Free-kick maestros need some magic

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The Independent Online
"Get the free-kicks on target" and "Make sure the keeper makes a save", are among the oldest mantras in the game. Euro 96 has yielded precious few goals from set-pieces, but the lack of invention has been even more disappointing. There have been too many thoughtless lashes against the wall and not enough attempts showing guile and originality.

I had hoped these championships would see the unveiling of new ideas, maybe even the emergence of a Tostao or Platini for the Nineties. Instead the blunderbuss approach seems to have triumphed.

Until recently, the fashion for free-kicks just outside the box had become ever more intricate. In the end too many touches and too many dummies led to a loss of momentum. Teams ended up shooting 10 yards back from where the original free-kick was.

National team coaches will tell you that there are no opportunities to practise their set-pieces in secret these days. Certainly, when travelling abroad with Scotland, we encountered everything from Romanians spying on us up in the trees to Italians posing as tourists, attempting to film us on camcorders.

Of course we are no different, and are often supplied with information from "sources". So why not work out a new free-kick on a board in the team hotel, or even walk through it in the lobby? Well, it doesn't work. At the top level, free-kicks need to be drilled with split-second timing. It can only be done on a pitch.

Saturation television coverage by Sky, Eurosport and the terrestrial stations poses another problem. As soon as a new idea is used it becomes obsolete. I once copied a John Collins idea. (The ball was rolled to me. I stopped it and as a third man was about to hit it, I dragged it away and had a shot myself. The momentum of the defender trying to charge down the shot took him through to the decoy, giving me the space to shoot.) I tried it again a month later and was almost halved in two by a defender. Even at Football League level, everyone is watching everyone else.

One excellent double bluff occurred in the recent Scotland v Netherlands game. In previous matches our wall had been instructed to jump as the kick was taken, making it more difficult to get the ball up, over us and then down again. The Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, had spotted this and their first free-kick was struck firmly along the ground, underneath our "airborne" wall, almost resulting in a goal.

Looking at the teams in the semi-finals, England seem to have put the most thought into their set-pieces. Terry Venables is particularly wily, but I will be mightily impressed if they breach the German defence at any set-piece other than a penalty kick. Under pressure in the Italian game, the Germans rarely looked like cracking. They are excellent defenders, superbly organised and, vitally, they are big, powerful blockers off the ball.

France have talented dead-ball specialists in Djorkaeff and Zidane, but they haven't produced the goods yet. They did manage to score from a corner, Laurent Blanc producing an old-fashioned centre half's header, but I doubt if the Czech Republic's Suchoparek will allow him such a clear run at the ball today.

Don't think for a moment that the coaches have thrown in the towel with set-pieces though. Scotland practise both our own kick-offs and the kick- offs our opponents commonly use. Even throw-ins in the opponents' half are worked at long and hard. Just watch how many teams have players doing "crossovers" in order to receive the ball on the move, in a little space. It is simple, almost always effective and difficult to defend. The Italians have used the technique to great effect for years.

Roberto Baggio would stand near the junction of the penalty box and the goal-line. He would then make an arced run that took him to the edge of the area and then horizontally across the 18-yard line. The ball would be thrown along the 18-yard line and after one bounce he would have an angled shot at goal. Baggio was usually free from defenders because a team-mate had made the same run in the opposite direction, blocking Roberto's marker as they crossed. Gianfranco Zola used the same ploy in the game against Russia, almost resulting in a goal.

England may well revert to their more old-fashioned techniques. Gary Neville's long throw will not be available tonight, but they could still use Tony Adams's near-post flick from corners and Pearce's blast from free-kicks.

I just think that a set-piece goal is more likely to come from a touch of individual brilliance. From a player who can do delicate things with a ball that others can't. There isn't a Stoichkov or a Hagi left in the tournament, but there is a Gascoigne.