Juventus fans, you might want to look away.
Despite scoring four aggregate goals against FC Porto, the reigning Serie A champions were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League by the Dragões on away goals on Tuesday.
Juventus played with an extra man for more than an hour — Porto’s Mehdi Taremi was sent off in the 54th minute — but the Turin-based club failed to capitalize on their advantage.
It’s the second season in a row Juventus have been knocked out in the Champions League round of 16, and the seventh time in the last nine seasons that they’ve failed to progress past the quarter-finals.
This includes eliminations at the hands of Ajax, Olympique Lyonnais and Porto in successive seasons — all teams Juventus were expected to beat.
Juventus’ poor night was summed up by Porto’s second goal of the second leg. In the 114th minute, Porto’s Sérgio Oliveira struck a low free kick underneath the legs of Juventus’ flinching three-man wall and into Wojciech Szczęsny’s goal.
The goal was Porto’s fourth on aggregate, their second away goal and Oliveira‘s second of the game.
Given it was the goal that ultimately eliminated Juventus, it was not a good look for the Italian giants.
With the goal came finger-pointing, and unsurprisingly, it was the goalkeeper who was at the forefront of most people’s criticism.
On Twitter alone, I came across accounts spewing tired clichés about how Szczęsny should never be beaten from distance, and how a goalkeeper of his quality should’ve easily saved the shot.
It’s always easy to blame the goalkeeper when a team concedes a significant goal, but just because it’s easier to fault the goalkeeper doesn’t mean it’s right. In some scenarios, the goalkeeper may appear to be at fault for conceding a goal when in reality it’s one or a few of his own teammates who let him and the team down.
In my opinion, this is one of those scenarios.
In this goalkeeper analysis piece, I’m going to offer my thoughts on why I believe the wall, not Szczęsny, is largely to blame for Porto’s goal. I’m also going to address some questions people had of Szczęsny’s role in this goal, including his reaction speed.
Though discussing this won’t bring Juventus back into the Champions League, I think it’s always important to be fair and accurate in our analysis of goalkeepers.
A weak wall
Before I write about Wojciech Szczęsny, I want to focus on the wall itself and my problems with how it reacted to Sérgio Oliveira’s free kick.
As Oliveira lines up to take the set piece, Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo, Adrien Rabiot and Álvaro Morata form a three-man wall 10 yards away from the ball. Heeding Szczęsny’s instructions, they stand shoulder to shoulder facing the ball.
With an average height of about 1.88 metres (6 ft 2) between them, the trio forms a pretty imposing wall that, at first, does a good job covering the right side of Szczęsny’s goal.
But as Oliveira approaches the ball, some of the players in the wall break formation.
It starts with Ronaldo, who’s in the middle of the wall. The Portuguese superstar turns his body and his head to the side as Oliveira winds up to take the shot. In doing so, he’s no longer facing Oliveira, but facing Rabiot on his left.
This is a significant misstep by Ronaldo. By turning his body to the side, he makes his body smaller and opens up spaces between himself and his teammates in the wall. These open spaces can be exploited by a well-placed free kick and might even result in a goal (as Ronaldo knows all too well).
In my opinion, turning your body to the side is the worst thing a player in a wall can do aside from moving away from a shot at the last second. Though it’s natural for humans to flinch as a projectile approaches them, bravery is key to a successful wall, and those in a wall must take the shot head-on. Otherwise, the turning players will expose holes in the wall and present opportunities for a shooter to sneak one through them.
On top of that, Ronaldo lifts his right leg as he turns to the side. This is another big no-no. By lifting his leg, Ronaldo opens up a significant amount of space underneath him. This is space that a low shot can exploit, as it did in this scenario.
Had Ronaldo kept his right foot on the ground and close to his left foot, the shot likely would’ve hit off of his leg and either deflected away from Szczęsny’s goal or approached his goal at a substantially slower pace, which would’ve allowed Szczęsny to reset and react in time.
Finally, as I alluded to earlier, Ronaldo turns his head away from the ball. While this might seem minor, it actually hinders his ability to react to Oliveira’s free kick.
