On Sunday, June 21, Real Madrid defeated Real Sociedad by a score of 2-1. Goals from Sergio Ramos — the new top-scoring defender in Liga Santander history — and Karim Benzema sealed the deal for the visitors.
With the win, Real Madrid leapfrogged Barcelona into first place. Although the two sides are tied on points with 65 apiece, Real Madrid’s superior head-to-head record over their Catalan competitors — a 0-0 draw and a 2-0 win — gives them the advantage with eight games to go.
But what’s a Real Madrid win without a good ol’ dose of controversy?
Rather than focusing on the fact that the club jumped to the top of the table, most people’s attention was concentrated on a number of calls that went Real Madrid’s way.
Take this incident involving Vinícius Júnior. The teenage Brazilian was clipped by Diego Llorente around the 48th minute and stumbled as he took a shot. Referee Xavier Estrada Fernández deemed there was enough contact to warrant a penalty, which Ramos converted. But many opposition fans vocally disagreed with the penalty decision, arguing that there wasn’t enough, if any, contact to warrant a penalty.
Real Madrid’s second goal was also controversial. Benzema slotted it home after using what looked to be his shoulder to initially control Federico Valverde’s cross, though some viewers were adamant it should’ve been ruled out for a handball offence.
Some fans — particularly Barcelona fans — questioned why Benzema’s goal stood but Lionel Messi’s goal against Atletico Madrid from earlier this season, which also saw the Argentine control the ball using his shoulder, was ruled out.
Both incidents involved the Video Assistant Referee, which raised some accusations of league officials favouriting Real Madrid.
But the biggest controversy was sandwiched between those two goals.
In the 68th minute, Real Sociedad’s Adnan Januzaj received a pass a few yards out from Real Madrid’s penalty area. The Belgian sized himself up and fired a low, hopping attempt at the visiting team’s goal. Thibaut Courtois, who was in goal for Los Blancos, made an attempt to stop the shot but failed to stretch his body far enough. For a brief moment, it looked like Real Sociedad had scored.
So why wasn’t anyone celebrating? Because Fernández and his refereeing team had ruled out the goal. The Spaniard noticed Real Sociedad’s Mikel Merino in an offside position, and he believed Merino encroached on Courtois’s ability to see Januzaj’s shot. For that reason, he voided the goal.
Cue the Twitter outrage.
I have concerns with some of the complaints. For one, some of the more vocal complaints are, as mentioned above, coming from fans of Real Madrid’s direct rivals. Given the title implications this play (and the game) had, I question how many of those fans are speaking less from a position of justice and more from a position of bias.
But on a bigger note, I think a fair number of people are downplaying just how much of an impact Merino’s position had on Courtois’s ability to stop this shot.
In the next 2,000 or so words, I’m going to explain from a goalkeeper’s perspective how Merino negatively impacted Courtois’s ability to see the shot and thus react in an appropriate manner.
Courtois’s vision was obstructed
The biggest part of the debate surrounding this voided goal has to do with Thibaut Courtois’s sight of it. After all, it’s the reasoning behind Xavier Estrada Fernández’s decision to call it back, so it’s important to establish whether Courtois actually saw the shot or not.
Granted, it’s next to impossible to say that for certain given none of us are Courtois (unless Courtois himself is reading this piece, in which case, hallo). And because of that, none of us can definitively claim Courtois did see or didn’t see other than the Belgian himself.
What we can do is come to a reasonable conclusion based on the several camera angles we have. Let’s take a look at a few of them, from the moment Adnan Januzaj struck his attempt.
From these angles, we can determine that there are three or so players impacting Courtois’s line of sight. Two of those players are Courtois’s Real Madrid teammates, and the other is Mikel Merino.
In this scenario, whether or not Courtois’s teammates are obstructing his vision of the ball has no implications on whether the goal should be ruled out. There is no law demanding a goal be ruled out if a goalkeeper’s own teammates get in the way of his or her ability to see a shot. Therefore, Courtois’s teammates do not matter here.
What there is a law for is for an opposing player obstructing the goalkeeper’s line of sight. According to Law 11.2 of the 2019/20 Laws of the Game, a player will be penalized if they are in an offside position and are interfering with an opponent by “preventing an opponent from playing or being able to play the ball by clearly obstructing the opponent’s line of vision”.
