Still looking for the first free kick goal in Euro 2020

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This European Championship has seen a record 10 own goals, seven missed penalties in regulation time—which is the same as the 2018 World Cup which had more games—some outrageous goals like Patrik Schick’s long-range screamer, one from outside of his boot by Luka Modric, Paul Pogba’s strike from range and Lorenzo Insigne’s curler into the top corner. The competition tally of 2.81 goals per game is the highest since 1976 when it was a four-team event.

What it hasn’t seen yet is a goal from a direct free kick shot. 48 of the 51 games are done and some of football’s best dead ball specialists such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Modric and Toni Kroos have gone home without being able to beat the ‘wall’ and the goalkeeper. That is some come down from a record four goals from direct free kicks in Euro 2016 and seven from similar situations in the 2018 World Cup. In Russia three years ago, goals from direct free kicks came early in the competition—from Ronaldo against Spain—and continued till the semi-finals where Kieren Trippier struck for England.

Scoring from direct free kicks is difficult, unless, of course, you are James Ward-Prowse. In an interview to The Guardian, Ward-Prowse said: “I think I have more chance of scoring from a free kick than a penalty because a penalty is kind of 50-50…whereas in a free kick I feel I have got more power over the goalkeeper. But Southampton’s Ward-Prowse was one of the players trimmed by Gareth Southgate for the Euro. The midfielder scored four goals from free kicks, more than anyone else in the 2020-21 Premier League.

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But that it was only the third time since 2005-06 that a player had scored as many from free kicks in a Premier League season showed that most players don’t think like Ward-Prowse. Till this edition, there have been 687 goals in Euro finals since the competition began in 1960. Of them, 23 or 3.35% have come from direct free kicks. An American Soccer Analysis report quoted in The Washington Post in 2018 said 7.5% of direct shots on goals from free kicks led to goals.

Zinedine Zidane is the only player in the history of the European Championship to have scored from a direct free kick in different editions (2000 and 2004). And from 51 attempts on goal in majors, Ronaldo has been able to score from a direct free kick only once for his country.

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And yet, to have no goals from a direct free kick so far is “absolutely incredible” said former Hull City and Hyderabad FC coach Phil Brown. “Teams now generally defend with 10 players and are even adding one who lies down behind the wall. That allows the wall to jump higher so it has become harder,” said Stephen Constantine, the former India had coach now in charge of Pafos FC in Cyprus.

The number of free kick specialists in a team too has gone down, said Brown. “Take Trippier, for instance. He is the dead ball specialist for England but he doesn’t always start. I think Marcus Rashford too has a good free kick but he too isn’t starting. Contrast this to when Paul Scholes and David Beckham would start regularly for England.”

Also read | Denmark beat Czech Republic to reach Euro 2020 semis

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Fewer fouls around the penalty area is another reason, said Constantine and Brown speaking separately. “Defenders crowd out the possible threat on the edge of the box and force either the opponent players or the ball to go wide,” said Constantine. “There are teams in the Premier League where you won’t be part of the starting line-up if you have committed a foul that let the team down,” said Brown.

The number of fouls in Euro 2020 so far is 22.58 per game. It was 25.3 in Euro 2016.

Constantine and Brown said there is a lot more attention to detail in defending set-pieces now which means teams are better prepared. And though Lionel Messi has shown otherwise in Copa America, a full stadium too makes a difference, said Brown. “You can’t prove this in a laboratory but from 40 years of being involved with the game, I can tell you that the ball travels differently in a full stadium. If you don’t feel it right, you don’t hit it right.”

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