If you’re an avid football viewer, you’ve probably noticed that whenever a wall sets up to block a free kick, the defending players almost always face the free kick taker. Even if one player is initially facing their goal to take instructions from the goalkeeper, by the time the referee blows their whistle, every player in the wall is facing the ball and the shooter at the beginning of the free kick.
At first, you might think it has to do with a specific, obscure rule. But the truth is that there isn’t a rule restricting players in a wall to face the shooter directly — at least, not in the latest iteration of the Laws of the Game. If a player wants, they can face their own goal when defending a free kick.
The reason why defending players face the shooter though is so that they can react to the opponent’s action as quickly as possible when the free kick is taken. If the wall faces the shooter, the defending players can process the shot almost immediately after the shooter touches the ball, and then they can react to the play by adjusting their body or quickly closing down the recipient of a pass.
But if the wall faces away from the shooter, they won’t be able to process the shooter’s action until they face the ball again. This gives the shooter the opportunity to exploit openings in the wall that players might not notice, or to pass the ball to someone else without the wall noticing.
In Ronaldo’s case, by turning his face away from the shooter, he doesn’t notice the ball going through his legs until it has already passed him.
Had Ronaldo been facing the shooter, he would’ve processed the low shot earlier, and he might’ve rectified his earlier mistake by dropping his right foot in time to block the shot and prevent the goal.
I’ve touched on Ronaldo quite a bit because he was the main culprit — the shot ultimately went under him. But his teammates in the wall, Rabiot and Morata, didn’t paint themselves in a better light.
Like Ronaldo, Rabiot and Morata also turn their bodies as Oliveira strikes the free kick. When the ball passes underneath Ronaldo, Rabiot and Morata’s bodies are turned inwards, facing Ronaldo.
As I mentioned earlier, this opens up space between themselves and Ronaldo, and this is space that can be exploited by a well-placed free kick.
Unlike Ronaldo though, who keeps a foot on the ground, Rabiot and Morata jump as Oliveira makes contact with the ball. At their peaks, they appear to be at least a foot off of the ground.
This might not seem like anything to complain about, as a jumping wall is not uncommon in free kick scenarios. But speaking from my own experience, I’ve never been a fan of a jumping wall. This is because a jumping wall exposes space underneath the wall, and this is space that can be and often is exploited by low-struck free kicks.
Furthermore, when a wall jumps, they become at the mercy of gravity. Even if a jumping player immediately recognizes that a low shot is coming in their direction, there’s no way for them to block it until gravity pulls them back down, and by that point, it’s usually too late.
Though under-the-wall free kicks seemed to be rare at one point, it’s a common free kick tactic these days. Many of today’s top footballers, from Lionel Messi to Philippe Coutinho, are comfortable striking free kicks underneath walls, and it’s common to see at least a few under-the-wall free kicks go in every season.
It’s so common, in fact, that teams are tweaking their free kick training based on whether their opponents’ wall jumps or not. This is something Porto’s Chancel Mbemba admitted the club did ahead of their Champions League tie against Juventus.
Personally, the only time I would ever be comfortable with my wall jumping is if there’s a player lying on the ground behind the wall.
This is a tactic that has emerged as under-the-wall free kicks have become more popular. It’s quite simple — a player lies on their side a yard or two behind the wall, with their chest either facing the shooter or the goal — but it’s effective at preventing under-the-wall free kicks from sneaking in.
By lying on the ground, the player prevents any low shot from hitting the goal. Aside from a possible deflection, there’s no way for a shot to sneak through the player and hit the target. From their head to their feet, the player has the area of the ground underneath the wall covered.
This allows a wall to jump as high as they want without fear of a free kick slipping underneath them. The wall can gain the extra advantage of covering a foot or so above their heads by jumping without sacrificing the foot of space underneath them that jumping exposes.
Through this tactic, a shooter can’t shoot underneath the wall, otherwise, the free kick is going to be blocked. This forces the attacker to shoot above or around the wall, which is more difficult to do.
Unfortunately, Juventus ditched this tactic. Despite having the means to place a player behind the wall — remember, they had 11 players on the field vs. Porto’s 10 — no player got on the ground to protect against a low free kick. This left the ground beneath Juventus’ jumping wall poised for exploitation, and Oliveira made the Turin-based club pay badly.
