If you’ve watched some of the top Champions League and European Championship games lately, you may have noticed something odd about teams preparing to defend a free kick on the edge of their penalty area.

For example, if you had watched Arsenal’s 2-1 loss to Everton in the Premier League last month, you would have noticed that Ainslie Maitland-Niles was literally behind a defensive wall blocking any attempt by Gylfi Sigurdsson to shoot low. He is the last player to put his body on the line to prevent a potential hit, as if his teammates were jumping over the wall on a dead ball.

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This defensive tactic has been increasingly recognised in Europe since 2018, when Inter Milan midfielder Marcelo Brozovic played a viral back pass in front of a global audience in the 2018-19 Champions League group match against Barcelona. Watching Luis Suarez try to slide the ball under the wall, Brozovic threw himself to the ground and formed a makeshift railing, much to the amusement of Lionel Messi’s spectators.

Leo Messi’s reaction
Marcelo Brozovic
A unique way to defend a free kick…#UCL pic.twitter.com/IIYVcNn2Ua

– UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) 30. October 2018

Brozovic’s unorthodox block proved effective as Suarez’s low shot bounced off his tummy and was harmless, missing the target. In fact, the maneuver proved so effective that many other players have since tried to repeat it – but where did this clever, if rather dangerous, trick come from?

The practice of creating an extra barricade first became commonplace in Brazil’s elite league, where desperate defenders had to improvise to counter attacks, such as Ronaldinho, who tended to take free kicks under the wall to catch keepers off guard. Ronaldinho has had a lot of success with his disappointments, including that daring effort in the 2006/07 Champions League against Werder Bremen.

Ronaldinho’s shameless free kick #OTD in 2006 #UCL | @10Ronaldinho | @FCBarcelona pic.twitter.com/xf8GTWi427

– 3. UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) 5. UEFA Champions League. December 2020

The big Brazilian achieved the same result in his homeland with Flamengo. In the 2011 Brazilian championship, he scored a goal against Santos – a thrilling 5-4 victory over a team featuring new superstar Neymar – with another free kick that sent five men bouncing against the wall as they jumped in unison.

Former Club Parana midfielder Lucio Flavio is another Brazilian set player who quickly earned a reputation for preferring to hit the coup de grâce rather than go over the wall in certain situations. The defenders deliberately tried to slow Flavio down by putting the man behind the rest of the wall. Unfortunately, as the 2014 cup game against Ponte Preta showed, when Flavio noticed the countermeasure, he simply started aiming unstoppable shots over the wall and into the top corner.

By then, training had become a familiar sight for Brazilian defenders, dating back to an ill-fated Campeonato Serie B match in 2013 when Figueirense hosted Palmeiras. While Palmeiras penalty keeper Jorge Valdivia was busy clearing a dangerous throw-in from the edge of the area, everyone watched in amazement as Figueirense midfielder Ricardinho took it upon himself to clear the five-man wall and fall behind.

I tend to learn a lot before games, and before the game against Palmeiras I saw Valdivia trying to get the ball under the wall. Ricardinho told ESPN. I made my decision during the match and I didn’t say anything to anyone. I thought Valdivia’s chances of success were high. I’ve seen someone kneel before, but I’ve never seen them lie down.

When the referee awarded a free kick, Ricardinho urged his teammate Tiego (a defender who later died in a 2016 plane crash) to jump as high as he could, knowing the gap would be filled beneath him.

2 Connected

Ricardinho’s valiant efforts in this instance were in vain, as Valdivia opted for a standard blocked by the wall. Palmeiras still won 3-2, ironically Valdivia scored the winning goal. Nevertheless, Ricardinho returned to the dressing room where he was generously congratulated for his actions, including a word or two from his slightly bemused coach Adilson Batista.

When I came in, Adilson asked me: Wow, why didn’t you tell me this before? Ricardinho recalled. Everyone got mad and said: Wow, Ricardinho, you did a great job! It wasn’t a problem then. But a few years later, I saw a story of historical pieces on Instagram, and it’s been seen over two million times!

Adilson, who watched the match from the stands, wasn’t too keen, but the former central defender at least appreciated the theory behind the midfielder’s unusual positioning, having seen Ronaldinho and Lucio Flavio’s low free-kicks with his own eyes.

As a defensive lineman, I thought… Either jump or stay away from the wall, he told ESPN. When I saw Lucio Flavio and Ronaldinho do it, they shot low under the second or third man because it would have been normal for a defender to jump. Now you have to have another guy [behind the wall], because we are trying to protect the goalie. But lying down? You don’t have to lie down. The idea was that if the bullet went through the second man, there would be another man.

