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 took three short steps before hitting the ball with his right foot. A wall of five jumped to meet the delivery but it curled high, up and over their heads and into the net.
But wait. That was no ordinary defensive wall. It’s not made up of real players, for starters, despite their humanoid appearance — sculpted torsos that have come with Real Madrid kits this season — and perfectly timed upward movements.
This is Madrid’s new robotic free kick wall, which caused quite a stir at the club posted a video showing off their fancy new gadget on social media last week.
It’s the most high-profile showcase for the latest training0ground innovation, but Madrid isn’t the only one making the most of this new technology.
The company behind it is FreeKickPro, based in Valkenswaard, a town just outside of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
“With all the innovations in the world of football, how every club in the world trains, one of the most decisive parts of the game has never changed from the yellow mannequins,” FreeKickPro’s Machiel Debets told ESPN. “The training situation has absolutely nothing to do with the resistance that the players experience in a game: the height of the players, the number of players, the visibility and the ability to jump.”
In the never-ending quest for marginal gains, the robotic wall is a big step up from the same old flat, plastic outline of players that even some elite clubs have been using for years.
“FreeKickPro lets you configure any opponent’s actual wall with similar behavior,” Debets said. “Clubs already know the probability where they are likely to get a free kick in their next match, and the behavior of their opponent’s wall. With FreeKickPro they can simulate this situation one or two days before the game.
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“We didn’t have to explain to anyone in the football world the importance of a free kick. They just didn’t have the right equipment to train properly. Now they do.”
The company has 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.
— Olympique Lyonnais (@OL) July 18, 2022
Madrid assistant coach Davide Ancelotti — son of manager Carlo — is always looking for new ideas to keep training sessions fresh.
“During the summer we were connected with Real Madrid and Davide,” Debets told ESPN. “We delivered the product to Madrid and demonstrated the use of FreeKickPro in one of their training sessions. Having such a world-class club embrace our product makes us really proud. This is confirmation that our innovation is accepted of the football world.”
Madrid’s video went viral on social media — with a million views on Twitter and more than 700,000 likes on Instagram — predictably increased demand.
“There is not one club that is not interested. If we show them our videos, it is evident,” said Debets. “Obviously with Real Madrid posting their free kick training sessions, the interest has gone through the roof. The amount of requests is crazy, really.”
The device is controlled via tablet, with a series of variables that allow for a more realistic imitation of the scenarios that players like Modric, Dani Ceballos, Vinicius Junior and Toni Kroos will see — all is featured in the video — who will face off in a game.
“You choose the number of players to set up the wall: four, five or six,” Debets told ESPN. “You configure the height of the players through our app. You configure which players have to jump. After training you can immediately revisit the registered shots on 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 is already evidence to suggest it is paying dividends for Real Madrid on the pitch.
When the team were awarded a free kick in the 74th minute of their LaLiga opener at Almeria on August 14, with the score level at 1-1, Davide Ancelotti made sure to quickly introduce David Alaba from the bench.
The defender responded by stepping up and curling the ball up and over the defender bounced over the wall and into the net, and that goal proved to be the winner.
“Before I go in, [Carlo] Ancelotti told me to take the free kick because I was going to score,” Alaba said after the match. “After the goal he told me, ‘See, I told you!'”
Now we know why the Madrid coach was so confident.