We all suffer from free kick prejudice in Soccer

Like many other football fans the last month has been a bleary eyed blur, waking up at ridiculous times to watch as many world cup matches as I can possibly manage. Since June 13th we’ve all been living in a constant state of jet lag and clinging to the justification being “It’s only once every four years”.

Cristiano-Ronaldo-Free-kick-stanceWhilst watching Portugal in particular as they’ve struggled on the big stage, there’s been a consistent image of Cristiano Ronaldo stood over a free kick puffing out his chest and looking born to be the savior for his country with his legendary free kick taking prowess. The commentators eagerly anticipate the shot, the Portuguese fans sit on the edge of their seat, and the opposition fans can’t watch as the inevitable free kick is taken. There’s a common call throughout those watching that “We all know what he’s capable of” and as we sit in wait, Ronaldo’s shot flies way over the crossbar and into the crowd.

What amazes me is this seems to happen a lot, and yet even the well paid pundits seem to completely forget the past four or five attempts, even in the same game. Wearing my data hat I decided to do a bit of digging into the success rate of freekick takers to make sure I wasn’t just allowing my judgement to be clouded by Ronaldo’s arrogant approach.

I found data on the 2012/2013 season across Europe with the help of WhoScored and found some remarkable insights on our most feared free kick takers.

top five free kick taker stats

As expected despite Ronaldo having the most free kick attempts, a hefty 32% more more than second place, he’s only in third place for the number of free kicks scored. His conversion rate is at a very average 8%, when compared to one of my alltime favourite players Andrea Pirlo, who’s conversion rate stands at 14%, nearly doubling the efficiency of the Portuguese predator.

Similar to when we’re looking to drive efficiencies within digital performance media, my main interest isn’t necessarily in the players who are getting the largest volume of free kick attempts, i’m far more interested in the overall conversion rate; finding those rare gems who may be overlooked for their goal haul without factoring their relatively low attempts on goal (to preserve statistical significance only players with ten attempts or more have been included).

When we look at the conversion rate from free kicks we see the real lethal weapons standing over a free kick, people who should be striking fear in the opposition’s fans and exciting the commentators. Players like the 23 year old Tunisian Whabi Khazari, recently moved to Bordeaux; Whilst we know very little about Whabi, if he was given centre stage within a world class team subsequentially handed as many freekick attempts as Ronaldo he’d score a mighty ten goals a season compared to Ronaldo’s paltry four.

Snodgrass - Unfashionable, unnattractive but deadly free kick taker
Snodgrass – Unfashionable, but a deadly free kick taker

Whilst it may be unfair to compare the French Ligue 1 with Spain’s Mighty La Liga, we can make a good compariosn with Norwich City’s Robert Snodgrass, playing in the elite English Premier league and delivering a conversion rate of 19% against some of the best goalkeepers in the world. Snodgrass has recently moved to Hull City for a relatively low cost of $11 Million AU, that’s only 7% investment of Ronaldo’s megabucks transfer of $147 Million AU, and for a player who’s 2.4 times as efficient from his free kicks.

I’m not for a moment suggesting i’d rather have Robert Snodgrass in my team over Ronaldo, there’s a wide range of elements to a player’s game that need to be considered. In addition when it comes to football we’re limited by the amount of players you can have on the field at one time, so unlike with media buying, building a team of hundreds of high value long tail players will not equal the sum of it’s parts.

What the data does suggest though is that when applying a limited transfer budget to deliver the most effective team possible. There’s a great opportunity for football clubs to learn from legendary Baseball coach Billy Beane’s ‘Moneyball’ model by embracing, listening and most importantly applying data, moving past transfer decisions based on emotional bias and invest based on hard facts rather than what your commentators are telling you.

For any data obsessed, football fanatics I highly recommend you read ‘The Numbers Game’ . A fascinating insight into the under utlisation of data within Football.