Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Thibaut Courtois’s error cost Real Madrid a win.
It seems to be the story of his Los Blancos career. Since controversially forcing his way to the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in 2018, Courtois’s play has been dissected and often criticized. Last season, he was barraged on social media by some Chelsea fans for the way he left the club and some Real Madrid fans for his high-profile errors and for taking minutes away from fan-favourite Keylor Navas. This season, Courtois was criticized for starting the campaign on a bad foot. It culminated with the Belgian being subbed off during a UEFA Champions League match vs. Club Brugge, although he claims that it was due to an illness.
The latest criticism he’s facing is coming for his role in Levante’s winner on Saturday, Feb. 22. Playing the Granotas away from Madrid, Los Blancos needed a win to retain their one-point lead atop La Liga. A loss would see them drop down to second in the standings.
The going was rough for the visitors — star summer signing Eden Hazard had to subbed off due to an injury and Real Madrid were deadlocked at 0-0 — but things really took a turn for the worst in the 79th minute. Levante’s Nikola Vukčević delivered a deep ball from the centre circle to a streaking José Luis Morales. The Spaniard allowed the ball to bounce into the box a couple of times before rifling a strike on goal.
This is where Courtois comes in. The Belgian dove in the direction of the ball but pulled his arms back, likely due to him thinking that the shot would rise above the goal. But the attempt dipped underneath Courtois’s crossbar.
Courtois and his teammates were left stunned, while Levante would hang on for the 1-0 victory.
Almost immediately after he conceded the goal, Twitter lit up with takes on Courtois’s save attempt. The Belgian’s role in stopping the shot was heavily scrutinized online, to the point where he became one of the world’s top trending topics.
There were two main criticisms of Courtois. Firstly, some critics highlighted the fact that he conceded at his near post as being an error. Tweets and posts mocking Courtois for allowing a near-post goal (such as the one above) were prevalent, and even certain football apps, such as Onefootball, felt the need to mention that the goal was scored at Courtois’s near post in their live match ticker.
The second criticism was that Courtois pulled his arms away from the shot. This move by Courtois left many fans and respected journalists scratching their heads. After all, why would a professional pull his arms away from the one thing he’s expected to stop?
To many viewers, these are two valid criticisms of Courtois. But if you ask me, neither point holds any weight. Let me explain.
The near post myth
Firstly, let’s address the near post criticism. In football, there seems to be this prevalent idea that goalkeepers should never be beaten at their near post. The near post area is seen as being an untouchable area for shooters, and any goalkeeper who gets beaten there is criticized for having erred.
This myth is one of the most infuriating falsities surrounding the goalkeeper position.
Frankly, it’s lazy analysis. Any goalkeeper — amateur, semi-pro, professional or otherwise — will tell you that the idea that a goal should never be scored at one’s near post is a lie.
The net is very big — 24 feet wide by 8 feet tall — so there is a lot of area for the average human goalkeeper to cover. Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to have every inch of our goal covered, it’s just not possible.
Even if you only consider the near post area, it’s still a large part of the goal to cover, and a good, powerful shot will have a strong chance of finding its target.
Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel said it best in a quote attributed to him: “One day someone just came up with it and said a goalkeeper should never be beaten at their near post. Anyone who has played in goal knows it’s a huge area and you try to cover the whole goal. You can’t try and cover the whole goal and guarantee the ball won’t go in at the near post if it’s a great shot.”
Unfortunately, despite those deeply involved in the position saying otherwise, the near post myth is a common cliche among fans and analysts, so it’s not a surprise to see it being spouted here.
But like Schmeichel said, there’s no guarantee a shot won’t go in at the near post, especially if it’s a great shot. And in Courtois’s defence, Morales hit a great shot.
The ball bounced perfectly for the Levante captain, and he struck it with it considerable power. The speed of the ball made it difficult to read, and the ball’s movement — it rose as it approached Courtois and dipped after passing him — impacted Courtois’s ability to track the shot.
Speed, power and movement is a wicked trio, and that makes for a difficult shot to stop, whether it’s coming at your near post, far post, or right at you.
Retracting his arms
What stood out for most viewers wasn’t just that the shot went to Courtois’s near post. Rather, it was also the fact that Courtois pulled his arms back from the shot.
And how could that not stand out? A goalkeeper pulling his arms away from a shot? That’s essentially a goalkeeper refusing to do their job, which is to get between the ball and the goal.
Unless the goalkeeper is scared of the ball, why would they pull their arms back?
To preface, I must clarify that I’m not Thibaut Courtois (shocker!), so I can’t speak with certainty regarding what Courtois was thinking in this situation. Only he can do that, and only he knows why he felt the need to pull his arms back.
