Look in a coaching manual about how to defend a free kick in a dangerous area and you’ll rarely see any strategy that doesn’t advice setting up some form of rudimentary wall.
Obviously, different scenarios call for differing strategies. The angle, for instance, necessitates how many players you’d want to position between the taker and the goal.
Our ingrained footballing stigma reassures us that a wall is always the safest and most assured way of ensuring you don’t concede from dead ball situations. But is that necessarily right?
It has its advantages. If the taker is shooting directly, the only way he’ll really score is if he manages to get the ball over the wall and back down into the goalkeeper’s exposed goal side. That’s a more difficult skill to pull off in a match situation than is often given credit for. Christian Eriksen looks like one of the best in Premier League history at being able to get that aerial dip, and he’s scored some crucial goals for Spurs during his 18 months in England.
The rebuttal against the non-wall thesis then is to point out that a very small percentage of free kick takers will consistently produce moments of individual magic, meaning nine times out of ten setting up with a wall is probably the best way to approach defending these situations. Most teams will trust their goalkeeper to deflect anything going to his side of the goal, if the taker chooses to go that way.
But that wall versus non-wall dilemma was clearly on Asmir Begovic’s mind during Stoke’s victory over QPR last weekend. Begovic setup with a wall facing a Joey Barton free kick just outside the box. Barton struck it to Begovic’s side of the goal, away from the defending wall, and hit the bar, beating the Stoke keeper who inadvertently took a step the wrong way because the wall itself blinded him from judging where Barton was aiming for. Accounting for that error, Begovic abandoned that wall for a Leroy Fer free kick later on in the game. Fer struck the ball with a decent amount of power but Begovic saved with an assumed ease because he could watch the ball all the way. Interestingly, Stoke, in that instance, looked better without a wall.
This video from a game in France inverts the wall thesis quite dramatically. Nice B setup with five players on their goal line and their goalkeeper just outside the six yard box- creating the opposite of your conventional goalkeeper-on-line and outfield-player-wall scenario.
Watch the video and it seems pretty fool-proof- attacking side Grenoble try and place the ball in the back of the net, only to find an on-line player deflect it away. That method would probably be more constructive against an Eriksen or Beckham up-and-over free kick.
It’s a shame Grenoble didn’t try and approach that situation differently. Rocketing a strike straightforward to start a game of in-box-pinball would cause havoc. With the defending keeper so far off his line, a lottery of confusion would ensue.
That potential for havoc and confusion would not be an ensured method that Europe’s elite teams would place faith in. And as Martin Keown aptly pointed out, if the idea of never using a wall took hold, eventually attacking teams would place their own men in front of their own free kick taker, looking to block a goalkeeper’s vision anyway. It would be a more intricate version of Anderson’s death eyes against Arsenal years ago, where he just stared down Wojciech Szczesny, clearly trying to deter the Arsenal keeper from the incoming ball.
It’s unlikely that a differing defensive trend will take hold of the current faith in using a wall – after all, it is largely successful, and a majority of free kicks are unsuccessful.
But Nice B’s tidy little innovation should offer some food for thought. Their system is not as absurd as it initially seems, and at some point in the future, it will probably make a return, especially if more dead-ball specialists continue to bypass walls and expose goalkeepers. Perhaps it’s premature for now, but the wall may not be the norm in years to come if you want to defend every type of free kick.