Free kick practice at the training ground of Real Madrid, the reigning Champions League and LaLiga champions, and Luka Modric is standing over the ball.
He takes three short steps before striking the ball right-footed. The five-man wall jumps to meet the delivery but it curls high, up and over their heads and into the net.
But wait a minute. That’s no ordinary defensive wall. It isn’t made up of real players, for a start, despite their humanoid form — sculpted torsos bearing this season’s Real Madrid kits — and perfectly-timed upward movement.
This is Madrid’s new robotic free kick wall, which caused quite a stir when the club posted a video showing off their fancy new gadget on social media last week.
It’s the most high-profile showcase yet for this latest training-ground innovation, but Madrid aren’t the only ones taking advantage of this new technology.
The company behind it are FreeKickPro, based in Valkenswaard, a town just outside Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
“With all the innovation in the world of football, the way every club in the world trains, one of the most decisive parts of the game has never evolved from yellow mannequins,” FreeKickPro’s Machiel Debets told ESPN. “The training situation has absolutely nothing to do with the resistance players experience in a game: the height of the players, the number of players, the visibility and ability to jump.”
In the never-ending search for marginal gains, the robotic wall is a big step up from the same old flat, plastic outlines of players that even some elite clubs have been using for years.
“FreeKickPro lets you configure the actual wall of any opponent with identical behaviour,” Debets said. “Clubs already know the probability of where they will most likely get a free kick during their next match, and the behaviour of their opponent’s wall. With FreeKickPro they can replicate this situation one or two days prior to the game.
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“We don’t have to explain to anyone in the world of football the importance of a free kick. They just never had the right equipment to train properly. Now they do.”
The company have worked with several Dutch clubs including local giants PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, as well as Lyon in France, and linked up with Real Madrid in July this year.
☄ @MDembele_10, coup franc, 20 mètres : ça donne ça 💥⤵ pic.twitter.com/6QuhFWyJNO
— Olympique Lyonnais (@OL) July 18, 2022
Madrid assistant coach Davide Ancelotti — son of manager Carlo — is always on the lookout for new ideas to keep training sessions fresh.
“During the summer we connected with Real Madrid and Davide,” Debets told ESPN. “We delivered the product in Madrid and demonstrated the use of FreeKickPro during one of their training sessions. To have such a world-class club embracing our product makes us really proud. It’s confirmation that our innovation is being accepted by the world of football.”
Madrid’s video going viral on social media — with a million views on Twitter and over 700,000 likes on Instagram — has predictably increased demand.
“There’s not a single club that isn’t interested. If we show them our videos, it’s self-explanatory,” Debets said. “Obviously with Real Madrid posting their free kick training sessions, interest has gone through the roof. The amount of requests has been insane, really.”
The device is controlled via tablet, with a series of variables allowing for a more authentic imitation of the scenarios players like Modric, Dani Ceballos, Vinicius Junior and Toni Kroos — all featured in the video — will encounter during a game.
“You select the number of players to set up the wall: four, five or six,” Debets told ESPN. “You configure the heights of the players via our app. You configure which players need to jump. After training you can instantly re-visit the registered shots in our data and analysis platform.”
ALABA FREE KICK GOLAZO WITH HIS FIRST TOUCH OF THE MATCH 🤯 pic.twitter.com/Bto4ZoMMsb
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 14, 2022
And there’s already evidence to suggest it’s paying dividends for Real Madrid on the pitch.
When the team got a free kick in the 74th minute of their LaLiga opener at Almeria on Aug. 14, with the score level at 1-1, Davide Ancelotti made sure David Alaba was quickly introduced off the bench.
The defender responded by stepping up and curling the ball up and over the defender jumping in the wall and into the net, and that goal proved to be the winner.
“Before I came on, [Carlo] Ancelotti told me to take the free kick because I was going to score,” Alaba said after the match. “After the goal he said to me, ‘See, I told you!'”
Now we know why the Madrid coach was so confident.