Football Features

Is Lionel Messi Europe’s best free-kick taker? We ranked the 10 highest set-piece scorers

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:14, 2 May 2019

A direct free-kick is one of the most thrilling sights in football.

The ball starts still and is then suddenly launched through the air by one swing of the foot. It’s football distilled into one perfect instant. All the skill of striking a ball with more challenge than simply firing away at the goalkeeper as happens with a penalty kick.

But who are the best free-kick takers around? We’ve had a look at the last three seasons of Europe’s Top 5 Leagues as well as the Champions League and Europa League and come up with a list of the best set-piece scorers. Players will be ranked by the number of goals scored from free-kicks since the start of 2016/17, with their conversion rate acting as a tie-breaker if needed.

10. Aleksandar Kolarov

Club: Roma and Manchester City
Free-kicks scored: 5
Free-kick conversion rate: 12.20%

The Serbian left-back has long been an intriguing figure, often a liability in defence but such a relentless force going forward. His free-kicks are legendary, being struck with real whip and verve. He has bagged 5 free-kicks since 2016, the same as Juve’s Miralem Pjanic, but he beats his fellow Balkan onto the list because his conversion rate of 12.20% is higher than Pjanic’s 11.90%.

9. Simone Verdi

Club: Napoli and Bologna
Free-kicks scored: 5
Free-kick conversion rate: 12.82%

Simone Verdi is anything but green. The 26-year-old had a journeyman career before finding a home at Bologna where his penchant for rasping left-footed free-kicks was part of what earned him a move to Napoli where he’s carried on delivering.

8. Dries Mertens

Club: Napoli
Free-kicks scored: 5
Free-kick conversion rate: 14.71%

Dries Mertens can do just about anything, including bending free-kicks into the back of the net. The Belgian’s transition to false nine was greatly eased by his ability to score goals and set-pieces played a huge factor in that. Four of Mertens’ free-kicks came in Serie A whilst he’s scored one from three attempts in the Champions League in that time.

=7. Angel Di Maria

Club: PSG
Free-kicks scored: 5
Free-kick conversion rate: 17.86%

Di Maria is one of those perpetually underrated and undervalued players. No one appreciates all the running he does for the team, nor the tactical width and set-piece speciality he provides. Not only does he create from corners but, when Neymar isn’t around at least, he gets to blast free-kicks into the back of the net with an impressive conversion rate of 17.86%.

=7. Antoine Griezmann

Club: Atlético Madrid
Free-kicks scored: 5
Free-kick conversion rate: 17.86%

Antoine Griezmann is a sublime free-kick taker, the fact that France are World Champions is a huge testament to that. But he also brings that wizardry home to Atlético Madrid where his left-foot is a wand that often brings joy to the Wanda Metropolitano. Griezmann’s genius with dead-balls is a huge part of how France and Atleti are able to play so defensively yet still threaten in attack. He’s that important.

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5. Coutinho

Club: Liverpool and Barcelona
Free-kicks scored: 5
Free-kick conversion rate: 26.32%

Philippe Coutinho may have been a bit of a flop at Barcelona but those who recall his Liverpool days will recall that he was absolutely deadly from free-kicks. He didn’t often step up to shoot, but when he did there was a great chance that he’d score. His 26.32% conversion rate is considerably higher than anyone else in our top 10. Maybe he should get more looks at the Camp Nou?

4. Nabil Fekir

Club: Lyon
Free-kicks scored: 6
Free-kick conversion rate: 14.63%

Finally someone breaks above 5, and of course it’s Nabil Fekir. The elegant playmaker and Lyon legend plays as a perfectly poised no. 10 whose ability to shoot from range is fearsome from a dead ball or open play. His 6 free-kicks have been converted at a near-15% rate and that number would surely be higher but for the time he has spent out injured.

3. Enis Bardhi

Club: Levante
Free-kicks scored: 6
Free-kick conversion rate: 17.14%

You probably haven’t heard of Enis Bardhi but the Macedonian playmaker has been a hit since joining Levante in 2017. At 23-years-old he has plenty of room to grow but he already has a penchant for scoring worldies, particularly from set-pieces. His six free-kick goals came from just 35 shots and what’s even more impressive is that because he joined prior to 2017/18, he’s reached third on this list despite playing one season less than everyone else!

2. Neymar

Club: PSG and Barcelona
Free-kicks scored: 9
Free-kick conversion rate: 19.57%

The bafflingly brilliant Brazilian is the only player on this top 10 to have scored free-kicks in three different competitions. One in La Liga, three in Ligue 1, and five in the Champions League. Over the last three seasons he’s actually got more free-kick goals in Europe’s premiere competition than anyone else, and his conversion rate of 19.57% is staggeringly good. Whatever else you think of Neymar, he is exceptionally good at football and his prowess with a dead ball is one major example.

1. Leo Messi

Club: Barcelona
Free-kicks scored: 17
Free-kick conversion rate: 12.78%

Well, who the hell else was it going to be? Leo Messi is the best in the world and since 2012 that’s included free-kicks. Messi has a ridiculous variety of free-kick at his disposal, able to gently dink them in from close range or blast them with dip and swerve like Juninho Pernambucano used to when further out.

Messi has scored way more than anyone else (17 goals) but he’s also shot more than anyone else (133 times!) which is why his conversion rate his so low. This could indicate a simple matter of high volume, but then Messi routinely scores free-kicks in clutch situations under enormous pressure, so really you just have to step back – about 10 yards obviously – and admire his artistry.

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