But, based on my experiences as an amateur goalkeeper, along with the usual reasons given by goalkeepers as to why they’re pulling their arms back, I think it’s safe to assume that Courtois thought the shot was going over the crossbar.
Take a look at the below screenshots.
The screenshots show the shot at its highest point. Notice how close it is to being level with the crossbar? This is a well-struck attempt, but Courtois only sees its rise. He doesn’t know that the ball will dip into his goal. To him, this is a shot that, at worst, might strike the crossbar.
Keep in mind that Courtois does not have a lot of time to process and react to this attempt. According to a 2013 study done by vision scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, it takes the brain about one-tenth of a second to process something the eyes see, which is a significant delay in situations where one must react instantly (such as saving a quick-moving half-volley). To compensate for this, the brain will actually shift the object forward in the direction that it’s moving so as to predict where it’s going to be.
You can see how this impacts Courtois’s judgement. If in those tenths of a second the shot looked to be moving over his goal, it’s logical for Courtois to assume that the ball will miss his crossbar due to the prediction his brain is making. Courtois does not have the luxury of watching this strike travel for a second or two; he has to process its movement quickly and react accordingly. And if his initial analysis was that the ball would sail over the crossbar (remember how close to the bar it was at its highest point?), I believe it’s fair for Courtois to assume that the shot was going to go over his goal
Granted, even if Courtois didn’t pull his arms back, I don’t think it would’ve made much of a difference. Let’s go back to the two screenshots, only this time, let’s note the height difference between the shot at it’s highest peak and Courtois’s hands.
At its highest point, the ball just so happened to be sailing over Courtois’s head. Notice how much space there is between the ball and Courtois. Although Courtois is a tall guy (he’s about 6 ft 6 tall, or 1.99m), that is still a considerable difference in height between Courtois’s arms and the shot. Even if he fully extends his arms in this situation, I highly doubt he’s stopping this shot.
Unfortunately, as I’ve covered before on this website, there seems to be this prevalent belief that when a goalkeeper retracts their arms, they’re automatically at fault for the goal. It’s ridiculous criticism that Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga faced earlier this season, and it’s something other goalkeepers have come under fire for too.
But a goalkeeper’s effort should not cloud our judgement in determining whether a goal was a good goal or a bad goal. Morales struck this half-volley with considerable power and pace (with his weaker foot, no less), and it’s likely to have given any other goalkeeper trouble, let alone a top-level ‘keeper like Courtois. I wouldn’t be surprised if this goal earns a mention in La Liga’s goals of the month, maybe even of the year.
Unfortunately, instead of talking about the beauty of Morales’ hit, we’re shaming Courtois for retracting his arms on a shot he likely wouldn’t have saved anyway. That is doing a disservice to both Courtois and Morales.
Does this mean that Courtois was completely faultless on the goal? Absolutely not.
Watching the goal back, what really struck me is how unaware Courtois is of his position and surroundings. When he first gets into the camera’s sight, Courtois is running towards his goal with his body facing his net. Although he’s keeping his focus on the evolving play, he’s taking several quick glances at his posts. This gives him a sense of where he’s at.
But as Courtois approaches his six-yard box, the Belgian turns his back towards his goal and puts his full focus on Morales. Here, he uses his instincts to adjust his positioning.
This was the wrong move by Courtois. Because he stopped glancing at his goal, he no longer had a good idea of where he was positioned. Courtois became unaware of any positional readjustments he had to make, and he was unable to identify just how far off of his line he still was.
As a result, Courtois was left in a very bad position to save the shot. He’s about two steps too far off of his line when Morales strikes the attempt, and that hinders his chances of stopping a shot that’s already difficult to handle.
Courtois’s struggles were also evident in his set position. As Morales strikes the shot, the Real Madrid goalkeeper is still moving towards his goal. Both of his feet are not planted on the ground and his body is unbalanced.
Because he is not set for the shot, Courtois cannot get a good push off in time to react to the attempt, which is already about halfway between Morales and Courtois. This results in a rather lacklustre dive from the Belgian goalkeeper where he severely under-jumps the ball.
But with all of that said, again, we cannot undersell Morales’ attempt. Even if Courtois was properly positioned and ready for the shot, it’s possible the ball would’ve beaten him anyway due to its sheer power and speed.
And while his critics will hold this goal against him, it really shouldn’t impact Courtois’s psyche too much. Anyone who has followed the Real Madrid goalkeeper this season will tell you that he’s been one of La Liga’s top shot-stoppers. He has kept the joint-most clean sheets (11), conceded the fewest amount of goals (14), and has prevented the third-most expected goals per 90 minutes (0.22).
For all of the criticism — both fair and unfair — that Courtois receives, he’s one of the primary reasons why, after a 2018-19 season in which Real Madrid finished nearly 20 points behind league champions Barcelona, Los Blancos are challenging for this season’s league title.