History will show that Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld’s 90th minute own goal was responsible for gifting Liverpool a 2-1 win during a tight race for their first league title since 1989-90. History can be a strange and misleading thing. In this case what Alderweireld is responsible for is standing there baffled while his goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, fumbled a softball off of him and horrifyingly back toward their goal. Neither he nor Lloris could react in time, and they both watched as the ball trickled across the line and the game slipped away.
For a keeper of his stature, Lloris is relatively prone to catastrophe. Opta’s data, via Squawka and Duncan Alexander, has Lloris with eight errors leading to goals in the last three Premier League seasons, second to only Jordan Pickford with nine. (Alexander added that for keepers with 30+ games, Lloris’s per-game numbers are seventh worst in the league.) While it ultimately meant little, even casual viewers may remember Lloris’s dribbling disaster on the biggest possible stage, which handed an easy goal to Croatia during France’s World Cup Final win.
Lloris is hardly alone, though. Every goalkeeper, at every level, has done this and much worse, and he had plenty of company this week. Keepers will be beaten even when they play perfectly. When they make mistakes—and in a position that requires snap judgments based on hazy parameters and instant adaptation in messy scrambles, even the best of them will make terrible mistakes—they land on the wrong side of highlight reels. This is not even the first time Liverpool has been a beneficiary of a monstrous late-game gaffe during this season’s run. Before we review Lloris’s blunder and few other weekend howlers in detail, it’s worth looking back at one of those nine Pickford bloopers, for Everton vs. the Reds in December.
At 0-0, headed into the sixth minute of second-half extra time, Liverpool lobbed the ball into the Everton box for one final go. Center back Yerry Mina headed it out of the fray, but only as far as Virgil van Dijk, who attempted a swinging volley at the top of the box. Van Dijk miss-hit the shot so badly that he turned and walked away, assuming it would land in the crowd and the final whistle would follow. There’s a decent chance that somewhere in Jordan Pickford’s brain are neurons dedicated to reliving the next five awful seconds.
The ball arcs high into the air, and the Everton defense, like van Dijk, assumes it’s going out of play and jogs back casually, if at all.
Liverpool’s Divock Origi and Daniel Sturridge continue to track the ball. Origi, in the way that professional strikers do, poaches on the goal line optimistically with no one even broaching his personal space.
Some other neurons in Pickford’s brain are almost certainly aware that there’s an unchecked threat right next to him. It’s one more thing for his nervous system to process.
The ball is not going out of bounds, at least not definitively. Its sky-high arc is bringing it relatively straight down toward the crossbar. Pickford—who has been doing this at a high level since he joined Sunderland’s academy when he was eight—automatically jumps to cover the worst case scenario and then unconsciously runs the calculus. He can:
- Let the ball go out of bounds. But if he judges wrong it could hit the bar and rebound back into play, or worse, drop straight into the goal.
- Tip the ball over the bar. However, this would surrender a corner. Compounding the problem, the backspin from van Dijk’s shank, the sharp downward angle, and the proximity to the crossbar all make a tip difficult.
- Try to catch it. This is preferable, but dangerous. Pickford is “only” 6-foot-1”, and if you believe the bar-goer that recently heckled him, not known for his reach. The awkward position of the ball means that he also has to bend his wrists back over the bar.
He may still have been in two minds as the moment arrived or whatever he chose may not have gone as planned. Regardless, the ball bounced off his hands, caromed off the top of the bar and then down to a waiting Origi, who knocked the free header home. Calamity. 1-0 Liverpool.
The set of variables involved is often much simpler, but every time a keeper fields the ball they are making a calculation like Pickford’s. Ideally, they would inhale every loose ball and secure it in a safe, loving embrace. Because that’s not practical, and sometimes the chance of a drop is too high a risk, their next option is to punch, kick (see the previous column in this series), or forcefully deflect the ball as far away from the goal as they can. Alternately, they can divert the ball out of bounds, giving up a set piece but buying time to reset. And finally, even when they resort to a desperate parry with little control of the rebound, they’ll favor routing it out of traffic and away from the middle of the field.
This uncertainty complicates things and even in seemingly clear cut situations, makes it more difficult to react decisively. Sometimes these complexities contribute to errors. Other times professional keepers just drop the damn ball the same way uncoordinated amateurs do. This brings us back to Hugo Lloris.
