Thursday, December 17, 2009

The new free-kick king, move aside Christiano Ronaldo, its Chelsea's Didier Drogba

(click to enlarge)

Those who thought the Barclays Premier League would be a less exciting place without Cristiano Ronaldo's dead-ball specials can think again. The top flight has a new free-kick king: Chelsea's Didier Drogba.

Most of today's top players use side spin to shape the ball over a defensive wall, but Drogba has developed a unique technique. By hitting the ball hard with the inside of his right foot, just above the midway point, he is able to generate topspin. This produces little sideways movement, but the ball descends very quickly, making his deliveries a nightmare for goalkeepers.

The Chelsea striker's second goal against Arsenal on November 29 was a prime example: a powerful free kick hit straight and with pace.

Drogba should be favourite for all dead-ball set-ups, especially from central positions. He hits it very straight and appears to hit the ball with a very powerful side-foot action, almost like the technique used in a side-foot pass. Drogba's style is about beating the goalkeeper with speed and depth.

Drogba's technique is a step forward from the style of David Beckham, one of the first players to introduce topspin into his deliveries. The former England captain generates such a dramatic dip at the end of his set-pieces by hitting an 'instep shot', leaning back and connecting with the ball below the halfway point.

Topspin kickers can hit it harder, perhaps 70mph-plus, because it's going to come down. For sidespin kickers there's nothing to bring it down except gravity, so they tend to hit the ball a little softer, around 60 to 70mph.

An example of a 'pure' sidespin, free-kick taker, who does not create any topspin, is Arsenal's Robin van Persie.

For a left-foot kicker who is hitting the ball with sidespin, the ball will move from his left to his right, so he can be more angled towards the ball because the curve brings it back in.

So what has the Premier League lost with the departure of Ronaldo? Not a topspin or sidespin specialist, or an artist who can make the ball swing in or out but, it seems, a bit of a toe-poker.

Ronaldo partially toeends it, actually. He's trying to kick the ball without any spin, whether consciously or not. The ball deviates unpredictably in flight, completely bamboozling the goalkeeper, who is often left flat-footed on his goal line.

From video evidence it's clear that Ronaldo's free-kicks are not flukes, but the ball moves unpredictably and the ball markings indicate a very low spin-rate.

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