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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Danish treat: The inspiration behind the Union’s free kick magic

Under an unfamiliarly euphoric Talen Energy Stadium Friday night, Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin let the media peer behind the wall at the club’s free-kick methodology.

Tranquillo Barnetta provided the visual aid, his stunner of a free kick curling around the wall, past a stupefied Joe Bendik, off the underside of the bar and in to give the Union a 2-1 win over Orlando City. But more intriguing was the approach that may have contributed to the beauty.

Here’s the video. Notice the extra line of players set up by the Union two strides behind Orlando City’s wall at 10 yards:

Barnetta didn’t have much to say on the free-kick strategy:
“Actually I don’t know. I wasn’t at the free kicks (design). You saw the keeper, he had no view to the ball and it was a little bit confusing for them because they saw the wall was like offsides, but they stepped two yards forward when I shoot it. I think that’s a really good idea to take the view off the keeper.”

Here’s Curtin:
“Our entire staff works very hard on restarts. (Assistant coach) BJ Callaghan specifically has been the point man. We have a good catalog of things. We’ve spent a lot more time and have been working on them a lot more. The second wall, if you will, the timing of that gives a little bit of a distraction. It’s something we picked up from another team that was successful with it. It provides a little bit of a different look. We checked with the linesman on the first time they did it when Tranquillo hit it way over, just to make sure the wall wasn’t offsides and there wouldn’t have been an issue. And the second time, they executed it well.”
It’s an unusual tactical design, one I’d never seen before. Sometimes you’ll see walls between the ball and the opposing wall, like this sliding-door approach from English club Brentford or AC Milan’s bulrush technique. Lining your players offsides hampers the goalie’s visibility and depth perception (not that Bendik has done particularly well under normal circumstances in the River End) but takes them out of the play for rebounds, unless they check up to be even with the last defender before the ball is struck so as not to be offsides.

So what’s that mystery team that Curtin got his design from? It looks like Danish club Midtjylland, which has used it plenty. You may remember Midtjylland as the former club of Danny Califf, and it’s a regular fixture in Champions League or Europa League, for devotees of those.

They also get creative with free kicks. A few examples. There's two in the first two minutes of this highlight tape:

Then 35 seconds into this vid:

Also at the 2:20 mark of this video from Europa League.

The Union aren’t the first team to employ this style. In the FA Cup in February against Shrewsbury, Manchester United scored courtesy of this Juan Mata goal on a similarly-designed free kick:

Louis Van Gaal was asked where he drew that up, and he said plainly that it was Midtjylland, which the Red Devils ousted in the Round of 32 of the Europa League that month, which inspired them.

It should be said that no matter the novelty of design, that’s just a sublime take from Barnetta. I don’t know if Bendik is stopping that shot if Barnetta tells him where he’s aiming, and the act of using the distraction is rendered meaningless unless Barnetta delivers such a pristine kick. This wasn’t some hidden ball trick, but a tactic used to maximize the chance of Barnetta deceiving the keeper.

The intriguing part from the Union perspective should be on the team’s growing “catalog of things.” MLS should always be fertile ground for experimentation, whether it’s formations or analytics of what have you. So look forward to the Union, a team that has never had a track record of set-piece lethality, tinkering with some new approaches on that front.

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