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Set Piece Specialists: Which Players are the Best in the World?

Has the best free kick taker in the world just arrived in Germany?

With the arrival of Philippe Coutinho at Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga champions have added a big star and perhaps a world class player. Not only this, Coutinho is a wizard from outside the box, especially from dead ball situations. But how does he stack up against other free kick takers? Is he the best in the Bundesliga? And which players are the best in Germany, and the world, from the penalty spot?

In this article, I will take a look at goals scored from free kicks and penalties, and consider the leading specialists in these two areas. This isn’t a complex analysis, I’ve simply collated the data and visualized it. However, that’s sufficiently informative in this case. Sometimes a complicated approach isn’t necessary. I will use Sofa Score’s data on free kicks and penalties attempted and scored, and conversion rate for both. It is worth noting that many of the samples for individual players are small, so conversion rates should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is unclear whether many of these players would do as well given 1,000 attempts. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t just dismiss these numbers. That said, we should be wary against drawing strong conclusions without further evidence to support the case.

Free Kicks

Set piece quality can be measured using volume or efficiency – who scores the most, and who converts the highest percentage of their attempts. Figure 1 and 2 show the total number of free kicks attempted and scored among the top 20 players in the subset.

Figure 1
Figure 2

The most noticeable part of both figures is the incredible 164 free kicks Messi has taken. This is almost 100 more attempts than his closest competitor Dani Parejo’s 69. The mean average in the subset of top free kick takers is 32, which further highlights Messi’s absurd numbers. Given this, it is relatively unsurprising that Messi also leads the pack in terms of goals scored. The average number of goals scored from free kicks is 4, meaning that even among the specialists the average is only 1 goal a season. Meanwhile, the Bundesliga is represented by Plattenhardt and Suttner, and Philippe Coutinho is leading the pack of players from the German league.

Turning to conversion rates further illustrates Coutinho’s quality, as shown by Figure 3. Coutinho and Di Maria lead the list scoring 26.3% of their free kicks.

Figure 3

Messi, Pjanic, and Parejo, who featured heavily in both attempts and goals, are nowhere to be seen. In fact, the best five players by conversion rate weren’t featured in Figure 1 or 2. The biggest takeaway is that the highest conversion rates belong to those that have taken fewer attempts on goal, suggesting that many of the very highest rates are overinflated. The average free kick conversion rate is 16.3%, and those that are scoring closer to 30% are almost certainly doing so as a result of chance having a big effect on a small sample. Coutinho, Rodriguez, and Di Maria are all very good at free kicks, and though I doubt Coutinho would maintain this high conversion rate if given set pieces at Bayern, I imagine he will still be a real threat. Bayern have a few different options from free kicks, including Lewandowski and Alaba, but Coutinho will probably be taking the majority of them for the rest of the season.

Looking a little further down the list, the likes of Griezmann and Dybala have taken an above average number of free kicks, but still maintain a high conversion rate. These two are probably the most impressive of the players on the list. They’ve had 36 and 39 attempts respectively, but maintain conversion rates of over 20%. Dybala’s 8 goals from set pieces since 2015 is one of the standouts.

Messi’s conversion rate is only 11%, which raises questions over the decision to let him keep taking free kicks while Coutinho was on the team. There are a number of possible reasons for this low rate. It’s unclear whether Messi is taking too many shots from positions that he definitely shouldn’t, or if this is genuinely a part of his game that is not that impressive. If it’s any consolation, Neymar has an even worse conversion rate of 9.2% (5 goals from 48 shots). I guess the pair of them can share duties at Barcelona and they can collectively pump over 1,000 shots into the sun while Griezmann quietly wonders what he did to deserve this.

Penalties

Moving on to penalties, Figures 4 and 5 show the leaders in penalties taken and scored since 2015. Ronaldo and Messi top the pile in terms of penalties taken, Ronaldo with 27 and Messi with 23, and Ronaldo is the best in terms of penalties scored with 20. Messi, on the other hand, is in 10th with 15 goals.

Figure 4
Figure 5

There are a quite a few less glamorous players on the list, such as Milivojevic and Troy Deeney. Clearly Barcelona should look into a big money move for Troy if they’re ever gonna challenge for the Champions League again.

Finally, the conversion rate, shown in Figure 6, reiterates the less than impressive record that Ronaldo and Messi boast. This should make us reconsider the debate between Ronaldo, Messi, and Milivojevic as the best player ever.

Figure 6

Fabinho maintains a 100% record, and even the lowest in this list is just above 80%. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s conversion rate is 75%, while Messi’s is 65%. Because of the generally very high rate of conversion among top players, volume and efficiency are both valuable when assessing penalty takers. For example, by conversion rate, Yaya Toure has the best penalty record in Premier League history, with a 100% record from 11 penalties. However, in 2nd place (and 1st by volume) is Matt Le Tissier with a record of 25/26 and a 96.2% conversion rate. While Toure’s conversion rate is impressive, he has scored 14 less than Le Tiss, and the 4% difference in efficiency doesn’t really make up for that difference. Toure would be top of the conversion list in this article, but he wouldn’t place on the list of goals scored, while Le Tissier’s record would put him top of the list in terms of goals scored (though he achieved this over a greater length of time) and 2nd in terms of conversion rate. Given this, I think there is a case to be made for either Aspas and Milivojevic (19/21, 90.5%), or Fabinho (17/17, 100%), having the most impressive record.

BVB’s Set Piece Specialists

As you may have noticed, Dortmund haven’t featured at any point so far. Unfortunately, none of BVB’s players made the cut, but I figured it would be worth taking a look at how they have performed in the same time period. The best free kick taker has been Paco Alcacer, and his conversion rate is a very impressive 50%, however this was only over one season. Aubameyang and Reus both had a lot of attempts, but not a whole lot of success.

Free Kick Takers

Name Shots Goals Conversion Rate
Name Shots Goals Conversion Rate
Paco Alcácer 6 3 50
Gonzalo Castro 9 1 11.1
Marco Reus 20 1 5
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 14 0 0
İlkay Gündoğan 8 0 0
Raphaël Guerreiro 8 0 0
Andre Schürrle 5 0 0
Marcel Schmelzer 4 0 0
Henrikh Mkhitaryan 2 0 0
Nuri Şahin 2 0 0

Reus and Aubameyang fair a lot better from the penalty spot than from further out, though neither records are spectacular. Reus’s record is okay, but the sample is small, and the conversion rate is still about 7% off of the leaders in the data.

Penalty Takers

Name Shots Goals Conversion Rate
Name Shots Goals Conversion Rate
Marco Reus 8 6 75
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 12 8 66.7
Andre Schürrle 2 1 50

Dortmund’s best performers are above average (the average conversion rate from penalties is 64%), but the volume is pretty small, so both Reus and Alcacer would need to do more to prove their worth from set pieces.

Conclusion

There’s no definitive leader in free kicks or penalties, but depending on how much you buy into the conversion rates, and whether you value volume or efficiency most, there are a handful of players that are particularly good.

So while it is hard to definitively answer which player is best at set pieces, it’s clear that Bayern have got someone that is definitely in the discussion in Coutinho. They also boast another great free kick taker in David Alaba, and a top penalty taker in Robert Lewandowski. Dortmund are weaker in both categories, but Reus’s record is reasonable from the penalty spot, and Paco Alcacer’s record from free kicks was impressive last season. At least BVB don’t have to put up with Messi or Neymar.

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