Goalkeepers see thousands of shots a year and become in tune with an incoming ball’s trajectory and speed. As the point of attack moves, goalkeepers adjust their angle, staying centered in relation to the ball and the goal. When a shot is fired, a goalkeeper’s brain carries out millions of highly complex yet instinctual calculations and actions. One deflection knocks all that math out of whack.
Take the 2017 Europa League Final between Manchester United and Ajax. Ajax entered as young overachievers, doing well just to make it that far. Their roster’s average age was 22. They had 17 and 20-year-olds for center-backs, so the lights that night probably looked bright. On the other side, United’s players were in their prime, and they couldn’t waste that playing in smaller tournaments. The Europa League is the kiddie pool. United are giants, and clubs that big get insecure standing in the kiddie pool for too long. Worse, playing in the Europa League is a type of bad that compounds: top players want a club in the Champion’s League, Thursday night matches wear teams out for Saturdays, it's Ukraine in December, and the expectation is you dominate every match.
United finished too low in the Premier League to qualify for the Champion's League, so their only way out of next year's Europa was to win this year's tonight.
What separates the Europa League club from the Champion's League club?
The quality of the players mostly.
Luck always helps.
Compared to Ajax, United knew they had better players, knew they had better coaches.
But who had luck?
Shortly after kickoff, United’s midfielder Paul Pogba jogged up the field while his team worked the ball up the right side. As the best player on either team, this was Pogba’s game to win. United had paid a world-record price to return their prodigal son. In 2012, age 19 and unable to get on Sir Alex Ferguson’s field, Pogba ditched for Italy, and on the way out suffered a Ferguson tongue-lashing: “I don’t think he showed us any respect at all to be honest,” Ferguson said. “I'm quite happy that if [footballers] carry on that way, they're probably better doing it away from us”.
In four years at Juventus, Pogba grew into the game’s most dominate midfielder. He’s a hybrid: he plays box-to-box, cracks tackles, knifes passes, rifles shots, and controls the ball like his feet have fingers. He is as aggressive as Arturo Vidal but without the temperament. He’s as artistic as Zidane but with a longer reach. He has earned cockiness, but his mouth isn’t loud. His hair and his play are.
By 2016, at the age of 23, Pogba was the most valuable commodity on the market. Ferguson was off the helm, and United were happy to pay. They’d sent their kid to finishing school in Italy, €105 million the tuition.
Back to the Final. Still in the first minute, United sent the ball into the box. The Ajax goalkeeper, André Onana, ran into his defender and couldn't get there. An Ajax defender whacked the ball up the field, but it went straight to Pogba, standing dead center about 25 yards out. He blocked it with his chest.
Sure, the shot went wide, but the keeper collided with his own defender and a clearance that could have gone anywhere went straight to Pogba. Maybe luck was with United.
However, not everything was going right for the prodigal son. Tonight, too often he misfired when he struck the ball. He hadn’t connected properly with that volley, a few minutes later, he sent a long pass slicing way out of bounds, then in the 12th minute, he tried to take a quick free kick, release Marcus Rashford, but he sent that ball too far too. Even speedy Rashford couldn’t catch it.
The Hundred Million Euro man didn’t have his striking boots on? Was he tightening up due to pressure? He’d been to the Champion’s League Final with Juventus, swam in deep waters there, so the kiddie pool should have been nothing. What was the matter?
Pogba needed to focus on Ajax. Young as they were, they could possess the ball and pick opponents apart. But United, under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, who could build a cement wall out of four men, were happy to sit back, form a shell, get physical, and defend. Pogba and Marouane Fellaini tossed around Ajax midfielders like they were surfers and Pogba and Fellaini were crisp waves. They kept Ajax moving the ball around the perimeter of the midfield, unable to break through, making their possession harmlessly horizontal instead of vertical, cagey instead of suffocating.
In the 18th minute, Ajax won a throw deep in their own territory and United pressed. The throw was awful, straight to United’s Juan Mata, and United did what a team should do to any opponent, turn their mistakes into opportunities.
At the right corner of the box, it was Mata to Rashford, to Mata, to Fellaini, which drew in all of the Ajax defenders. Fellaini passed it across to Pogba who waited just where he was before, dead center, about 25 yards out.
Great goals often start with a great first touch. Pogba’s touch was a pass to himself from his right foot to his left. It sent the ball across his body, to the open space Fellaini created by sucking Ajax defenders in. Pogba just had to beat the defenders to the ball and hit one of his rocketing, post-physics shots. This is when the great players differentiate themselves from the good ones, where we see that no matter what the good player does, the talent, the speed, the power of the great player overcomes.
Or, sometimes they duff the shot and just get lucky.
The game finished 2-1 to United, so the giants stepped out of the kiddie pool, a few dead minnows floating in their cup, and they headed for deeper waters.