Every top club needs a free kick specialist to change the outcome of a match with a single assist or goal from a dead ball situation. A win or draw can be rescued with one kick of a ball, an act they may seem meager in isolation, but can be vital in the context of an entire season or tournament.
There are plenty of players in world football, usually strikers, who can pick their spot in the back of the net from open play, and yet are unable to translate such accuracy to a dead ball situation. Think of Diego Costa, Fernando Torres or Radamel Falcao; none of these men have earned the right to assume set piece duties at any of their clubs despite boasting some of the tremendous goalscoring records in recent history.
What’s more, it’s also not uncommon for a burly centre back with a cannon of a foot to step up and take a free kick from 35 yards, but there’s more to dead ball situations than simply putting your foot through the ball and hoping it whistles into the top corner. Brazilian defender Alex is a prime example of such a player — the AC Milan star is certainly a useful option to have in reserve, but he’s not the man one would entrust to curl the ball around a six-man wall from just outside the penalty box.
The art of whipping a football over a defensive wall, inside either post, under the crossbar and past the goalkeeper is a technique mastered by only a handful of players in every generation.
Here are the top 20 best free kick takers in world football.
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20 Xabi Alonso
His physical abilities might’ve dwindled in recent seasons, but Xabi Alonso was never the type of player who required an abundance of pace or physical might to influence proceedings. The Spaniard instead pulls the strings with his vast passing range, excellent vision and pinpoint free kick accuracy. Alonso has found the back of the net numerous times throughout his career and seemingly developed a knack for beating the goalkeeper via a cheeky attempt under the wall, as evident by goals against Werder Bremen and Manchester City last season.
Despite competing with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard and Oscar, Willian has cemented his place as the Blues’ first choice to take set-pieces this season. His form, both in open play and dead-ball scenarios, has been nothing short of spectacular so far this campaign, giving Jose Mourinho no excuse not to hand him free kick duties ahead of his more reputable teammates. The Brazilian has scored three goals in the Champions League this season, every one of them coming from a direct free-kick.
18 Steven Gerrard
At his peak, Steven Gerrard possessed an array of abilities so broad that his unerring precision from free-kicks was arguably the least prominent of his qualities. The former Liverpool skipper was always first in line to stand over any set piece throughout his 17 seasons at Anfield, and if he wasn’t scoring from a direct shot, he was probably swinging in an inch-perfect delivery for one of his teammates. Although his aging legs are forcing him to play a deeper midfield role, Gerrard remains a serious threat at dead-ball situations.
17 Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez strikes fear into opposition defenders whenever he receives possession in the attacking third, but his eye for goal extends beyond the confines of open play. Armed with sublime technique and a ferocious right foot, the Uruguayan is a serious threat from set pieces anywhere within the 35-yard range. Suarez has scored a hatful of beautiful free kicks throughout his career, mostly for Liverpool, but he’s sure to add many more wearing a Barcelona shirt.
16 Aleksandar Kolarov
It’s rare for a fullback to possess the immaculate technique required to be entrusted with set piece duties at the highest level. He might not boast the aura of the legendary Roberto Carlos, but there’s no doubt Aleksandar Kolarov is among the best free kick takers at his position in recent history. The Serbian specializes in wrapping his left foot around the ball to deliver whipped crosses or stinging shots, whether from open play or a dead ball scenario.
15 Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi standing over a free kick behind a five-man wall must be one of the most unnerving sights a goalkeeper could lay eyes on. His cultured left foot is deadly enough when surrounded by the pressures of open play, let alone when afforded a free shot on goal from a set piece. Thanks to his unrivaled finesse, the Argentine never merely puts his boot through the ball in hope of beating the goalkeeper. Instead, Messi relies on superb technique to either curl the ball out into the upper corners of the goal or catch the keeper off-guard with a low drive underneath the wall.
14 Yohan Cabaye
Yohan Cabaye’s summer transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Crystal Palace caught everyone by surprise, not least because the £10m fee is disproportionate to his exceptional quality. The French international is capable of picking out a pass and striking a football like few others in the Premier League, and his expert ability from set pieces is up there with the very best too. Cabaye is the man his teammates look to for accurate service and a shooting threat from long range, making him a key figure at Selhurst Park.
13 Miralem Pjanic
Few current players can rival Miralem Pjanic’s textbook free kick technique, especially from short distances. It’s often easier to beat the goalkeeper with raw power from direct free kicks around the edge of the penalty area, but the Bosnian midfielder prefers to strike the ball with his instep regardless of the proximity to the goal. Given the ferocious dip he imparts on the ball, Pjanic rarely sees his free kicks land in the upper corners of the goal after they whizz over the heads of the defensive wall.
12 Yaya Toure
In terms of blending brute physical strength and delicate finesse, no footballer on the planet can match Yaya Toure. Although the powerhouse Ivorian looks like the type of midfield destroyer who would step up to take long-range free kicks simply because none of his colleagues can match him for power, his catalog of brilliant strikes indicates otherwise. Even with David Silva, Samir Nasri, Sergio Aguero and Aleksandar Kolarov in the Manchester City squad, Toure is often the man Manuel Pellegrini entrusts with direct free kick opportunities.
