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On Reflection: Why vanishing spray could lead to vanishing goals

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Cazorla discovers the hidden dangers of vanishing spray

English referees’ use of the vanishing spray caused much hilarity on the Premier League’s first two weekends. One official, John Moss, gave Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla a spray in the face when his canister went out of control, and elsewhere, fans cheered whenever it emerged. The only people not cheering, it seemed, were the strikers, who failed to score from 21 direct free-kicks, of which only four were on target. While the idea behind the spray – to ensure players remain ten yards behind the ball, and to stop attacking players steal a yard from where the offence has taken place – is sensible, it’s worth asking if the vanishing spray will actually lead to more goals or not.

What happened before the vanishing spray?

It was a strange time before the vanishing spray came into our lives; a time when free-kick takers would throw the ball down to their mark, stealing an extra yard with a few revolutions of the ball, while defenders in the wall played a form of grandmother’s footsteps safe in the knowledge that a few small steps wouldn’t be penalised by a referee. Those days are now over. We asked our friends at Bloomberg Sports to show just how many players scored direct from free-kicks before the spray.

Free-kicks from 2013-14 season:

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The table above shows the record from direct free-kicks from last season. Italy and England had the highest free-kick success, and it’s worth noting that on average in Europe’s top five leagues over the last five years, there were 30.76 goals per season at a conversion rate of 5.18%. So why is the Premier League’s conversion rate so high? There is one man more than any other to thank for that: Yaya Toure. The Ivorian midfielder only took seven direct free-kicks last season, and scored from four of them, an impressive 57.14% conversion rate. Juan Mata’s 40% (two from five) and Wayne Rooney’s 23.08% (three from 13) also pushed up the average. In fact, the last time a Premier League player managed over four free-kicks in one season, it was back in 2009-10, when Sebastian Larsson (from 63 efforts) and Rooney (from 57) both scored six.

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Did the spray have an effect at the World Cup?

Given the figures above, you might have thought that with the best players in the world on display (and yes, the best goalkeepers too), the spray might have helped bring about more goals from direct free-kicks. And who can forget some of the brilliant free-kick goals we saw in Brazil? From David Luiz, whose humdinger against Colombia sparked off wild celebrations; and Lionel Messi, who scored against Nigeria one minute after a similar effort had just skimmed the other side of the post. Then there was Blerim Dzemaili, whose long-range effort was nothing more than a consolation in Switzerland’s 5-2 drubbing at the hands of France. And then… there was… hang on… was that it? Yes, actually.

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Only three free-kicks were scored out of a total 117 efforts, at a conversion rate of 2.56%, less than half the average in Europe’s top five leagues. With such a small sample, it’s hard to know what impact the vanishing spray had, but if the conversion drops below 5% this season, we may be asking if keeping the wall the full ten yards back actually helps the defending team.

Which players might the spray affect most?

There are only five players who have scored ten free-kicks or more in the five leagues we studied over the last five seasons, and they are the ones we should be keeping an eye on at to see if the spray made any difference to their success-rate. While three of the names – Andrea Pirlo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – may not come as a shock, the other two most certainly are. Here is the table:

Most prolific free-kick takers in last five seasons:

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The most surprising name might be Francesco Lodi, the Catania midfielder who burst onto the scene under coach Walter Zenga, whose masterstroke was to hire Gianni Vio, a former bank clerk from Mestre, as his set-piece specialist.

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Vio specialised in ‘organised confusion’, with one routine against Torino summing it up: a 25-yard free-kick, which Giuseppe Mascara stood over. When the referee blew his whistle, two Catania players moved across the area and four more formed another wall to distract goalkeeper Matteo Sereni. Oh, and then Gianvito Plasmati dropped his shorts. Mascara scored. Lodi also benefited from Vio’s expertise.

“It’s important to develop different strategies on dead-balls, seeing that from these situations 40 to 50 per cent of goalscoring chances are born,” Vio, who was hailed as Il Maghetto, the Little Wizard, told La Gazzetta dello Sport. Vio has since a written a book, ‘Dead-balls: the 15-goal striker’ and after a successful spell overseeing Fiorentina’s dead-ball routines, this summer moved to AC Milan. Vio has said there are 4,830 different routines for corner-kicks, and free-kicks give him further freedom to try out his unpredictable repertoire designed to disorientate the opposition.

Will the vanishing spray create more goals?

One of the tenets of the Vio philosophy is to create confusion and mayhem in the area. The introduction of the spray, though, has meant that it does just the opposite. Where there was chaos, now there is order: the wall stays static, and the ball never gets nudged a few yards to either side. The goalkeeper, if anything, has a better view than before because of the extra room between the ball and the wall (even if there is less space between the wall and his goal-line). But does this help the striker at all?

Yes, according to Morten Gamst Pedersen, a free-kick specialist who scored from 25 yards for Rosenborg against Molde a few weeks ago. When he was playing for Blackburn, he twice came in the Premier League top five for free-kick success, in 2010-11 with two goals from 17 shots (11.76% conversion and 35.29% accuracy) and 2011-12 with two goals from 19 shots (10.53% conversion and 26.32% accuracy). Pedersen also scored direct from a corner, in a 2009 League Cup win at Gillingham.

“The further away the wall is from the ball, the better it is for the free-kick taker,” he told On Reflection. “It gives you more room to get the ball up and down though of course it all depends on where the free-kick is taken from.” The best spot for Pedersen, who scored from a free-kick to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in September 2005, is a few yards behind the ‘D’, still central to the goal.

The vanishing spray has yet to make it to Norway’s Tippeligaen, where Pedersen’s Rosenberg side is fourth, but we might see some of the old Gamsten magic at Wembley next month, when Pedersen is expected to start for Norway in their friendly against England.

As for the numbers showing, at the moment, that as the vanishing spray arrives, so the goals have vanished too, Pedersen remains a sceptic. “It’s way too early to read too much from the numbers. Let’s wait until the end of the season and see what happens. Then we should get a better idea of the effect the vanishing spray is having. I think it will need to more goals.” Spoken like a true economist: Lodi, it’s over to you.

Ben Lyttleton (On Twitter: @benlyt)

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