Reliving Man City's long history of innovation and style from set pieces


During the third match of the 1972-73 season, Manchester City were awarded a free kick in their home game with Norwich City, a game played out to an appreciative short-sleeved crowd. In those simple, unreconstructed days, it always seemed to be sunny in August and seasons always seemed to start in this way. On this occasion, however, Francis Lee and his teammates had something different planned for the expectant crowd.

Colin Bell and Lee stood over the centrally placed ball, awaiting the referee's go-ahead. On his whistle, Lee ran full pelt at the ball -- he was well known for his blasted free kicks and penalties, so the Norwich defence would have been aware of what they reckoned was about to befall them -- but the stocky striker ran straight over the ball.

Bell, standing just behind where Lee had started his run from, stroked the ball forward to the left of the wall, where Mike Summerbee was waiting to cushion a first-time pass back into the path of Lee, who had kept running and was now on the other side of the wall. He brought it down with one touch and dispatched it past the bewildered Norwich 'keeper, Kevin Keelan, to the delight of an enthralled crowd. It was a free kick of beautiful simplicity and cunning intent.

Oddly it was also a carbon copy of a free kick scored by City, using exactly the same three players in the 1968 Charity Shield romp over West Bromwich (6-1). 

Fast forward to 1982-83. Once again there is a crowded penalty box at Maine Road, where City are entertaining Swansea City in a first division fixture. Standing over the ball on this occasion, right at the corner of the penalty box, are Dennis Tueart and Asa Hartford, two masters of striking a cleanly hit shot. Just as in the Norwich game a decade earlier, the two players could be seen conferring in a huddle before deciding what to do.

This time they had something entirely different up their sleeves. As the referee blew for play to restart, Hartford got his toe under the ball and flicked it up in the air in front of Tueart, inviting his teammate to volley it. This the striker did with unerring accuracy, the ball ripping in the flash of an eye past Welsh international goalkeeper Dai Davies, who was rooted to the spot.

It was a free kick of stunning improvisation and not a little contemptuous for the laws of the game.

Francis Lee and his teammates produced some cunning free kicks back in the 1960s and 70s for Man City.

These days the art of the free kick has been reduced more often than not to a single strike, either strong and straight, or curled gently with effect.

In modern times, there have been reasons for City fans to sit back and admire the technique shown by the players wearing the sky blue shirts in their name. As time has moved on, the number of wonderful technicians that have pulled on the sky blue shirt has grown and with it have the memories of classic strikes.

In recent years, however, a handful of players have made a particular name for themselves. Among them, stylish Brazilian midfielder Elano, German defender Michael Tarnat and El Apache, Carlos Tevez. From more recent times, Yaya Toure has had his fair share of wonder strikes from dead ball positions outside the box, as well as being the club's foremost penalty taker.

Tarnat may well have started the ball rolling with a classic bending left-footed free kick at Ewood Park in an early season clash with Blackburn Rovers in 2003-04. Reminiscent of Roberto Carlos's absurd swinging free kick for Brazil against France in Le Tournoi in 1998, Tarnat struck his free kick low and hard. It swerved wildly away from the diving Brad Friedel as it emerged through a thicket of legs and ended perfectly placed in the inside of the side netting.

Elano's strike, was a rocket of a shot that was still rising as it coursed straight into the very top corner of the Newcastle net in a 2007 Premier League game and Tevez's rocket against Stoke in 2011 was hit with a similar marriage of venom and accuracy.

The impudence of those early free kicks from Lee and Tueart might not have been completely lost at the Etihad just yet, however. In the home game with Bournemouth this season, Kevin De Bruyne came up with a new way of finding the net from a set piece. As the Bournemouth wall reacted to the expected lofted ball over them, De Bruyne, employing similar guile, side-footed the free kick under the jumping players and into the net.

It was a piece of improvisation that harked back to a golden age when City's football was noted for its style and bravado. Perhaps now with Pep Guardiola overseeing the change of style in City's approach, the fans are about to see a return to the stylish impudence of old.

Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.