11 Keisuke Honda
The left foot of Keisuke Honda has long been regarded as one of the deadliest in world football when it comes to free kick taking. Although the Japan international has somewhat fallen out of favor at AC Milan, his ability to turn a match on its head with one strike of the ball remains a valuable asset. Honda’s beautiful technique is a nightmare for goalkeepers to deal with; he’s seemingly capable of curling the ball in either direction with the same foot.
10 David Alaba
Already one of the most complete footballers on the planet, David Alaba is a pretty handy option for taking set pieces too. The Austrian is a left fullback by trade, but one would never pick it given his ability to score from direct free kicks. Alaba is an expert at driving his foot through the ball to create the kind of dipping, swerving trajectory all goalkeepers hate trying to deal with. Based on his defensive prowess alone, though, the 23-year-old seems destined to rank among the greatest fullbacks of his generation.
9 Rafael van der Vaart
Rafael van der Vaart was unfortunate to be ravaged by injuries so often throughout his career, but his fragile body made no impact on his devastating free kick talents. In his prime, the Dutchman had the kind of left foot many players can only dream about. He has a proven ability to beat the goalkeeper by either stroking the ball with pinpoint accuracy or blasting it with ferocious power. Irrespective of his approach, the Real Betis midfielder has made a habit of finding the net from set pieces.
8 Marco Reus
Operating on the left side of attack, Marco Reus is essentially the complete package. His close control, speed and deadly eye for goal make him a nightmare for defenders to keep tabs on. The elusive German inherently draws his fair share of free kicks from would-be tacklers and has developed a reputation for putting them away too. Whether from long range or around the penalty area, Reus has both the finesse and power to hit the back of the net from free kicks whatever the situation.
7 Yoann Gourcuff
There was a time when Yoann Gourcuff seemingly had the potential to become one of the greatest midfielders France has ever produced. Now 29-years-old, the Rennes star has never lived up to the hype that surrounded him for many of his younger years. At his peak, he boasted a host qualities that led many to believe he was a special player, including his accuracy from set pieces. Gourcuff has scored many stunning free kicks over the course of career, one of his most memorable efforts being a 30-yard pile-driver against Nice in August 2013.
6 Wesley Sneijder
Wesley Sneijder has been regarded as one of the most recognizable playmakers in world football throughout the last decade or so. The Dutchman possesses impeccable technique with both feet, whether he’s passing to a teammate or going for goal himself. While his sublime passes and long-range shots are impressive, Sneijder’s deadly accuracy from set pieces is equally as easy on the eye. The 31-year-old has scored for club and country from direct free kicks on numerous occasions throughout his career, and is showing no signs of letting goalkeepers rest.
5 Christian Eriksen
Few would disagree that Christian Eriksen is one of the most fascinating players in the Premier League. In a competition that is becoming increasingly geared towards physical supremacy, the Denmark international is a breath of fresh air. Everything he does is performed with elegance, not least the spectacular free kicks he has made headlines with during his Tottenham Hotspur career. Eriksen rarely lets down his teammates with a poor delivery and failing to at least the goalkeeper is even less common.
4 Zlatko Junuzovic
Although his name is unlikely to be particularly familiar to those outside Austria and Germany, Zlatko Junuzovic is undeniably one of the leading free kick specialists in world football. The Austrian international, who plays for Werder Bremen in the German Bundesliga, has cast himself into the spotlight with a series of brilliant set piece statistics. Throughout the 2014-15 campaign, Junuzovic struck home five free kicks from 22 attempts, giving him an impressive set piece conversion rate of 22.73 per cent.
3 Sejad Salihovic
When a player can strike a ball with as much power and precision as Sejad Sailhovic, it makes for a deadly threat from set pieces. The Bosnian became renowned for hitting the back of the net from free kicks, such was his consistency from dead ball opportunities. His menacing strikes caught out Bundesliga goalkeepers on many occasions throughout his 12-year career, but many will be grateful he has now moved on to Guizhou Renhe in the Chinese League One.
2 Hakan Calhanoglu
All of the ways a promising young footballer can make a name for himself, banging in free kicks as if they were penalties has got to be one of the most spectacular. Hakan Calhanoglu has been doing just that since making his Bundesliga debut and his efforts have reportedly grasped the attention of Manchester United and Barcelona. Aside from his superb playmaking qualities, the Turkey international has honed a unique ability to hit free kicks using the ‘knuckle ball’ method, also used by Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Many would argue Calhanoglu is capable of executing the technique with a great deal more accuracy than the aforementioned Real Madrid stars, a claim supported by his record of eight successful free kicks from 33 attempts during the 2014-15 season.
1 Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo is the original set piece master. Many of the players featured on this list are rightly considered among the best free kick specialists of this generation, but none have been capitalizing on dead ball opportunities for as long as the classy Italian. Pirlo is predominantly classified as a deep-lying playmaker, renowned for his peerless long and short range ball distribution. Watching him loft a 40-yard pass onto the toe of a teammate is delightful, but his true swagger is made evident by his dead ball exploits. At 36-years-old, the Juventus midfielder is the most stylish and arguably the most formidable sharpshooter in the business when it comes to scoring direct free kicks from any range.
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