Did you know that, in the Premier League, the direct free kick conversation rate stands at only about six per cent? That equates to one goal for roughly every 18 attempts.
Perhaps that’s what makes them stand out in our mind so clearly – not just the beauty of seeing a ball so precisely caressed from such a distance – but the rarity of it. Indeed, since 2005-06, only two Premier League players have scored from as many as four free kicks in one season – Cristiano Ronaldo (twice) and Yaya Touré.
But how many goals are scored from free kicks year on year in England’s top tier? Are there any trends, and any reasons behind such trends? Let’s take a look:
How Often are Free Kicks Scored in the Premier League?
Below, you’ll see a table and graph of how many Premier League goals have been scored from a direct free kick, from 2005-06 all the way through to last season, 2019-20:
|Season||Number of Free Kicks Scored|
Interestingly enough, it’s the three years in which Ronaldo or Toure netted four each that are the top three, but 2012-13 and 2013-14 seem somewhat anomalous among a general downward trend since the Portuguese’s Premier League heyday.
They may have risen slightly in recent years, but only from the lowest point on record of 16 free kick goals in 2017-18.
So, the free kick goal odds may have diminished in the last 15 years or so. But why?
Is It Harder to Score From Free Kicks Now?
It was hard enough anyway, of course, given how many factors you have to get spot on to score from a free kick.
To name a few, whereabouts is the wall positioned, and how tall is it? From what angle are you striking the ball? How hard, and with how much bend, shout you shoot? And do you have the confidence and conviction to back it all up?
The rise to prominence of analytics and data-driven tactics could be seen as blessing and a curse. From the attacker’s point of view, there are more tools available now for them to analyse the opposition goalkeeper’s traits. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who made a name for himself as a dead-ball specialist at Swansea, but has curiously not scored from a free kick since joining Everton in 2017, confirmed as much in an interview with FourFourTwo in 2016.
“Before a game,” he said, “I look at videos of the keeper to see if they take a guess at where a free kick will go or if they stay in their place.
“Then, when I’m standing over the ball, I try to look at the goalkeeper to see what he’s doing. If he takes a step one way, there’s sometimes a chance to score the other side.”
Then again, by the same token, the goalkeepers could do the same pre-match homework by analysing the attackers, so whether this has made much of a difference is hard to tell.
The fall in free kick goals may also have something to do with the amount awarded in the first place. 2017-18 saw the fewest netted with 16, but also the fewest shots on record with 339 – though this does mean a higher conversion rate than 2005-06 (600 shots, 28 goals) and a similar rate to 2008-09 (682 shots, 33 goals).
At time of writing (January 5, 2021), meanwhile, 2020-21 has seen seven free kick goals – three of them from Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse, who has netted nine in his Premier League career, half of record-holder David Beckham’s personal tally.
But Ward-Prowse at least leads the way in terms of free kick conversion rate – his stands at roughly 12.5 per cent, the best in the Premier League since Opta began collating stats in 2003-04.
What’s fascinating about Ward-Prowse’s approach to free kicks is both how he doesn’t obsess over them in training, and how he almost plays them down. In a Guardian interview in November 2020, the week after he scored two in one game at Aston Villa, he revealed how he relinquished penalty duties to striker Danny Ings last term, saying: “I think I have more chance of scoring a free-kick than a penalty because a penalty is kind of 50-50, it could go either way, whereas with a free-kick, I feel I’ve got more power over the goalkeeper.”
This, you sense, comes naturally to Ward-Prowse, given in the same interview, he told of how he practises free kicks far less often now than, say, under Mauricio Pochettino in 2013. Now, he said, he hits “maybe 10-12 free-kicks once a week” because “if I’m out there kicking loads of balls over and over, it’s not effective enough and not good for my body.”
Of course, it’s worth factoring in that, because of coronavirus, the schedule is more compressed, meaning players have more games in less time and consequently opportunities to hone and perfect their free kicks on the training ground are fewer and further between.
Yet Ward-Prowse feels part of a dying breed as someone who believes firing deadly free kicks is almost muscle memory to him. He has three to his name this term; no other player has more than one.
Better defending? Fewer fouls? More analysis? These could all go some way to explaining why free kick goals are becoming an increasingly extinct, and why Ward-Prowse’s missiles feel rather anachronistic in today’s game.
Either way, Southampton’s number eight aside, there aren’t many outstanding candidates ready to pick up the baton from Beckham, Ronaldo or Touré and run with it these days.