The point of the wall is to form a secure barrier between the ball and the goal that prevents a shot from finding its way through it, no matter the shot’s pace and placement. But by turning their bodies and jumping without the support of a teammate behind them, Ronaldo, Rabiot and Morata exposed spaces in the wall that allowed Oliveira’s shot to sneak through them. Had they maintained a tight formation, faced the shot head-on and not jumped, Oliveira’s free kick would not have found its way through them and into Szczęsny’s goal.
For this reason, I think the wall was at largely fault for conceding this goal, and Szczęsny was justified for shouting at them.
Speaking of Wojciech Szczęsny, let me address some of the criticisms he’s faced and why I don’t believe he deserves the bulk of the blame for conceding this goal.
To start, there seems to be this belief floating around that because it was a long-range shot that beat Szczęsny, it’s automatically a bad goal. Some people seem to believe that a shot from 30+ yards out should never beat the goalkeeper, and for that reason, Sérgio Oliveira’s free kick must be considered a howler.
In my opinion, this is ridiculous. Just because a shot is approaching the goalkeeper from distance doesn’t make it a howler. A goalkeeper has so much space to cover — a professional goal is 24 feet wide by 8 feet tall — so they’ll be beaten by a shot from distance every now and then.
Furthermore, shots come in all shapes and sizes, and that includes long-distance shots. Some shots are fast, some are well-placed, some travel through a crowd, and some rise, dive and curve on their way to the goal. To say that every long-range goal is a bad goal is to generalize every long-range shot and ignore all of the qualities that make each of them unique and of varying difficulties for the goalkeeper to handle.
It also takes credit away from the shooter by suggesting that their long-range goal, no matter how incredible it was, was only scored because the goalkeeper made a poor effort to save it.
Some readers might look at the above examples and say, “Well, those are incredible albeit rare shots, but Oliveira’s goal travelled on the ground. Surely, that makes it easier for a goalkeeper to save it than an airborne, twisting strike like Joe Cole’s or Shunsuke Nakamura’s?”
I have two answers to that. Firstly, a low shot can actually be more difficult for a goalkeeper to save in some cases, especially if the goalkeeper dealing with the shot is tall like Szczęsny (who’s about 6 ft 4 tall).
A tall goalkeeper’s above-average height, while a positive when it comes to physique, can at times be detrimental to their coordination and agility. According to former goalkeeper Justin Bryant, who spoke to me about collegiate-level goalkeepers, some tall goalkeepers’ lack of coordination and agility can manifest itself in low shots because “they have to quickly get their long limbs organized/folded out of the way … to make a low save.”
Though it’s difficult to say for certain, it’s possible Szczęsny’s dive was hindered by his tall right leg not getting out of the way quick enough for him to drop to the ground.
On top of that, not every low shot is created equally. Some low shots might travel at a pace that’s too quick for the goalkeeper to react to, while others might be placed so accurately that a goalkeeper can’t reach over in time to tip it wide.
Even if a low shot doesn’t boast blistering speed or pin-point placement, it can still be troublesome depending on how obstructed the goalkeeper’s vision is.
Take this 2014 Claudio Marchisio goal as an example. The shot is moving quickly, but maybe not quick enough to beat a goalkeeper on pure speed. And while it goes in close to the bottom-right corner, it’s still close enough to Joe Hart that he should be able to get a hand on it.
Nonetheless, the shot beats Hart.
If you ask me, this is due to Hart’s obstructed view of the shot. As Marchisio’s attempt travels towards Hart’s goal, it zips underneath two English players and past the right side of Wayne Rooney, who’s standing in between Hart and the ball.
Because of these obstructions, Hart has difficulty processing the shot’s path. He only catches glimpses of the ball as it makes its way towards his goal, and as a result, he can’t get down and to his right quick enough to parry it away.
Had Hart had an unobstructed view of the shot, he likely gets a hand in front of it. But because his vision was obstructed, Hart’s ability to stop it was hindered.
Obstruction is likely another reason why Szczęsny failed to react quick enough to stop Oliveira’s attempt.
