Modern soccer is played at an extremely high level, with every single professional player having spent thousands and thousands of hours perfecting a wide variety of technical ball skills that we often take for granted. Watching top flight football, the extensive range of passes, shots, dribbles and first time touches on show can be seriously impressive, and technical proficiency at the highest level only continues to improve as the game develops and grows.
One technical ball striking skill that has emerged in soccer relatively recently is the knuckleball strike. Some of the best strikers of the ball in world football have demonstrated the advantages this type of shot can bring when perfected, and in this article we'll be examining what those benefits are, as well as listing some of the players who have made the knuckleball strike renowned across the globe. We'll explain exactly what a knuckleball soccer strike is, and we'll also give you a few top tips on how to do a knuckleball in soccer.
The term 'knuckleball' is an odd one. Its origins lie outside the realms of football, with baseball and cricket being the primary sports associated with the word 'knuckleball'. However, applied to football this type of strike essentially has the same meaning.
Just like with a 'knuckler' baseball pitch, a knuckleball in soccer is when the ball flies through the air with little to no spin at all. This makes the flight of the ball extremely unpredictable, the ball's erratic movement making it very difficult for the goalkeeper facing the shot to predict which way the ball might go.
Putting spin on a shot is all about creating stable movement and controlling in which direction the ball goes. While this is usually the aim of the game when it comes to taking a shot, knuckleball strikes flip things in the other direction, and can create havoc for defenders and goalkeepers as a result. Because of this unpredictability — these strikes can cause the ball to dip, wobble from side to side, or veer off in an unexpected direction — it's often best to whip out the knuckleball while on the move, rather than from a set piece situation.
However, this is not an easy skill to master. While a curling shot will spin laterally, this type of shot deviates laterally from its normal path — in terms of physics, what's happening here is that an extremely clean, precise strike can create turbulent flow around the ball which leads to more erratic movement, influenced by aerodynamic forces like drag and lift. Numerous studies have been launched into exactly how the knuckleball works, but at the end of the day, we're not here to talk about science — instead, let's go through some key tips for how to do a knuckleball strike.
Some technical skills in football are relatively simple in theory; however, the knuckleball is not one of them, we're afraid to say. There are a number of different points you need to keep in mind while preparing for a strike like this and executing it in a practice session or a match. Below, you'll find a list of key things to take into account. In order to make things easier, we've structured these tips as a detailed step-by-step guide to performing a knuckleball strike.
It will take a lot of shots for you to get the strike right, and having a few balls will make things a lot more efficient. (Extra tip: make sure you're using properly-inflated balls that feel nice and hard, because otherwise it will be difficult to execute your technique properly
The way you approach the ball is super important when it comes to building the power and momentum that will help make your strike difficult to defend against. You should aim to take wide strides, coming at the ball slightly off-centre but approaching it from a fairly straight angle. (Extra tip: Use your normal free kick run up, don't worry about tweaking the way you approach the ball too much. The most important thing here is to stand up tall and puff your chest out, remaining strong and balanced.)
A 'vault step' is probably something you will have seen certain professional players do in the run-up to a knuckleball strike. Effectively, this means coming up onto your tip toes on the step just before you plant your foot, to help contract the muscles on your planting leg and add momentum to your strike.
Don't let your vault step distract you from the crucial job of planting your non-kicking foot firmly on the ground. It should be around six inches to the side of the ball, tensed and flat, pointing directly at your target to improve accuracy.
Before kicking the ball, flex your striking leg backward, bending your knee and getting your lower leg as high in the air as possible before you swing through and strike.
You should be aiming to hit it with your instep, but very close to the laces, on a dense bone which gives you a clean strike. Hit the ball just below the centre in order to give the strike the chance to rise, and face your target directly as you strike. Here, you want to hit the ball just slightly lower than centre to create controlled height, and you also want to keep your toes pointed straight down.
With this strike, you should be aiming for a punchy delivery, and then you should be moving your foot away from the ball immediately. Following through increases contact time on the ball and adds spin, which we don't want with a knuckleball.
To build on the last point, it's crucial to make your shot super sharp and as low on spin as possible. You can help increase your chances of doing this by keeping your foot, ankle, and standing leg extremely rigid and tense. Making yourself rigid and strong helps restrict follow through and reduces spin on the ball, and the momentum you bring to the shot should ensure you have enough power, so stop driving your leg once you've made contact. Here, the little hop provided by the vault step can be really useful for stopping you in your tracks.
We've mentioned rigidity already, but it's worth hammering home the importance of keeping your torso upright, balanced and straight, to reduce the spin and boost the power of the shot. It's all about straight lines — excess sideways movements or curves mean you may hit the ball at an angle and create spin.
Our final point is a very simple one, but it's the most important of all. With a difficult technical skill like this, it's very important that you practise on a regular basis, building a habit that allows you to perfect your technique and become a knuckleball master.
When you think about a knuckleball strike, one of the first players that comes to mind is legendary Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who has regularly pulled out this move at the highest level. The momentum, force, and unpredictable movement generated in some of his knuckleballs over the years helped play a key role in bringing this technical strike into the public eye.
While Ronaldo may be the poster boy for the knuckleball, there are other top players who have been known to whip out this technique on the biggest occasions. Brazilian defender David Luiz has pulled off some incredible long-distance knuckleball strikes in his time, as has iconic Wales forward Gareth Bale, particularly during the peak of his career at Real Madrid.
The way that a knuckleball hits the back of the net is extremely satisfying for the player responsible — they know that a knuckleball goal is the result of hours and hours of intense training ground work. And ultimately, this is true of any highly technical type of shot. Reaching ball striking perfection is something that very few players can claim to have done, and it's an area of the game that remains under-explored by many coaches and clubs.
If you'd like to find out more about the role of ball striking and how more dedicated training in this area could improve the professional game, make sure you check out our exclusive interview with the world's leading ball striking specialist coach, Bartek Sylwestrzak.
Or, if you'd like to find out all the details about a very different kind of technical strike, check out our guide to the "impossible" Roberto Carlos free kick that stunned the world back in 1997. It's a strike that remains etched into the memories of football fans all over the world.