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Leo Messi has scored 24 free kicks for Barcelona during his La Liga career—a Spanish league record. There is one that was struck against Deportivo La Coruna in January 2011, with the moment of magic coming early in the second half of a league game at the Riazor Stadium.
Having won the set piece himself after being fouled, he placed the ball about 25 metres from goal, almost in line with the goalkeeper’s right-hand post. Barca teammate David Villa stood beside him and shaped as if he might take the free kick. But Messi looked at the ball, then towards his target and took five steps before smacking it around the wall into the top left-hand corner of the goal.
Daniel Aranzubia—a former Spain international who made over 300 La Liga appearances in his career—was in goal for Depor. His feet stayed glued to the ground as the ball flew past him. In disgust, he turned away from the ball as it nestled in the corner of the net, waving the back of his hand over his head, as if to throw his hat at it. Then he began walking forlornly towards the corner flag.
Sometimes players are just powerless when confronted with Messi.
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The 30-year-old Argentina international—who missed Barcelona’s 2-0 win at Malaga on Saturday due to the birth of his third son, Ciro—has scored a free kick in the last three league games he’s played. Each one has been a different style of execution.
Against Girona, Messi cheekily drove the ball under the wall, emulating a trick his old mentor Ronaldinho used to administer. Facing Las Palmas, he thumped it into the top right-hand corner of the goal with a little curl. Against Atletico Madrid, from almost the same spot in relation to the goal except about five metres further outfield, he whacked it into the opposite top corner.
Messi’s free kick against Atletico on March 4—which outfoxed Jan Oblak, one of the world’s finest goalkeepers—was the only goal in the match. It effectively sealed this season’s league title for Barcelona, as it pulled the club eight points clear of Los Rojiblancos in second place. He made a six-point difference.
“If Messi had been wearing an Atletico shirt, we would have won,” Atletico manager Diego Simeone concluded in the post-match press conference, per La Vanguardia. No one disagreed.
There have been several pioneers in the art of taking frees. Brazilian Didi made the “folha seca” (dry leaf) free kick—in which he sent the ball over the wall only for it to dip awkwardly for the goalkeeper on its downward trajectory—famous in the 1950s.
A generation later, his compatriot Rivelino was renowned for the “banana” free kick in which he bent the ball around the wall instead of over the top of it.
Santiago Segurola, a doyen of Spanish football writing, maintains the outrageous bending free kick Roberto Carlos scored against France in Le Tournoi in 1997 is “the best free kick in history”.
What sets Messi’s set-piece ability apart is not his originality, though; rather it’s the range to his repertoire.
“Messi is capable of scoring from any position,” Segurola says. “He has all the resources. I’ve seen him score free kicks with force, with dexterity, by hitting it softly, under the wall like a loco. He’s very creative, and I have seen him score from a position that suits a right-legged player even though he is left-legged.”
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Segurola singles out a goal Messi scored against Atletico Madrid in 2012 at the old Vicente Calderon Stadium.
Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois—who may well have to try to stop Messi from scoring a free kick in Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League last-16 second leg—was in goal for Atletico on the night. The free-kick spot was three or four metres out from the left-hand edge of the box.
“Maybe it’s the best goal I’ve seen him score,” Segurola says. “It was an extreme position even for a very right-legged person. It’s from a position like the famous goal that Luis Aragones scored against Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup final, but in Messi’s case he took it with his left leg, and he nailed it, right across to the opposite side of the goal. It was marvellous.”
Segurola noted Messi—who has notched 39 goals from free kicks during his career—has hit the woodwork 15 times this season from play.
“It’s something historical,” he adds. “He’s like a model of precision. His shots are always very precise. It’s part of his genius. He likes to chip the post going in.”
This pursuit of perfection accounts for his incredible strike rate. Messi has scored five free kicks already in 2018 from 33 attempts on goal, per Reuters. His greater-than-15-percent conversion rate is more than double the six-percent average across Europe’s top five leagues, per ESPN.