In the last minute of regulation time, a scramble off of Liverpool’s corner kick resulted in a looping cross played to a wide open Mohamed Salah. Making a run toward the opposite post was a was an equally open Sadio Mané, who Salah tried to find with a cushioned header across. He undercooked the pass, aiming too low and hanging it right in front of Lloris. Salah was at very close range and it’s possible that Lloris was expecting to deflect a ball coming at him much faster; the soft header may have unbalanced him like a pitcher’s change up. In real time it seemed that Lloris might have tried a gentle parry, but on further viewings it looks like either his reflexes betrayed him or it simply slipped through his fingers. “I tried to catch the ball twice but unfortunately there was no bounce, it bounced straight to the shin of Toby, and then what happened, happened,” he told Sky Sports News. His form looked fine, head on the target, hands in a solid “W” position. He just dropped it.
It was catastrophe, but it might not have even been the worst offender of the week.
One day earlier, Italian side Sampdoria scored 33 seconds into a match vs. AC Milan. According to Football Italia, striker Grégoire Defrel was credited with “the fastest goal conceded by Milan in Serie A since Opta began collecting the statistics in 2004-05.” Defrel had considerable help from Milan’s 20-year-old goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, who passed the ball directly to him. Luis Paez-Pumar blogged about the debacle for Deadspin at the time, here, but there are a few small details worth highlighting.
After receiving a throw in from Ricardo Rodriguez, central defender Alessio Romagnoli is pressed, turns, and passes back to his keeper to relieve pressure. The first issue is that Romagnoli plays it out to Donnarumma’s left side. Given that most keepers don’t have spectacular foot skills, it’s best practice to play the ball to a keeper’s preferred foot. If he has a good rapport with his goalkeeper a center back like Romagnoli should be aware of this.
However, there’s good reason he might not have made that pass. Another guideline for playing balls back to the keeper is that whenever possible, it’s better avoid passing straight at your own goal. The theory is that that if your keeper flubs the trap, falls down, or spontaneously combusts, the ball doesn’t roll into your own net (more on this momentarily). A ball further to Donnarumma’s right might both have been lined up on the goal frame and pulled the keeper into the dangerous center of the box with defenders streaking at him.
Despite the sub-optimal setup, Donnarumma has plenty of room to breathe, and a professional keeper should be able to handle that situation. Like a tennis player stepping around for a forehand, Donnarumma decides to walk around the ball onto his strong leg, which cuts down on his lead time before the defender arrives. It’s his first touch of the day, and instead of opening up to his right, where he has Mateo Musacchio, he panics, and tries to go back to where the ball came from. Romagnoli might have given him a better return angle but Defrel does a good job closing that down on the way in, and the keeper had other options. It’s hard to put much blame on the defender and post-game, Donnarumma took responsibility. Again, per Football Italia, he told DAZN and Milan TV, “Mistakes happen and I apologize to everyone.”
Our last and maybe most painful scene is in San Jose, where LAFC visited the very, very bad Earthquakes. The final score was 5-0. Carlos Vela, MLS’s scoring leader and arguably its best player, had a hat trick. There was probably nothing that Quakes keeper Mario Daniel Vega could have done to salvage the day—he tried when he bailed out a terrible give-away by Judson with a huge early save on Diego Rossi. Still, his colossal bungle eight minutes into the game definitely did not help.
Mark-Anthony Kaye hits a bouncing ball too long for Vela. Vega correctly charges out of his box, gets there with time to spare, swings, and whiffs dramatically. Vela taps it into an empty net. There are no extenuating circumstances and I don’t have any deeper analysis. Sometimes an embarrassing fuck-up is just an embarrassing fuck-up.
At least in the gold standard example for goalkeeper whiffs, which I am obligated to mention here, there was a villainous pitch to blame.
During England’s 2006 match vs Croatia, Gary Neville’s backpass to keeper Paul Robinson rolled straight into the back of the net, and proved the adage above about not passing directly at your own goal. What wasn’t so obvious, until they showed a replay in slow motion, was that the ball hit a divot in the pitch and theatrically jumped over Robinson’s swinging foot.
Vega has no such scapegoat. Hopefully he can take solace in the fact that at any given moment, somewhere on earth the air is being sucked out of a goalkeeper’s lungs as they watch the ball roll through their legs and across the line behind them. It comes with the territory. They’ll come back out and do it again anyway.
None Shall Pass is a periodic column about goalkeeping. You can find the previous installments here.