As Oliveira runs up to strike the free kick, Szczęsny can be seen attempting to look around his wall and teammate Weston McKennie (who’s not in the wall) to catch a glimpse of the shot. His teammates are obstructing his view of the shot, so he has to lean his body to his left in order to look past them and see the ball.
This is also why Szczęsny takes up a position a couple of steps to the left of the centre of his goal. This position allows him to see Oliveira’s run-up and the ball.
Shortly after Oliveira strikes the shot though, Szczęsny briefly loses sight of the ball. His wall gets in the way of his line of sight, and he doesn’t see the ball again until it passes underneath his wall and enters his 18-yard box.
By this point, the ball had already travelled at least seven yards, which is a significant loss for Szczęsny. That’s at least seven yards of reaction time Szczęsny lost due to his wall getting in his line of sight, meaning Szczęsny now had less time to react to the free kick in than he should’ve had.
The effect the obstruction had on Szczęsny can be seen in the slideshow below. Szczęsny initially remains in place when Oliveira strikes the ball and he loses sight of it, but as soon as the ball passes underneath the wall and Szczęsny regains sight of it, he starts moving to his right side.
Unfortunately, due to the loss in reaction time caused by the wall’s presence, Szczęsny was not able to get down to the shot quick enough to keep it out of his goal.
In fairness, there is a question can be asked of Szczęsny here: Why didn’t he use a smaller wall?
As longtime followers know, I’m a big advocate for using smaller walls when defending long-distance free kicks. I won’t go into too much detail given I wrote about this last year, but the gist is that the further a free kick is from the goal, the smaller the wall should be. This is because a small wall will not obstruct a goalkeeper’s vision as much as a big wall, and that allows the goalkeeper to see the shot earlier, process it earlier, and start reacting to it earlier.
In Szczęsny’s case, given the wall is clearly obstructing his sight of the free kick, wouldn’t it have made sense for him to remove one or two players from the wall? That way, he could’ve positioned himself more centrally (as opposed to his centre-left position) and had a clearer sight of the shot.
This is an excellent point, and in hindsight, I do think it would’ve been the better option. Szczęsny clearly had difficulty seeing the free kick, and his obstructed view of the shot contributed to the ball getting by him. Had he set up a one-man or a two-man wall, he likely would’ve been able to react to the low free kick in a more efficient matter.
That said, we’re speaking from hindsight, and while a one-man wall seems like the better option looking back on the play, I didn’t think a three-man wall was a bad choice at the time. In my opinion, had the wall done its job, we wouldn’t even be talking about one-man walls.
This is why I blame the wall for this goal as opposed to Szczęsny. Had Oliveira struck a free kick over or around the wall, I would be inclined to question Szczęsny’s decision to set up a three-man wall. But because this shot was low, aimed directly at the wall and went in due to the wall’s negligence to do its job, I think it’s the wall that should carry the brunt of the blame, not Szczęsny.
Yes, Szczęsny could’ve set himself up for a potential shot better by organizing a smaller wall. But that doesn’t excuse the players in the wall for allowing a free kick aimed directly at them to slip underneath them. Szczęsny trusted his wall to cover the right side of his goal, but his wall failed him by jumping and turning away from the shot. Their actions thrust Szczęsny into an awkward position in which he was not going to come out on top.
For these reasons, I don’t blame Szczęsny for conceding this goal.
Following their frustrating Champions League elimination at the hands of Porto, Juventus have bounced back in the Serie A. Earlier today, they defeated Cagliari by a 3-1 scoreline.
Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a first-half hat-trick and increased his league total to 23 goals in 23 games. And on the defensive end, Wojciech Szczęsny has conceded a goal or less in each of his last nine league games.
Though the win keeps Juventus in the Serie A title race, it does not erase the pain of yet another heart-breaking Champions League exit. Juventus still haven’t appeared in a continental final in the Ronaldo era, and it’s been 25 years since they last won the Champions League.
Will they finally break the duck next year? Only time will tell. For now, they’ll have to live with another season of unmet expectations — and a goal conceded that was their own undoing.
Mouhamad Rachini is a journalist and goalkeeper enthusiast. You can find him on Twitter via @BlameTheKeeper.