It would seem Gareth Bale is now part of an elite club, one that only four men occupy. Each man possesses the capability to kick a football in a very unique way, a way that is best explained through the science behind it, a way that produces a trajectory of the ball that many have attempted to imitate, over numerous sports, a way that is slowly changing the game of football and the ball’s themselves.
Remember the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, remember how the Jabulani ball, manufactured by Adidas, got more coverage than some of the teams competing? This was because of the way the ball moved, it was catching keepers out over and over with random movements in the air. The reason behind the erratic behaviour lies in something called a boundary layer, this is a layer of air that is formed around the ball when it is kicked.
The common term used when referencing the style of free kicks we have seen Bale producing is ‘knuckling’, this phrase has been around for the past hundred years originating from Baseball and the way a pitch was thrown from the knuckles and not from the fingers. The term permeated football in the early part of the 2000′s thanks to the genius of Juninho Pernambucano, the Brazilian gained a reputation during his time at Lyon as being the finest free kick taker in the world. If the dead ball was within a certain distance of goal he would use side spin much in the same way as Beckham does, if it was over say 35 yards he began to use this new technique called knuckling to outwit the keeper and get the ball up and down over the wall in one move.
Now, back at the 2010 world cup Adidas made the Jabulani ball from eight thermally bonded panels that made the ball appear smoother, they added grooves on the ball however that in turn altered the speed at which the boundary layer was effected. Traditionally the optimum speed at which knuckling takes place is around 30 mph, meaning that while it is perfectly possible at that speed the effectiveness of the swerve in-game is questionable, Adidas’s Jabulani however has a maximum knuckling effect between the speeds of 40 and 45 mph meaning it is possible to execute one of ‘those’ free kicks at a higher speed.
The actual process that takes place during these swerve filled set pieces is rather simple when you consider only four or so people in the world have performed these regularly. We established that a boundary layer is formed when the ball is in mid-flight, this is only possible if the ball has fewer rotations than say a side spin free kick, the air flows over and around the ball and with no spin it relies on other factors to break up the boundary layer, these can be anything from the seem on the ball to outside interference from mud or other wind flows. When something interrupts the boundary layer the ball is thrust to one side resulting in the swerve we see in midair.
There we have the reason these free kicks move so much, that is not all the story however, Bale, Ronaldo, Juninho and Drogba all strike the ball in this way, they all approach the kick similarly also. It is the upright stance that Ronaldo has made famous, it’s not just for show however as it performs a vital function in producing the dip on the ball. It allows the player to approach the ball straight on, and hit it with an unusual technique, it is as though the shot is with the inside of the boot but in fact the stance allows contact with the laces on the bottom of the ball causing it to peak halfway through its trajectory, clearing the wall with ease and sending the ball dipping down in front of the keeper, Bale produced an excellent example of this on Thursday night.
Back at Southampton Gareth was something of a free kick specialist, he scored a number for them and if you ask any Saints fan what they remember from him they will inevitably say his spot kicks. At Spurs though he seemed to stop taking them, when he did it was nothing like the Beckham-esque side spin that he was so renowned for at Southampton. Until this season that is, where he has on a number of occasions produced these spectacular shots that leave everyone talking about him, the secret behind this success… Hard Work.
There is no two ways about it Bale has clearly been practicing very hard on perfecting a trait only few men are even capable of, this is a testament to the man he is, the professional he is as much as it is his talent. He has not been in one-on-one sessions with Ronaldo but has been studying the way he takes free kicks and has replicated it in his image not because he admires him so but because it is the technique behind the shot. He is one of the first to produce these free kicks week after week and is up there now with Ronaldo and Messi progressing not only their talent but the game as a whole, in a decade it will not be a handful of players that can strike a ball in this image but the majority, it is the way any game evolves for better or worse.