Why MOTD’s Dubravka judgement was right but wrong

I’ll always watch Match of the Day.

Every time it’s on. Without fail. Loyalty has not waned since the whirring sound of that multicoloured BBC Sport globe preceded the first episode of the Premier League era back in August 1992.

For the most part, I’ve never wanted it to change… Apart from the way the panel talk about goalkeeping, that is. We’re now 26 years on and while a few goalkeeper-specific suspects have come and gone, no regular goalkeeping analysis has managed to infiltrate that shiny studio.

On Wednesday, ex-Arsenal, Birmingham and West Ham centre-back Matthew Upson was asked whether Martin Dubravka was at fault for Manchester United’s opening goal at Newcastle. Upson, a decent pundit who knows his stuff, responded with the following:

[box type=”shadow” align=”alignleft” class=”” width=””]“It’s a mistake. If you were to sit down and analyse it with him, I’m sure he will look at this, hold his hands up and say he made a mistake.”[/box]

Nothing wrong with that. Spot on. After the game, Dubravka did just that in saying, “It was my fault. I tried to save it but unfortunately the ball moved a little bit and I was not able to capture the rebound.”

Upson then continued:

[box type=”shadow” align=”alignleft” class=”” width=””]“The difficult thing is the ball, as you see, it just dips in right into his body. It doesn’t bounce in front of him, it almost lands on his lap. The only thing he can do here, for me, is really just get his body weight forward to try and smother the ball so it doesn’t pop out. It’s a harsh one and the dip from Rashford on the free-kick is what made it happen.”[/box]

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This is where the analysis goes a little awry. First and foremost, it must be recognised that Upson wasn’t a goalkeeper and therefore understandably may not be familiar with the intricacies of a goalkeeper’s game. He’ll talk sense about defending all day long – like his insightful breakdown of how Watford’s Troy Deeney caused Bournemouth’s backline problems in the same evening – but explaining Dubravka’s error needed greater clarification.

The ball did dip into his body and that being the result of Rashford’s free-kick is correct. But to suggest Dubravka should get his body weight forward to try and smother the ball isn’t entirely accurate. His decision was right. His execution was wrong.

Dubravka’s starting position, just off centre and around three yards off his line, was fine. He lost the flight of the free-kick because it was a knuckleball – a technique, it’s worth adding, Rashford is continually causing goalkeepers problems with. As a result, the Newcastle stopper mistimed his scoop and spilled it right at Romelu Lukaku’s feet.

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In this instance, Dubravka had two options:

  • He goes on the front foot (which is what he chose) and scoops it on the bounce. You can liken it to a cricketer facing a yorker or a ball loaded with spin. Most catch it on the half-volley to nullify the movement. Dubravka attempted that but failed in his execution. Flopping forward, like Upson suggested, could have seen the ball squirm under his body and made the error look far worse.
  • He retreats a step, goes on the back foot and makes a judgement from the bounce. This would have been risky with the speed and movement of Rashford’s strike making that bounce unpredictable. Dubravka would have needed lightning-quick reactions and would most likely have seen the ball cannon off his body into the net.

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There’s a possible argument to suggest Dubravka, rather than attempting to gather, could have either pushed or punched the ball away with either option. Again, however, this would have been more difficult to execute and far riskier than the correct decision he made.

In summary, Upson was right. It was an error. Just not quite how it was analysed.

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