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Never mind MLS - in Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC have one of the best free-kick takers in the world

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The Italian’s hot streak with the dead ball has put him in elite company - again.

Andre Varty / Waking the Red

We already know that Sebastian Giovinco is the most prolific goalscorer from direct free-kicks in recorded MLS history.

But every time the Atomic Ant hits the back of the net with the dead ball, it gets bigger than that; he is now standing among the greatest free-kick takers in recent memory.

The raw numbers are these: since the 2008-09 season (which is as far back as I have Opta data), only seven players have scored five free-kicks or more in a single campaign in Europe’s top-five leagues (Spain, England, Germany, France and Italy). That’s a total of 45 seasons.

One of them - Hakan Calhanoglu - scored six, but none of them have done it more than once.

After scoring from a set-piece in Sunday’s win over the Montreal Impact, Giovinco has now scored five free-kick goals twice in three seasons - and the current year is not yet over.

Now, the argument might be made that perhaps it is easier to score free-kicks in MLS due to a lower standard of goalkeeper.

Giovinco is the only player to hit five in a single season in this league over that same period, though, with David Beckham having topped out at four and Didier Drogba three (twice).

Drogba did manage three on just nine attempts in 2015-16, but an incredible success rate like that is seen in Europe occasionally, too. Yaya Toure managed four from seven for Manchester City in 2013-14, for example, while Philippe Coutinho was three for nine for Liverpool last season.

What Giovinco is doing is flat-out special, in short, and rarely seen worldwide, let alone in MLS.


I’m not convinced that there’s many secrets to Giovinco’s free-kicks. By and large, they’re just really, really well-struck shots that dip and bend and would be difficult for goalkeepers to save in any circumstances.

He’s a technically gifted player and has been doing this for a while now.

One thing that is interesting, though, is how Giovinco uses the defensive wall to his advantage.

The point of a wall when defending a free-kick is to cover a section of the goal. It is usually lined up inside the near post, which allows the goalkeeper to position himself nearer to the far corner and take away the easiest part of the goal for a free-kick taker to hit.

For a right-footed player taking a free-kick from the left side (or vice versa), as is most common, that leaves the shooter needing to get the ball up and over the wall and then down again and curling far enough away from the goalkeeper to be out of his reach.

New York Red Bulls v Los Angeles Galaxy - 2nd Leg Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

That’s not easy.

If a right-footed player is shooting from the right side, it’s even harder; they have to either curl the ball outside of the frame of the goal and then back in again or hit a straight(ish) shot over the wall that drops quickly enough to hit the target the right side of the crossbar.

A-League Rd 17 - Adelaide v Newcastle Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

As we have established, there is only a handful of players globally that can do this with any semblance of consistency.

The problem for the teams facing those select few, though, is that the wall can actually become more of a hindrance than a help.

When a free-kick taker like Giovinco is regularly hitting the small window that the wall offers, the setup is effectively redundant and the goalkeeper is both out of position and screened.

Take a look here at where Orlando City goalkeeper Joe Bendik is when Giovinco strikes the free-kick he scored in Florida last month:

TSN

Now take a look where Bendik is once the ball has passed the wall:

TSN

Chances are he’s barely seen a thing in the time between those screenshots.

At the moment, walls seem to be aiding Giovinco’s efforts in two ways; they are giving him a reference point with which to angle and direct his shots, and they are blocking the goalkeeper’s line of vision.

The poor men between the posts are not going toe-to-toe with the 30-year-old’s best from 30 yards - their involvement is only beginning when the ball comes hurtling over the wall having already travelled about a third of its total distance.

The video below, recorded by a fan from the north end at BMO Field, gives an excellent impression of what that feels like.

That’s the free-kick Giovinco scored against the Philadelphia Union, which was different to most of his attempts in that he aimed for the far corner of the goal - the one the goalkeeper is supposed to have covered.

Andre Blake is at fault. He crouches down low in an attempt to see through the legs in the wall and get a read on the ball, probably expecting Giovinco’s effort to arrive low to his right.

But this free-kick is only from 20 yards or so out, meaning it was always going to be incredibly difficult for Giovinco to get the ball up and down quickly enough for that. Most of his goals from free-kicks are from further out, and on this occasion Blake should have trusted his wall.

The way Giovinco has been striking them lately, though, it’s perhaps understandable that he didn’t.

One other thing to note from that clip is the way Jozy Altidore positions himself right in the goalkeeper’s line of sight.

That’s something he is trying with increasingly regularity (and success) - as the Bendik screenshots above illustrate, he was there for the Orlando goal, too, and even took a leaf out of Sean Avery’s book in Montreal at the weekend.

ESPN

Success from free-kicks can be a streaky thing. Take a look back at the most prolific takers in recent Premier League seasons, for example, and there are numerous cases of players enjoying a short burst of joy with the dead ball.

Wayne Rooney scoring three in the space of two weeks in September of 2013 is the most prominent, but a number of other players have converted as many as that over a month or two.

The flip side is that players who better almost all of their peers over the long term when it comes to free-kick taking can go cold for months at a time. Rooney had over seven months to score a fourth free-kick that season, but it never came.

Therein lies the only negative - and it isn’t really one - in this situation for Toronto FC; Giovinco’s free-kicks could suddenly dry up and the threat disappear (though Altidore isn’t too bad himself) for the remainder of the season.

But even if that does happen, the Italian will have still had another tremendous year with the dead ball.

For now, at least, he is rolling - and putting on one of the most enthralling shows this league has ever seen.