Towards the end of Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Belgium in Saturday’s World Cup quarter final, a quick break sent Lionel Messi through on goal, one-on-one with Thibaut Courtois. He was almost all alone in the Belgian half and seemingly had all the time in the world to weigh up his options and choose the best one, making the score 2-0 and killing the game in the process.
Miraculously, he failed to score. Courtois raced from his goal, narrowed the angles and saved Messi’s shot with his right shoulder. The score stayed at 1-0 and the match stayed alive for another minute or so until the final whistle confirmed Argentina’s victory.
The next morning I tweeted this:
Inevitably, people responded saying that I was wrong not to give Courtois the credit he deserves for making one of the saves of the tournament, that Messi’s attempt was hardly worthy of comparison with the worst of Danny Welbeck’s efforts and, most intriguingly, that it can’t have been both a bad miss and a great save.
The logic of that argument is pretty straightforward: if it’s a bad attempt, it shouldn’t require great goalkeeping to stop it. That seems indisputable. However, what’s overlooked here is that a one-on-one, more than anything else, is a battle of wits. It’s not simply up to the shooter to pick his spot and for the keeper to react in time to stop the ball before it passes him. It’s the goalkeeper’s job to induce a mistake: if it’s a great save, it’s entirely because he made the striker finish badly.
One-on-ones are about mental strength, speed of thought and control, and the person who best displays these qualities wins. All of the best one-on-one finishers understand that the key to beating the goalkeeper is to make sure that the power in the situation stays with them. If the keeper gains any power by rushing them, then they aren’t doing their job properly. Doing the job properly means the goalkeeper never has a chance to tip the scales in his favour.
Ronaldo – O Fenômeno, not Cristiano – used his famous double step-over technique to make sure the goalkeeper, never knowing whether the Brazilian was about to shoot or go round him on either side, stopped dead, thereby taking himself out of the game. Romário used speed, technique and supreme awareness of angles to give the man between the posts no time to anticipate the shot or to react to it. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a master at giving himself a split second to read the goalkeeper’s movement and to then put the ball out of his reach.
Lionel Messi, as you well know by now, is the planet’s pre-eminent goalscorer and probably the best footballer ever to play the game. His mastery when one-on-one is a big reason why. That’s not to say that he’s infallible or that he has never missed one – I’ve seen him run through on goal, convince the goalkeeper to go to ground and then inexplicably scoop his shot wide – but when the pressure is on, Messi usually delivers.
When everyone else’s heart is pounding so hard it feels like it might burst through their ribcage like the chestburster in Alien, Messi’s is beating nice and slowly, no faster than when he’s sitting eating dinner with his family. He concentrates, waits for the keeper to make a move and then puts the ball the other side – or, if he feels like it, over him. Messi is always calm, unhurried and calculated in his execution. That’s why he succeeds – and why the weakness of his attempt versus Courtois was so surprising.
As Messi takes the pass and turns towards goal, he has not one but two looks over his shoulder to make sure that Axel Witsel, the last Belgian defender, isn’t going to catch him. This is perhaps normal for most players but it’s unlike Messi, who usually trusts his acceleration to carry him away from any pursuing opponent. That double-check means that, although he’s motoring towards goal, he hasn’t yet thought about what he’ll do next.
As he nears the penalty area, Messi slows to give himself time to pick his spot but Courtois has read his intentions and has timed his forward advance perfectly. When Messi lifts his head, he sees not a helpless ant in the path of a juggernaut but a huge figure taking gigantic steps forward, with his arms outstretched and his eyes fixed on the ball. There is now almost no way to score with a shot.
If Messi had afforded himself another millisecond or two, he would have realised that and noticed that all he had to do was keep running and take the ball slightly to the right. The momentum of Courtois’ advance would have left the keeper in no man’s land and the striker with an open goal. Instead, he was everything he usually is not: tense, rushed and tactless.
Only aware of Courtois in front and of Witsel behind, he sees no alternative and tries to lift the ball over the keeper, guessing that he will drop in anticipation of the low finish under his body. However, the big Belgian stands tall and, in Schmeichel-esque fashion, throws himself forward and spreads his limbs. Messi’s stabbed shot hits Courtois’ shoulder and bounces out to safety.
Like all the best goalkeepers, Courtois snatched control of the situation away from the forward and induced an error. He eliminated Messi’s huge advantage through a combination of timing, speed and physical intimidation. Against insurmountable odds, he won the battle of wits. For that, he deserves every plaudit that comes his way.
That said, it’s ultimately Messi’s fault that he didn’t score. He had the ball at his feet, the opposition half to himself and as much time as he could possibly want to take full advantage. Too concerned about being caught in a sprint, he didn’t allow himself the time he needed to find the right solution to the problem in front of him. He allowed the goalkeeper to dictate terms. He chose a finish he would normally never consider. In short, he finished like Welbeck.
A bad miss? A great save? It’s both – and inherently so.