In this case, because Merino is in an offside position and is directly in Courtois’s line of sight, he is illegally interfering with Courtois’s ability to see the shot being taken, and therefore, the goal must be ruled out.
Courtois also makes it clear that the offside Merino is obstructing his vision of the ball. As Januzaj strikes his attempt, Courtois is attempting to look around Merino by peeking to his right side.
Had Merino not been in his way, there would’ve been no reason for Courtois to peek to his right for a clearer view of the shot.
Some people argue that Merino’s presence couldn’t have obstructed Courtois’s view of the shot that badly. After all, he’s a good six or so yards away from Courtois, so he’s not directly in front of Courtois and completely blocking his view of the field.
While it’s true the closer a player is to the goalkeeper the more of an obstruction they are, a player can still negatively impact a goalkeeper’s sight of the ball even if they’re several yards away. This is because, as small as the obstructing player appears, the shooter and the ball are even further out than the obstructing player and thus appear even smaller to the goalkeeper.
Think of it like this. If you place a chair two metres away from you, and then another chair two metres away, the first chair is going to obstruct your vision of the second chair. Even if the chairs are the same size, the first chair will appear bigger than the second chair despite being a couple of metres away, which in turn will hinder your ability to see the second chair.
Now apply this to the football situation in question. Courtois is about two yards away from the goalline, Merino is about eight or so yards away from the goalline (six yards away from Courtois), and Januzaj is about 22 yards away from the goalline (20 yards away from Courtois).
Given Merino is much closer to Courtois than Januzaj and the ball, it’s clear that he’ll appear bigger in Courtois’s line of sight and thus obscure the goalkeeper from seeing the shooter striking the ball.
Considering all of this, it’s difficult to deny that Merino, who was in an offside position, was unfairly obstructing Courtois’s vision of the shot.
How does this impact Courtois?
Ok, so Thibaut Courtois’s vision was obstructed. So what? Mikel Merino was only in his line of sight for a brief moment. Surely that has little to no effect on the Belgian’s ability to stop the shot?
Although Merino was only in Courtois’s line of sight for a very short amount of time, it does negatively impact Courtois’s ability to stop this shot in two ways.
Firstly, Merino’s positioning impacts the timing of Courtois’s bounding step.
For those of you unaware, a bounding step is when a goalkeeper bounces up and down quickly in preparation for a shot. You see this all the time with goalkeepers; right as a player strikes a shot, a goalkeeper will bound to build up momentum and get themself ready for a shot.
When timed correctly, a bounding step can really help a goalkeeper explode into an appropriate reaction. But if timed poorly, it can hinder a goalkeeper’s ability to react in a quick and efficient manner.
Now, let’s take a look back at the moment Januzaj struck this shot. Pay attention to Courtois’s feet.
Notice how Courtois’s feet are still in the air after the ball has been struck? This is an example of a bad bounding step. When the ball’s been struck, a goalkeeper will want to already have their feet on the ground and be set to react. But Courtois does not time this step correctly, which results in him needing more time to set himself and react to this shot appropriately.
So why does Courtois time his bounding step poorly? In my opinion, it’s partly due to Merino blocking Courtois’s view. Because Merino is obstructing the goalkeeper’s line of sight, Courtois can’t get a clear view of Januzaj’s attempt. As a result, he can’t get a clear view of Januzaj’s shooting motion and time his bound appropriately.
I also believe this is true for another part of Courtois’s technique; his late arm swing.
Like the bounding step, an arm swing, when timed correctly, can help generate momentum and get a goalkeeper set for an attempt.
But again, the emphasis is on timed correctly. If you mistime your arm swing — in other words, your arms are still swinging and not by your sides by the time the shot is taken — you’ll cut into the time you have to react to an attempt, which is detrimental for a goalkeeper.
And as you can see in the screenshot, Courtois does not time his arm swing correctly. Why? Because he sees Januzaj’s shooting motion late thanks to Merino obstructing his view from an offside position.
Had Merino not been in Courtois’s way, it’s likely Courtois would’ve timed both his bounding step and his arm swing better.
On top of that, Merino’s block cuts into how quickly Courtois sees this shot in motion.
