On the third week of the Premier League season, Patrick
van Aanholt scored deep into stoppage time to claim Crystal Palace’s first win at Old
Trafford since 1989. Immediately after the goal, there were questions
asked of how Manchester United keeper David De Gea was beat at his near post. As per the
maxim, everyone knows that goalkeepers shouldn’t be beaten at their near post. Right? Few things are more irritating than misinformation
surrounding the goalkeeper position, and this myth is right at the top of the list. If the
ball goes in at the far post, criticism rarely follows. But if it sneaks in at the near post,
fans and pundits are quick to pass blame. It’s lazy
analysis, and something that doesn’t make sense. There is a quote that Borussia Dortmund keeper
Roman Burki attributed to Kasper Schmeichel a couple of years ago that sums up this point:
“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. Near post, far post, you try to cover it all and
you’re not happy if it goes in anywhere.” There are far too many variables involved
— the angle, distance, speed and height of the shot, and reaction time (just to name
a few) — to say the ball should never go in at the near post. Truthfully, a goalkeeper of De Gea’s quality
should be expected to save that sort of shot, but the fact it went in at the near post is
irrelevant. Are there moments when a keeper exposes their near post leading to an easy
goal? Yes. But this wasn’t one of those instances. While De Gea wouldn’t have been upset because
of where it went in, he will been disappointed at how. It all stems from a breakdown in one
of the most basic goalkeeping fundamentals: his set position. When facing shots from in and around his six-yard
box, De Gea likes to keep himself quite upright as he gets set (even as the shooter is coming
towards him), using his tall, lanky frame to cover as much of the goal as possible.
His upper body is erect and square to the ball, his legs are bent and slightly wider
than shoulder-length apart, and his hands are around waist height. Against shots above his waist, he uses his
quick hand-eye coordination to tip balls up and over the goal. For balls that are low
and near his body, he relies on his exceptional ability to block shots with his feet. It is
his body shape (in addition to his incredible reflexes) that allows his decision making
to be as fluid and exact as it is. When he gets his set position correct, he almost always
the correct choice between going for the ball with his hands versus his feet. Against Van Aanholt, De Gea did something
a little peculiar, and it made all the difference. Instead of being more upright, the Spaniard
chose to get set in a lower crouch position, with his legs bent significantly wider apart
than normal. This awkward set position created a hesitation in choosing the correct approach
to take against the shot. De Gea then got caught in the choice of whether
to use his hands or his feet to make the save. It wasn’t until the ball is almost halfway
to the goal (about six yards out, compared to the original 12) that De Gea began to manoeuvre
his body to make the save with his hands. Once the decision was made, De Gea would ideally
then want to fall towards the ball as quickly as possible, get a strong barrier behind it,
and push his hands forward to meet their target. Yet, he couldn’t. The lower half of his
body, specifically the right knee, was impeding the hands’ direct path to the ball. Whether it goes in far corner or near corner,
it’s still a goal. And it would be the same exact error, regardless. As inefficient as De Gea was on this shot,
credit must also be given to Van Aanholt. The location of the strike made life difficult
for the United No 1. It’s one of the areas goalkeepers call “black holes” . They
are the toughest areas to reach with their hands or feet. That’s not to say that De Gea shouldn’t
do better, because a goalkeeper of his quality clearly should, but it shows how vital a clear
mind and proper set position is, even for the most experienced players. Furthermore,
it serves to reinforce just how fine the margins between
a save and a goal truly are.