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UEFA Champions League Final 2018 – Coaching Insights

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Congratulations to Real Madrid for winning their third consecutive Champions League title. If you watched the game or read the commentaries you will understand that this exciting game had many critical moments. The early injury to Liverpool’s Mohamad Salah, followed by an injury to Madrid’s Carvahal. Or the two utter and complete goalkeeping errors by Liverpool’s Karius. So what are the coaching observations? Let’s look at them through the lens of our Four Pillars of Soccer:

The Mental Game

Until Salah’s substitution Liverpool was controlling the game and had generated nine attempts at goal. Madrid was on its heels. Remember that Salah had been Liverpool’s, and in fact, the Premier League’s leading goal scorer. The entire Liverpool attacking scheme is built around Salah. Losing him consternated the Liverpool team. They actually changed their mental approach to the game, stopping their attacking game and surrendering the game to Madrid. Like the air had gone out of their balloon. I am convinced coach Klopp addressed the issue at half time to rebuild the team’s confidence, and there were positive signals, until Madrid’s first goal (see below). What is interesting is that a team at this level had no positive mental response to the early loss of their key player. That is a mental preparation issue that teams need to address. What do we do when we lose a key player? There must be an instant switch to plan B. Instead, Salah’s loss was a giant momentum shifter.

What about Carvahal’s early loss to Madrid? He is a key defender on the right side, an integral part of Madrid’s back four. I observed coach Zidane actually grinning when he replaced Carvahal with Nacho. Almost like he was saying “I wanted to start Nacho anyways, now I got the lineup I wanted”. I am sure that’s not what he was thinking, but from a mental perspective Carvahal’s loss didn’t affect Madrid at all.

Granted, relatively speaking Salah is more important to Liverpool than Carvahal is to Madrid, but the teams dealt with their respective losses quite differently.

What about Karius’ first error? A technical or a mental issue? Recall the play: A long ball is played by Madrid to an off-side Benzema. Karius picks up the ball and Benzema finishes his run right to the keeper. Next, Karius bends a bit wanting to roll the ball to his right defender. Benzema, still there, reacts and sticks out his left leg. The ball hits his leg and rolls into the net. There wasn’t anything technically wrong with what Karius was doing – no error in his throwing motion or direction. The issue was he shouldn’t have released the ball at all. Goalkeepers are trained to do a 360 scan before releasing the ball. Some keepers do it quite visibly every time, some only when they know there is an opposing player near, some scan imperceptibly. The problem here is that Karius didn’t scan at all. He didn’t realize the presence of Benzema. He deviated from the routine of scanning – a clear mental error, a lapse of concentration.

Benzema on the other hand demonstrated some of the Seven Speeds of Soccer:

• He perceived that Karius didn’t scan
• He anticipated Karius’ attempt to distribute the ball to the right
• He decided to stay close to Karius and go for the ball
• He reacted to Karius’s motion
• He acted with incredible speed and got his foot on the ball

Technical Skills

The second goalkeeping error was clearly a technical issue. The ball was struck from nearly 40 m by Bale and came towards the goal in a predictable flight path and at an obvious high pace. Initially Karius got into the right position with his body behind the ball. The decision he had to make was between catching the ball and punching the ball. I have seen both techniques in situations like this and while punching the ball may look unorthodox it is a valid option.

Karius chose to catch, so far no problem. But for some inexplicable reason he put his arms out in front of his face as if he wanted to catch the ball about 6 inches in front of him. His fingers were up and his palms extended towards the ball. With that hand position he would not have caught the ball, he would have blocked it and it would have dropped in front of him. He would have likely tried to dive on it to recover it. Now some coaches advocate this technique, I think it is flawed. In this case Karius also moved his head away from the ball so there was no body part behind the ball when it struck his hands. The force of the shot actually bent his hands and the ball deflected into the net.

I teach goalkeepers to always have their body behind the ball if they attempt to catch it, and in the process of catching it get their hands on the ball at the same time the ball contacts the body. In this case Karius should have jumped and caught the ball on his chest, cradling it in with his hands. If he wouldn’t have jumped then at the very least his head should have been behind his hands so that there is backing in case the ball slips through the hands. Goalkeeping is about ultra-quick decisions and reactions. If Karius thought the ball came in at high-speed and an awkward height for a catch then he should have punched it out. Check our Soccer Goalkeeping Practicebook for great goalkeeping drills and tips.

The key technical error was trying to catch the ball with his arms extended in front, palms out, and no body part behind the ball. Pure and simple.

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