What is interesting about Messi’s knack with the dead ball, though, is that it doesn’t translate to penalties. He has missed three of his six spot kicks this season, converted nine from 10 last season, but again endured a strike rate of 50 percent for the 2015-2016 season, per MessivsRonaldo.net.
“The average penalty-scoring record across football is about 78 percent, but even that rate for someone like Messi, who is probably the greatest player ever to have played football, seems like a huge flaw in his game,” says Ben Lyttleton, author of Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty Kick. “He is capable of breath-taking skill in open play, but there is one element of his play where he is essentially human like the rest of us.”
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Lyttleton makes the point that expectation plays a role. Messi is the guy who makes the difference in a game—as Simeone mentioned in the recent, decisive league match between Barcelona and Atletico—so the Argentinian will fancy his chances with a free kick if, say, he’s scored nearly a fifth of his free kicks this year. With a penalty, though, it’s almost as if the only way is down. If he scores, he’s expected to.
“What Messi has done during his career is he has astounded us by breaking expectations with the number of goals he scores, and the way he scores them,” Lyttleton says. “But with penalties, even when we talk about Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier—who scored 47 from 48 during his career—people say, ‘Well, he should score that many penalties because the striker has the advantage over the goalkeeper in taking a penalty.’
“There seems to be an expectation that because Messi is capable of doing incredible things while the game is flowing, but should he be the main person to take penalties when his success rate suggests he shouldn’t? And does he practice penalties?
“I remember earlier on in his career there was a lot of talk that heading was one of his weaknesses. It was said he was too short, but then he scored an amazing headed goal in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United.
“It showed it was a part of his game that he had worked on and developed, but when he missed a crucial penalty in the 2012 Champions League semifinal against Chelsea, there was no one saying he needs to go and work on them.
“He needs to acknowledge there is an issue and work on the solution. Is he worried before a game that a penalty may come? What are his habits before taking a penalty? Does he look at the ref before he blows the whistle? Does he take the same number of steps back every time? Does he take a deep breath before he starts his run-up?
“He needs to develop a routine he’s comfortable with. And settle on a strategy—either [wait on the goalkeeper to move first or else shoot independent of the keeper’s movements]. It can be done. The joy of the penalty kick is that it can reduce even the most extraordinary player into the most ordinary one. Even Diego Maradona once missed five penalties in a row.”
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Fernando Signorini—who worked as a fitness trainer for the Argentina national team during Maradona’s reign as manager, and as a trainer for Maradona during three of his World Cup finals as a player—laughs at Maradona and Messi’s troubles with penalty kicks.
“Two geniuses of football,” he says, “who have both missed a lot of penalties—and Maradona more than Messi!”
Signorini remembers when Messi—who scored his first free kick for Barcelona during the 2008-09 season, several years after his debut for the club—also had hassle scoring free kicks.
At the time, it was no laughing matter for Messi. At the fag end of a training session on the eve of an international game against France in Marseille in February 2009, he had just ballooned a free kick over the bar. He was about to lope off to the dressing room in a sulk.
“I saw he was discouraged,” Signorini says, “and I took him by his shoulders and gave him a hug. I said: ‘Imagine—you’re on your way to becoming one of the best players in the history of football. You’re not going to sleep tonight after kicking that rubbish—you’ll have nightmares!’
“Diego was watching everything. He called him over, and, as always in a very affectionate and paternalistic way, he told him, ‘Leito, Leito, come, papi, come’. Then he asked our goalkeeper, Juan Pablo Carrizo, to stand back in goal. He put the ball down in the same spot Messi had just hit from and scored in the right-hand corner beyond Carrizo.
“He said to Messi: ‘Listen, when you strike the ball, don’t take your foot back so quickly because she won’t understand what you want to do.’ It was fantastic advice because what he was saying was that the ball has feelings. For me, it is a piece of leather and air and nothing else, but it seems for geniuses like them it’s something else.”
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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