THESE days, Lionel Messi is scoring a lot of direct free-kicks and people have started to notice.
A spell of three in three games in March/April was the rumbling of a player perfecting an art form and it went mainstream in Barcelona’s Champions League semi-final against Liverpool, when Messi’s 56th direct free-kick shot of the season (one more than Liverpool and Tottenham have taken combined) spun, arrowed and juddered (somehow all at the same time) into the top corner of Alisson’s goal.
Forget your Guardiola cutbacks, your measured through balls and your xG probabilities, Messi has single-handedly made the direct free-kick the hottest manoeuvre in football again.
A true free-kick master.
Lionel Messi is inevitable. pic.twitter.com/XtjQpInU5L
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 1, 2019
Let’s go back 11 years to 2008, which seems to be a crucial juncture for a few reasons. In England Cristiano Ronaldo was having his best season for Manchester United, scoring four direct free-kicks in the Premier League in 2007-08, none more memorable than one against Portsmouth at Old Trafford.
Standing directly behind the ball, legs planted apart like someone trying to make themselves look shorter than they are, Ronaldo jabbed the ball with a distinct lack of spin; the ball provided enough movement of its own, clearing the wall and jerking past a baffled David James. The knuckleball had arrived in England, and although that technique was limited to rarified exponents like the United number seven, 2007-08 remains the Premier League season with the highest proportion of direct free-kick goals ever seen: 4.1%.
Ronaldo would end his time in the Premier League with 11 goals from free-kicks, behind only David Beckham (18), Gianfranco Zola and Thierry Henry (both 12), but although there were some amid a mountain of goals of all kinds at Real Madrid, he never regained the presence his dead balls had in England in the late 2000s.
2008 was also the year that Lionel Messi scored his first free-kick for Barcelona, in a 6-1 home win against Atletico Madrid. This was no obscenely hit shot, though. Instead Messi was generously allowed to take it early while goalkeeper Gregory Coupet was leaning on one of the posts, organising his wall.
Another free-kick goal would follow in 2009 and another in 2010 but these were rare treats from a man usually found finishing off moves in the penalty box. Messi’s stratospheric 2012, when he scored 91 times, did see him score seven times from free-kicks but they dwindled again in 2013 and 2014 as he reverted to type.
Back to the Premier League, and 2013-14 was another vintage year in the dead ball space, and, as it stands, the last time more than 3% of goals would come from direct free-kicks. Cristiano Ronaldo was a distant memory by this point so the mantle had passed to Manchester City’s Yaya Toure.
Rather than a specific technique, Toure was all about a particular space, namely in and around the D on the edge of the penalty area. He only took seven direct free-kicks that season but scored with four of them, a ratio better than Wayne Rooney from the supposedly-easier realm of the penalty spot in his final Premier League season (six taken, three scored).
Toure had assisted Messi twice in his final league appearance for Barcelona before joining City but in 2019 it seems that Messi’s insatiable hunt for goals no longer needs no-one else other than a referee to award Barcelona a free-kick somewhere vaguely central and in the attacking third.
1200 goals for Messi & Ronaldo. 1200 goals. You could watch every single Aston Villa goal in Premier League history and still have 83 left over.
— Duncan Alexander (@oilysailor) May 1, 2019
Since January last year, Messi has scored 14 direct free-kick goals for his club, exactly one third of his career total in the space of 17 months. In that same timeframe, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored just one, his third goal for Portugal against Spain at the 2018 World Cup, a great moment for sure, but one best known as the shot ended a run of 44 goalless attempts that had spanned his entire career at international tournaments.
Once defined by his ability to score free-kicks, Ronaldo is now defined by the sheer lack of them. Instead, Ronaldo has seen six of his last nine goals come via his head. As he inches closer and closer to the six yard box as his career enters its latter stages, Messi has conversely increased his menace from range.
With both men preposterously locked together on 600 club goals apiece, there are still chapters of this story to be written, but if this week has done anything it has finally updated the general narrative to reflect that it is now the Barcelona man who is the undoubted master of the direct free-kick.