting de Jong to midfield was a smart choice. However, as the scoreline clearly shows, some issues persisted.
One of the main ones being the lack of attackers in the final third. This was a formation with two attackers on paper, but one of them was Messi. Expecting the argentine to make runs off the ball and act as a target man is highly unrealistic. He does best when he’s on the ball. This would leave Dembele alone upfront. The Frenchman isn’t a classic number 9 who takes shots on the swivel and can establish himself in the box. Against a defence that was sitting very deep, he was unable to run onto the ball between the full-backs and centre-halves the way he likes to.
The image above shows a common scenario observed in the first half. Receiving the ball in the final third, Dembele turns to face the defenders. As they don’t lunge in, rather trying to contain him. he is unable to beat them in a 1v1. There is plenty of space with no Barcelona players highlighted in the image. This lack of attackers was one of the reasons Koeman switched to the 4-3-3. Shown below, the 4-3-3- allowed Pedri and Dembele to be more involved.
Below, we have a visualization showing the PPDA stats for both teams. A lower PPDA means a higher pressing intensity. As we can see, Barcelona were clearly pressing much more than Real Madrid throughout the match. Despite this, they failed to create enough chances. To demonstrate this, we can observe the xG graph.
As the xG graph shows, there were some situations when the Catalans had a chance to change the score-line in their favour. Among other reasons, Dembele’s inability to play as a striker and inefficiency in finishing was clearly affecting the team. The visualization below the xG graph shows the shot map. It further reaffirms the observation that Barcelona need to improve in front of the goal and in terms of the quality of chances created.
With a higher number of shots, Barcelona still had a lower xG than their rivals. Another indication of low-quality chances is the size of the circles in the box for both teams. The smaller the circle, the less likely it is to end up in the back of the net. The stark contrast is one of the many indicators that there are major issues to be resolved in attack for Koeman’s side.
This loss will hurt Barcelona, even more so as it strengthens the notion that his team doesn’t show up in big matches. If Koeman’s side wants to be Champions, now is the time to give their all. One cannot ignore the fact that the Blaugrana have a lot of work to do to be deserving of the La Liga title. Whether or not they will be able to do this remains to be seen.