Talking Tactics

Season trends: Why direct free-kick goals hit all-time low

By Adrian Clarke 28 May 2024
Pedro Neto v Liverpool

Adrian Clarke analyses why players are shooting and scoring less regularly from dead-ball situations

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Adrian Clarke continues to look at key tactical trends across the 2023/24 season.

Between 2007 and 2014, an average of 32 direct free-kicks were scored per season, but in 2023/24 only 11 direct free-kicks found the back of a Premier League net.

Up until the final round of matches that figure stood at only nine, before Idrissa Gueye and Alfie Doughty struck on the final day. Nevertheless, the total of 11 is a record low for goals scored from such situations.

Direct free-kick goals in 2023/24
Player Match Date
Mathias Jensen Brentford v Bournemouth 2-Sep
Julian Alvarez Wolves v Man City 30-Sep
Raheem Sterling Newcastle v Chelsea 25-Nov
John McGinn Man Utd v Aston Villa 26-Dec
Ivan Toney Brentford v Nott'm Forest 20-Jan
Eberechi Eze Spurs v Crystal Palace 2-Mar
Phil Foden Man City v Aston Villa 3-Apr
Trent Alexander-Arnold Fulham v Liverpool 25-Apr
Phil Foden Brighton v Man City 25-Apr
Idrissa Gueye Arsenal v Everton 19-May
Alfie Doughty Luton v Fulham 19-May

Even the king of free-kicks, James Ward-Prowse, struggled.

Much to the frustration of West Ham United supporters who had watched him score 17 free-kicks for previous club Southampton, the summer signing failed to find the back of the net from any of his league-high 16 attempts.

It typified a campaign which signalled a drop in threat from this type of dead-ball scenario.

Declining shots 

Across the last 16 seasons we have seen a steep decline in the number of shots taken from free-kicks awarded inside the final third.

Since 2008/09 there has been around a 10 per cent reduction in the share of free-kicks that have led to an attempt on goal.

Final-third free-kicks that are a shot

A lot more head coaches are encouraging their sides to take a quick free-kick that gets play moving, or are choosing to alter the angle by opting for a cross instead.

Playing the percentages

Managers are perhaps becoming wise to the relatively low success rate of shots from direct free-kicks.

Across the past six seasons between 3.62 per cent and 6.84 per cent of all direct free-kick shots have resulted in goals.

PL free-kick stats since 2018/19
Season Free-kick shots Free-kick goals Succ. rate
2018/19 354 23 6.49%
2019/20 380 26 6.84%
2020/21 359 13 3.62%
2021/22 337 19 5.64%
2022/23 302 18 5.96%
2023/24 283 11 3.88%

This in part may explain why fewer sides are opting for the strike on goal, with this season having under 300 efforts for the first time since records began.

Set-piece specialists Arsenal have become very reluctant to have a pop.

They have not scored from a direct free-kick since Martin Odegaard curled a shot into the top corner in a 1-0 win at Burnley in September 2021.

This season, despite applying more pressure in the final third than most clubs, the Gunners had just six direct free-kick attempts on goal, the fewest of all 20 clubs.

Newcastle United, with nine, were another leading side who shied away from shooting.

On the flip side, Manchester City did things differently, registering 25 shots, with Phil Foden (twice) and Julian Alvarez finding the back of the net.

Most/fewest free-kick shots 23/24
Team Top total Team Lowest total
Man City 25 Arsenal 6
Chelsea 22 Nott'm Forest 7
Crystal Palace 20 Sheff Utd 8
2023/24 breakdown

Foden was the only player to score more than one direct free-kick this season, and in both cases he was perhaps a little fortunate.

A big deflection helped him score at Brighton & Hove Albion, and a very poor wall from Aston Villa allowed his shot to squeeze through a gap in a 4-1 success at the Etihad Stadium.

Only three Premier League players successfully bent shots over the wall that found the back of the net with a non-deflected effort.

From 380 matches, only Alvarez, Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold pulled off that well-versed technique to score. No left-footer was able to produce this skill in 2023/24.

Alvarez's goal v Wolves
Alvarez free-kick
Sterling's goal v Newcastle
Raheem Sterling free-kick
Alexander-Arnold's goal v Fulham
Alexander-Arnold free-kick

Only one goalkeeper was beaten on the side they were protecting, and that was Tottenham Hotspur's Guglielmo Vicario.

A magnificent strike from Crystal Palace talisman Eberechi Eze beat Vicario after Eze aimed his shot at a “second wall” set up by his Eagles team-mates.

Eze free-kick

Of the rest, we saw speculative cross-shots from John McGinn and Alfie Doughty find the back of the net.

Brentford pair Ivan Toney and Mathias Jensen both netted from cheeky, unexpected curlers around the wall – and Idrissa Gueye scored via a huge Declan Rice deflection at Emirates Stadium.

This was a campaign light on moments of inspiration from free-kick takers.

The only way is up

Despite the trend heading in one direction, it feels as if this low of 11 direct free-kick goals cannot sink any further.

Just 0.9 per cent of all goals this season came from these situations, which is half of the average across the last decade.

Looking back even further to the previous 10 seasons before that, we are down by an incredible two-thirds.

How 2023/24 compares with previous decades
Decade Ave. free-kicks scored % of all goals
03/04 to 12/13 31.3 3.1%
13/14 to 22/23 20.1 1.8%
2023/24 11 0.9%

It is understandable that coaches and set-piece experts are becoming more reluctant to shoot, but the high technical level of Premier League players should ensure the art of free-kick taking does not die out completely.

Next season it would be great to see a bounce-back from Ward-Prowse and co.

Next: Fast breaks and high turnovers on the rise

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