The Likelihood of Scoring Directly From a Free Kick


What are the odds that are team will score directly from a free kick on goal? Today one for in-play punters as Mark Taylor considers the chances of scoring from a free kick.

Young Free Kick

The fast moving nature of football requires the players to make virtually instantaneous, almost intuitive decisions ranging from whether to pass the ball, when to shoot and occasionally, whether they should fall under a challenge in an attempt to win a free kick or if they should attempt to stay on their feet and try to engineer a better shooting opportunity.

Putting aside the moral ambiguity surrounding the blurred lines between diving and falling under an illegal challenge, the choice is straightforward once a player is inside the box. Penalty kicks are converted at a long-term average conversion rate of very nearly 80%. Assuming that there are a normal compliment of defenders and an adequately positioned goalkeeper in and around the striker, it is virtually certain that the chances of scoring from any position inside the box immediately prior to the attempted tackle will fall below this headline figure. So if a player is fouled inside the box, making an effort to stay on his feet and fire off an immediate shot, rather than taking a fall and trusting that the referee acknowledges the foul, is a losing long-term option. As chances go, a penalty is the top of the tree.

The dilemma becomes much more interesting if we look at the case of a foul committed outside of the box. Intuitively, the choice of a shot from the edge of the box after riding a tackle compared to a set piece shot from a very similar position would seem to be weighted in favour of the latter. The advantages afforded to the attacking side are clear. Not only do they get the opportunity to choose the player taking the shot, (allowing for the substitution of a John Jensen for a Leighton Baines), the kicker can compose themself prior to the attempt, as well as calling upon the repetitive technical skills honed on the practice field under ideal conditions.

The defence of course, can also pull extra defenders back into the box, form defensive wall and the keeper can take his time to be as equally prepared as the striker. Both sides are allowed to prepare to their optimum levels and so to try to settle the conundrum as to who gains from free kick, we need to look at the outcomes of shots that originate from open play and compare them to direct shots taken from free kicks.

Of course, not all efforts from outside the penalty area originate from exactly the same spot, but the different angles and distances can be easily accounted for in the analysis and once done, it is confirmed that a substantial advantage lies with the shot from a dead ball situation.

Chances Of Scoring From A Free Kick

All goal attempts from outside of the box carry a relatively small chance of scoring, although there is also the residual value from chances created from saves and rebounds. A typical shot from open play, 25 yards from goal and from a central area has around a 3% chance of flying into the net. Using shot outcomes from multiple, recent Premiership seasons, if such a shot been taken directly from a free kick instead, the likelihood of goal would double to over 7%.

As an example, the only bright spot from Manchester United’s home defeat this season at the hands of WBA was Wayne Rooney’s curling free kick that briefly restored parity for the Champions. The shot was attempted from beyond the apex of the penalty box, representing a likely chance for an average player of a goal every 50 or so attempts in open play. However, with the luxury of time and composure following the award of a free kick, the success rate for the average dead ball specialist from this position increases to nearly one goal in twenty. By managing to hit at pace, the space between the defensive line and the keeper, Rooney fixed the WBA keeper to his line until he was certain that an onrushing attacker wasn’t going to deflect the ball, in doing so giving himself very little time to react when the ball carried on its original path. A talented dead ball specialist is therefore, likely to raise the generic success rate for direct shots from free kicks even higher.

It is easy to be biased by the memory of a recent, spectacular dead ball strike such as Rooney’s or in support of the alternative view, the dispiriting sight of numerous shots thudding harmlessly into a defensive wall, (dead ball attempts are almost twice as likely to be blocked compared to open play shots), but the unequivocal conclusion greatly favours the dead ball shot over that from open play. Shooting from distance at all, may be relatively unproductive, but given the choice, an effort from a free kick is much more likely to result in a score, than a shot from a similar distance in open play.

Defensive Considerations

It is highly unlikely that players are precisely aware of the relative success rates for different scenarios, although such considerations are more likely in a static, play by play sport with many stoppages, such as American Football. But it is easy to calculate a ballpark figure for what a player should aim to achieve if he is willing and able to retain his footing when fouled while contemplating a shot from distance.

In this season's Stoke match at Fulham, Jon Walters had possession 25 yards from goal and 22 yards wide of the centre of the goal when he was fouled by the Fulham defender. A free kick from that position would result in a goal directly from a shot around 6% of the time. In choosing to stay on his feet, Walters needed to get to a position two yards deep into the penalty area and level with the near post before any potential shot he may have taken would have carried the same goal threat as the free kick he could have won in the initial challenge with Amorebieta.

It is inevitable that any simplistic shot analysis that investigates the likelihood of scoring under various types of attempt will concentrate on the game theory choices available to an attacker being jostled and harried by a defender. But this analysis is probably of most use to the tackler. No matter how dangerous a shot from the edge of the box appears, preventing the shot by foul means, may only delay the inevitable attempt on goal. Additionally, in view of historical conversion rates, a subsequent free kick, in general, will double the attacking side’s chances of scoring.

Discretion by the defender may not look very good, but once measured along with the almost customary yellow card for such an offence, it is by far the wisest course of action.



Read more of Mark's work on his The Power Of Goals blog

And follow Mark of Twitter: @MarkTaylor0

Tags:  Football

NFL and football fan. I've seen my two favourite sides, Stoke and the San Diego Chargers play at the new Wembley....and both lost.