David Beckham has had his fair share of problems in recent weeks. But he proved on Wednesday that, when it comes to bamboozling a defence from a set-piece, there are few who can touch his technique. Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables, in the ITV studio for Manchester United's Champions' League game against Barcelona, have already had their say. Hoddle knew a thing or two in his playing days about bending free-kicks around walls. Yet even he would have been hard-pressed to produce a strike of such technical brilliance as that with which Beckham gave United a 3-2 lead at Old Trafford.
The same applies to Ronald Koeman, arguably Europe's best exponent of goalscoring free-kicks in recent years. It was Koeman who destroyed England's hopes of qualifying for USA 94 with that free-kick in Rotterdam. Koeman it was, too, who won the European Cup for Barcelona at Wembley with another one of his specialities.
Now one of the Barcelona coaching staff, Koeman was there on Wednesday night. He puts the Beckham free-kick up among the best he has ever seen at international or senior club level. "The incredible thing about Beckham's free-kick is that he hit it with a mixture of spin and power," said Koeman. "It was technically brilliant. But you can't do something like that without constantly practising it in training."
Koeman was impressed with the way Beckham addressed the ball. "He only stepped back one or two metres yet was able to hit it so powerfully. I'd say it was better than his goal in the World Cup against Colombia because of the mixture of strength and spin." Koeman was also surprised by Beckham's calmness in the heat of the moment. "It's one thing scoring goals like that in training but quite another in a game of such significance."
Beckham is the latest in a long line of free-kick specialists at Old Trafford. In the 1970s, the former England left-winger Gordon Hill had the role. Hill marvels at the almost negligible backlift employed by Beckham on Wednesday. "He winds up the shot very sharply, like an elastic band," said Hill, whose 51 goals for United included a fair share of free-kicks. "His toes are pointed downwards and away from him, rather like a ballet dancer. But he keeps the ball on the inside of his foot as distinct from the top of it. The fact that his toes are pointed downwards gives it that extra curve. There is no way a goalkeeper can stop it if it is struck properly. The cross Beckham provided for the Giggs header was very similar except that it had more height."
Hill, like Koeman, thinks Beckham's goal against Barcelona ranks among the best free-kicks taken in English, or even European, football. "You see a lot of them everywhere, then all of a sudden someone produces a one that is that bit more spectacular," said Hill. "I was sitting level with where David struck the ball. He used the wind to his advantage. The keeper was slightly off-centre trying to cover both posts. In those circumstances, no one would have stopped it."
Unless with a little help from a man on the line. "One way of compensating for free-kicks like Beckham's is to pull a man out of the wall and stick him on the near post. That would, of course, reduce the chance of the opposition being offside from the kick but it would certainly act as a deterrent for whoever takes it."
One man who isn't the least surprised at Beckham's dead-ball ability is Eric Harrison, the youth team manager at Old Trafford for 17 years. Harrison, now 60, had Beckham as a 15-year-old and watched him constantly practising free-kicks.
What impresses Harrison, who now works part-time in Old Trafford's School of Excellence, is Beckham's balance. In particular, the way he uses his arms. "If you look at all great free-kick takers, their arms give extra balance and are not down by their side," said Harrison. "It's the same with David. He was always taking free-kicks in his spare time, sometimes staying on after training."
But even Harrison is confounded by Beckham's approach to the ball. "I used to tell him all the time to take a longer run-up. But he never felt comfortable. Let's face it, he knew how to take a free-kick much better than me."Reuse content