As we can see in the below screenshots, it takes about one second for the ball to travel from Januzaj’s foot to the back of Courtois’s net. In other words, the ball travels 22 yards in a mere second, which is already not a lot of time for a goalkeeper to react in.
Add to this the fact that, according to a 2013 study, it takes the brain one-tenth of a second to process something the eyes see, and it tightens the limited amount of time a goalkeeper has to react to an attempt.
And now put these two pieces of context — the time it took Januzaj’s shot to reach the goal and the average human’s processing time of a moving object — and it becomes clear why it was so detrimental to Courtois to have his vision obstructed by Merino.
Courtois had very little time to work with initially; just a single second. Then, about one-tenth of that second was shaved off due to his natural ability to process moving objects. Finally, because he sees this shot tenths of a second later than he should’ve due to Merino’s obstruction, even more time is shaved off, leaving Courtois with just a few tenths of a second to react in.
Obviously, this is not a lot of time to react in, and because Courtois probably didn’t see the ball clearly until it was around Merino’s proximity, he couldn’t get a decent save attempt off in time.
Therefore, by illegally obstructing Courtois’s line of sight, Merino prevented Courtois from setting himself appropriately, processing Januzaj’s shot clearly, and reacting in an appropriate and timely fashion.
Keep in mind, Merino’s obstruction would not have been an issue had he been onside. Everything that I mentioned would’ve been fine had he been in a legal position. But because he was in an offside position when he obstructed Courtois’s line of sight, he was rightfully adjudged to have illegally impacted Courtois’s ability to see this attempt.
Why didn’t Courtois appeal the goal?
Before I end off, I want to quickly address a counter-argument I’ve seen floating around.
Some viewers have claimed that there’s no way Thibaut Courtois didn’t see Adnan Januzaj’s shot because he didn’t appeal the goal. After all, had Courtois felt that his vision was obstructed by a player who’s offside, he would’ve immediately voiced his concerns to the referee.
That argument seems logical on paper, but it falls apart when you consider the fact that Courtois likely didn’t even know Mikel Merino was in an offside position.
Courtois’s job is not to focus on who’s offside and who’s not. As the goalkeeper, his role is to follow the play, specifically the ball and the shooter. While he should be keeping a general idea of where other potential threats are positioned, at the end of the day, his job is to stop the ball, not to ponder over who’s offside and who’s not. And the shooter with the ball, in this case Januzaj, will always be a goalkeeper’s biggest threat and deserving of most of the goalkeeper’s attention. So, it’s not illogical to assume Courtois didn’t consider whether Merino was in an offside position or not.
Furthermore, while Courtois’s position gives him a great view of the field, it doesn’t give him a good idea of the offside position of other footballers. In a crowded penalty area with a bunch of teammates and opponents spread across the width of the field, it becomes very difficult for Courtois to judge who’s definitely offside and who’s not. And with most of his focus directed towards the shooter, determining who of the other players is offside and who’s not becomes an even more difficult task.
Just to drive home how difficult it would be for someone in Courtois’s position to determine the offside position of other players, let’s compare his viewing angle to that of a linesman, whose job it is to determine who’s offside and who’s not.
Given the above examples, it’s possible — even likely — that Courtois didn’t know Merino was in an offside position. Therefore, Courtois’s tame reaction to the goal and lack of an appeal is understandable. After all, you can’t appeal what you weren’t aware of.
Following the match, Thibaut Courtois asserted that his vision was impacted by Mikel Merino.
“When [Januzaj] shot, there were three people in my line of vision, Merino, another La Real player and one of our players, who was trying to block the shot,” he said. “I couldn’t see a thing and if you can’t see the ball and it happens so fast that you don’t have the time to react, that means it’s offside.
“It may be fair or otherwise, but I was prevented from seeing it. That’s what the VAR system is there for and I think that tonight’s decisions were clear cut.”
Some people will question his statement. After all, the decision worked in Courtois’s favour, so why wouldn’t he back it?
But ultimately, as I mentioned earlier, Courtois is the only person who can say with certainty whether he saw the shot or not. No matter how many camera angles we use and dotted lines we draw, we won’t get the same line of sight that Courtois experienced in that moment.
Therefore, if Courtois says his vision was obstructed, I’m inclined to believe him, especially because, as I determined, it’s the most probable explanation.