Ronaldinho went under the second man. if the man is behind the wall or if the man on base doesn’t jump. If you have a foot in the way, stop the ball. You don’t have to lie like that. If a guy jumps, he could fall on his teammate.

Ricardinho insists he planned everything and even made sure he wasn’t accidentally trampled: I was at a certain distance [from the wall] to avoid the risk of someone stepping on me from the wall. The only problem is the arm, because it must be well hidden in the body. In this game, my hand was raised a bit and put at risk.

Adilson thinks his player wasn’t entirely serious: It was one of Ricardinho’s jokes more than any other. But whether it was a joke or not, an innovation was born and soon others in Brazil and far beyond were inspired to do the same.

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The journey across the Atlantic could be traced by two other Brazilians trading in Europe: Marcelo and Philippe Coutinho.

In the World Cup qualifying match against Argentina in November 2016, Real Madrid left-back Marcelo stood behind the wall to defend Messi’s free-kick, anticipating the striker’s attempt. While not a complete horizontal sleeper unit, it is perhaps the first example of a concept making the leap from Brazilian national football to the wider international arena.

On that day, Coutinho played alongside Marcelo for Brazil. Three months later, in Liverpool’s Premier League match against Tottenham Hotspur, he knelt behind his own wall at Anfield and deliberately evaded Christian Eriksen as the Spurs midfielder prepared his shot. Whatever the path taken to reach Europe, the trend has spread rapidly across the continent and can now be observed with increasing regularity.

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The technique was even introduced in UEFA matches before Brozovic’s efforts reached viral status. Mata stood on the ground and looked down at the feet of his Manchester United teammates, who were hit by a free kick in the 2017 Europa League final. Note that Mata’s future colleague, Donnie van de Beek, is also present.

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Considered one of the best young defenders in world football, Bayern Munich’s Kimmich rose to become a multi-talent in European football when he played for Germany against the Netherlands in the Nations League.

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A graduate of Manchester City’s academy, Maffeo was clearly trained in this growing art form during his formative years with the Premier League. However, Girona won when the young defender tried to physically block a tackle in the Spanish second division match against Extremadura.

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The Serie A match between Roma and Inter ended in a goalless draw, thanks in part to Spinazzola’s dismissal. This could well be the first presentation of the aircraft in the Italian aerobatic stadium.

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The journey of technology through Europe is over. Earlier this year, when Aliyev overtook Zenit, the Russian Premier League finally got its first backstage bonus – and seemed surprisingly relaxed about it.

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Sevilla midfielder Torres knew he was being watched when he went to ground to thwart a tackle in the UEFA Super Cup match against Bayern and he wanted to prove himself on the big stage. Surprisingly, Bayern’s local prankster, Thomas Muller, doesn’t seem too impressed by the whole charade.

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In the Carabao Cup match against Manchester United, French striker Brighton & Hove Albion took his name literally by pushing his teammates into the wall to provide extra cover. Neil by name, kneeling by nature….

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Costa’s return to Bayern, on loan from Juventus of Turin, was the Brazilian’s best game to date. He made his Bundesliga debut for the second time with Bayern at Arminius Bielefeld.

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After learning the benefits of Barca, Merida volunteered to be a human accessory behind the wall when she lined up for the Catalan giants at the start of the season. We do not recommend the use of his personal approach.

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US international and left-back Robinson is clearly the Fulham specialist at home, having been seen in that role several times this season. The young defender bent his arms and did a great job of shielding the ball against West Ham in November, having done the same in games against West Brom and Newcastle in recent weeks.

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Together with Maffeo, we present here more evidence of the sleep technique used by Man City Academy players. Diaz, who is also from City’s youth team, had absolutely nothing in mind when he took his place behind the wall in AC Milan’s Europa League match against Celtic earlier this month,

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While Cristiano Ronaldo will be promoted to the top flight as usual, Cuadrado will do the dirty work, as will Juve, who must contain Turin derby specialist Ricardo Rodriguez.

Cook (12 December 2020)

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Normally assertive in almost all circumstances, he never left the Atletico Koke midfielder, more nervous than in the last Madrid derby, behind the wall. Unfortunately, the captain’s bracelet carries a lot of responsibility.

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Van de Beek must have wondered why he signed for Manchester United when he found himself in a battle for his laurels in the recent game against Sheffield United.

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Valencia’s Cherishev seemed to relax in the middle, waiting for Barcelona to be ready to turn the tide.

Antonio Strini and Vladimir Bianchini of ESPN Brasil contributed to this report.

 

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