Knuckle up, keepers

Remember the Jabulani?

Highly criticised for being too light and therefore incredibly unpredictable during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Adidas improved their design with 2014’s Brazilian Brazuca and again this year with the Telstar (ironically a modern interpretation of the much heavier version used in 1970).

As far as technological innovation went, however, the damage had been done.

Thanks largely to Cristiano Ronaldo’s countless hours of practice (and ultimate execution, see David James circa January 2008), players had cottoned on to a new way of hitting a more accommodating ball. Ten years on, goalkeepers are yet to find a solution in how to save it.

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When Marcus Rashford thundered one past Keylor Navas in England’s final warm-up friendly with Costa Rica last month, he later revealed how, like Ronaldo, he works on perfecting his technique in every training session. You’d think that would make it easier to judge for the goalkeeper facing it every day, right? Not exactly. For while some clubs have invested in machines to replicate the trajectory of what is commonly referred to as a “knuckleball”, there effectively is no judgement when it comes to a shot hit with such an uncertain outcome. Every trajectory varies. And often that occurs centimetres from your face.

Factor in the striker’s initial position, the lack of oscillation on the ball and its erratic movement as it thunders towards goal. Other than standing still and flailing your arms like a madman, the blueprint for stopping a knuckleball simply doesn’t exist.

And it looks awful. We know it does. Rashford’s strike was angled and therefore far more spectacular on the eye, but the majority of shots hit with such a technique, like Antoine Griezmann’s against Muslera on Friday afternoon, go right down the middle.

Granted, Greizmann’s speculative effort was nowhere near the levels we’ve seen. But it was only a matter of time before we saw a goalkeeper exposed to a strike of that nature in Russia.

As a goalkeeper, you’d happily take shots curled to the top corner all game because you know exactly where the ball is going. You can judge the player’s open body position, move early – sometimes even before the ball has been struck – and have a better chance of getting a hand to it. With a knuckleball, you can’t. There is no spin. Your eyes can’t pick it up and you can’t predict where it will go. On the whole, you’re heavily reliant on luck.

It looks awful, but trying to catch one would be worse. There is no blueprint for stopping a knuckleball

Jordan Pickford has now established himself as England’s No1 following an assured performance in the win over Sweden. Little more than two months prior (or even a week if you consider the doubts expressed after his performance against Belgium), he was widely criticised for conceding three on the final day to West Ham – one of which was a knuckleball from Marko Arnautovic.

On Match of the Day, Alan Shearer suggested Pickford should have done better because “it’s straight at him and he’s fallen to his knees”. Ian Wright described it as “a poor one to let in” after saying, “I just think he’s got to get two hands on it and punch it away.”

Understandable criticism from two strikers, but not entirely accurate. A goalkeeper can only predict one likely eventuality. If you were to pause the screen half way through Arnautovic’s strike, you’ll see Pickford’s movement and position is spot on. He’s rightly gone low as that’s where the ball is heading. Only when it’s inches from his grasp does the ball then deviate and move upwards by roughly half a yard. With a rapid alteration at such close quarters, it was difficult for Pickford to then suddenly adjust.

Yes, it looks far worse because he’s on his knees. Had the ball gone from high to low, he’d have had a better chance of stopping it. The same applies if it was to his side, presenting an opportunity to stick an outstretched arm up or down. But it was straight down his throat with speed and a movement most goalkeepers in the world would struggle with.

The same occurred for Lorius Karius in Liverpool’s Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid. Although his earlier misdemeanour clearly affected his concentration, the strike from Gareth Bale for the third did slightly deviate. Karius should have absolutely saved it, but it wasn’t as straightforward as it may have appeared.

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And now there’s Muslera. After the game with France, he said, “I wanted to reject the ball but it hit just my left hand and beat it. These are things that can happen to a goalkeeper.”

Indeed they are. Instant reaction from the ITV punditry team suggested the ball didn’t move and that Muslera not only stepped “outside the line of the ball and gets his hands sort of to the right of his body” but that he should have just “caught the damn thing”. According to Gary Neville, “It’s a football, not a firebomb.”

On Twitter, Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who before the tournament had flagged his displeasure at the updated Telstar, hit back. He wrote, “Let’s keep ‘designing’ game balls that make it easier for goalkeepers to ‘intuit or guess’ their trajectories, shall we? We should look for another way to create a ‘show’!”

Reina’s point being that the ball did move. And, despite not defending Muslera’s questionable attempts to thwart Griezmann’s strike, it was a timely reminder that the “howler” wasn’t without assistance.

  • It was an error. His hands were too low and he set slightly too low when ball was struck.
  • The ball did move. That’s why he’s clearly moved back across himself.
  • He’s tried to shovel it at an angle but has mistimed his action by a matter of centimetres.
  • He couldn’t parry straight as he’d put it amongst a group of players, just like Jordan Pickford received criticism for against Belgium.
  • Should he catch it? Absolutely not. His choice was correct. His execution was poor.

A plus goalkeepers can take is that instances are rare. Despite Rashford’s aforementioned practice, the majority of knuckleballs go horribly wrong; Ronaldo didn’t score a goal from outside the box in La Liga this season and it’s likely both Pickford and Muslera may not have to face a similar effort to their respective nightmares for another 12 months.

When they do, however, they might just have to take it on the chin. Or at least hope that’s where the ball might hit them.

Images: Screengrab (ITV) unless otherwise stated
Video: West Ham United FC (YouTube)

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