The ball sits flat on the pristine green turf. Around three yards away stands Cristiano Ronaldo, shark eyes looking into the middle distance, pose fixed, arms out but pointed downward either side of his torso. Up he strides, making that perfect but almost unnatural contact that provides no spin.
Ronaldo's victim, the ball, lurches toward the goal. Before the man between the posts can blink, let alone move, the ball nestles in the back of his net.
Except these days, only the first part of that is regularly seen at the Santiago Bernabeu—too often Ronaldo's free-kicks land in the goalkeeper's hands, into the wall, wide of the goal or over it.
It has become an issue at the club, with many fans calling for someone else to take these dead-ball situations, with Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez popular shouts. There's also Isco and Sergio Ramos, among others, who can take a mean free-kick.
But Ronaldo, Bale and James are the team's poster boys, and at Real Madrid, with the club's Galacticos policy, that's an important factor to take into consideration. Despite this, their sheer ability with a dead ball is enough to accept these three players being the first choices.
Ronaldo’s free-kick statistics can be interpreted in two ways. Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid’s official website goes for a positive spin. After he scored from one against Eibar in April, the club published a news story highlighting his success.
It was his 17th goal from a free-kick in La Liga, taking his tally for Madrid to 25 in all competitions. The club wrote: “Since moving to Spain, in the 2009-10 season, he has become La Liga's top free kick marksman. His register of 17 goals far exceeds the tallies of Messi (12) and Benat (7)."
That is, of course, impressive. Ronaldo has scored plenty of excellent free-kicks for his club. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. That goal against Eibar—helped in part by Xabier Irureta’s shoddy goalkeeping—actually ended a horrible run for the forward.
Ronaldo had gone an astonishing 56 efforts without finding the net from a free-kick for Los Blancos, the best part of a calendar year. The Eibar strike, on April 11, 2015, was his first goal from a free-kick since April 29, 2014, against Bayern Munich.
The month before he ended his drought, the Daily Mail published an article highlighting his recent lack of success from free-kicks. Pete Jenson explained:
Ronaldo has sent 21 of his efforts straight into the wall and placed 14 high or wide of the target; while keepers or posts and crossbars have done for the rest. Gareth Bale has only scored once this season but it is Real’s only goal scored from a free-kick. ...
Bale scores a free-kick every 9.5 attempts while Ronaldo's ratio is one every 15.6 attempts. Bale also came out ahead of Andrea Pirlo who scores one every 10.5 attempts and Leo Messi who scores every 14 times he takes a free-kick.
So what’s the problem with Ronaldo? Some suggest his knee is a problem. According to Goal, Brazilian set-piece expert Marcos Assuncao thinks the player may be holding back so as not to aggravate it.
“A knee injury can affect things. I had a problem in my right knee and had difficulties because of that. When I was going to hit the ball, the knee movement, with the impact, caused me pain,” he said.
“If he has this problem, it may be also affecting his way of hitting the ball. This problem changes some movements and the ball can go over the crossbar or hit the wall—he may be avoiding impact and pain.”
Although his style looks similar, minor changes can cause big differences in results. If Ronaldo is modifying his technique to suit how his body feels, it may be having an impact.
De jure, the Portugal star shares free-kick duty with Gareth Bale, with the latter taking opportunities on the right because they suit his left foot and vice versa. De facto, Ronaldo takes the vast majority of set pieces, including ones in central areas.
Bale scored one less free-kick than Ronaldo last season in La Liga despite taking far fewer, with the Welshman burying one against Espanyol as he tried to stake his claim to take more of the set pieces.
At his previous clubs, the Welshman was known as a free-kick wizard. At just 17, he scored his first senior goal for Southampton from a free-kick, in the 2006-07 Championship season, against Derby County.
He carried that on at Tottenham Hotspur, where his prowess from free-kicks grew further still. Bale uses similar technique to Ronaldo, striking the ball so that it doesn't spin.
“The main thing when I’m running up is I hit the ball as flat as possible with no spin. I open my foot right up. I hit the ball exactly where I want, right in the middle,” he explained in a promo for Lucozade (h/t the Daily Mail).
“I then have to try and hit it so I’m not curling the ball. I want to get the flight of the ball to move and make it difficult for the 'keeper.”
According to WhoScored.com statistics (h/t Sky Sports) released after Ronaldo finally scored against Eibar, Bale is more accurate than his rival.
Ranking 35 players across Europe’s top five leagues who took more than 10 free-kicks last season, Ronaldo is only 25th in the list, while Bale is 19th. And now there is a new contender on the scene.
James scored from a free-kick against Getafe toward the end of last season and continued to show off his talents on the club’s recent pre-season tour.
Sealing a comfortable 3-0 win over Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup, James netted his side’s final goal with an exquisite effort, curled into the top-left corner. He had previously gone close with another good one in the same game.
Asked about the club’s free-kick situation after that match, new manager Rafa Benitez replied, per Sport: “Cristiano took them in the first half and James did in the second. We'll see what happens later on.”
This seems to leave the situation open for the season ahead, with the new man seemingly yet to decide who gets to take the set pieces. But who should?
The reality of the situation is that all three players have something to offer. Bale and James use their left foot, while Ronaldo bludgeons it with his right. Keeping the trio in contention for the set pieces means opposition walls and goalkeepers have less of an idea about who will take them.
Ronaldo shouldn’t be stripped of the duties, but he should be forced to share them out more evenly with his team-mates.
If one of the three starts to prove he can score on a regular basis, then that player should take priority. Of course, the ego game may dictate that this is not how the situation will unfold.