We’ve heard a lot of stories about Petr Cech’s goalkeeping since he arrived at Chelsea from Rennes almost a decade ago – his neon orange kit making him look ‘bigger’, for example – but throughout that period he has been a picture of consistency; the only chink in his armour being a dip in form a few years ago that he has resolutely and definitely put behind him now. He looks imperious nowadays.
Sky Sports have been kind enough to show extended (very extended) highlights of Champions League Finals this week. I first noticed 2004’s clash between Porto and Monaco, and have seen at least portions of every year’s denouement since, culminating with last season’s clash between Chelsea and Bayern München, which I watched the penalty shootout from this morning.
When our television is on, it is often on without sound. I hadn’t experienced that final without sound, but it was interesting to see how the shootout unfolded silently. You get a different impression when forced to think for yourself, rather than trying to do so.
As with most matches, I was watching the goalkeepers. The initial impressions, before the first kick, that of Phillip Lahm, was that Neuer, on his home turf, was bullish, boisterous and confident. Cech looked calmer, more assured, but perhaps a little smaller.
That was not, of course, how it turned out. Although Juan Mata missed for Chelsea, and it was a poor, weak penalty, Neuer barely had to move, Bayern’s kicks seemed almost telegraphed to Cech. Here’s the diagram of where they went.
Now, I haven’t got the figures Cech said he was referring to afterwards; he’d analysed every Bayern penalty since 2007, we were told. Every one of those five he went the right way. It was difficult to tell, but I’d warrant he got his hands to all of them, and certainly second guessed each of the takers.
Watching silently, it was apparent that, despite Neuer was doing all the fist-pumping, alpha-male bravado, he was getting nowhere near a lot of Chelsea’s penalties. Meanwhile, Bayern’s had to be inch perfect to get past Cech. The pressure of that, even after Mata’s miss, was almost visible on the Germans’ players faces. In the end, it was Cech’s calm, assured approach that won the day. First Ivica Olic cracked, then Schweinsteiger (and he the most Teutonic of all penalty takers to miss, it was almost symbolic of a changing of the order of the things) found the tension getting the better of him before Drogba had his historically cathartic moment.
Aside; <i>I’ve written about Drogba before, a piece called ‘The Agony of Loving Drogba’, and was amused as I reviewed my blog statistics recently, to find somebody was directed, by Google, to these pages after searching for (my speech marks, not theirs) “Is Didier Drogba a good man?”. I hope they went away happy.</i>
I had a look back at the penalty record of Petr Cech. Its, recently, impressive; look almost as if in the summer of 2008, he had some sort of spot-kick revelation. As it happens, in February 2007, some three years after signing Cech, Chelsea returned to Rennes to pluck Christophe Lollichon from the French side. Looking back to that time, it seems that 2008 was when Cech underwent his penalty-saving improvement, but there’s nothing to say that Lollichon would take time to gather his information that would end up helping Cech. The graph below uses the abbreviation ‘con’ for ‘converted’, and ‘non-con’ for ‘non-converted’; I still see shots that don’t go in as a victory for the goalkeeper, even if it is quite possibly more just a defeat of the taker, so those are included as ‘non-con’
I know from Soccernomics how much penalties favour the goalkeeper, and we do see progressively more of them being saved/missed as time goes on; particularly in shootouts. Maybe 2008 was the year Cech started to pay more attention to the penalty takers he was likely to face, or that Lollichon found the information about such that it required. Certainly, interviews in the build-up to last year suggested it was a long-term preparation from him.
Comparing and contrasting the two keepers in the final in Munich, then, there is the very different style we saw last season. Bayern beat Real Madrid on penalties, and Neuer was authoritative that night; entirely different to his performance against Chelsea; his bluster and confidence failing to disguising the fact that other than Mata’s kick, he never really looked like saving any of them – all mouth and no trousers, I would say.
I do wonder, looking back, if Neuer (especially given he even went to the length of <i>taking</i> a kick against Chelsea) reckoned on the force of his personality being enough to get him through the one-on-one situation of penalties. Certainly, his record of saving ‘in-game’ penalties remains unimpressive (though not so unimpressive as Gianluigi Buffon’s 4 saves in 42 penalties) which might indicate that the power of personality dilutes as the number of players in the area increases, as it would.
Here’s the same graph for Neuer as I presented for Cech; it begs only one question. Does Neuer have access to the same information that Cech did? Certainly, it seems that either Bayern missed a trick last season or (perhaps) that Neuer’s confidence, particularly after being the hero in the semi-final, meant he didn’t follow the plan set out for him. Such is the nature of such things; one correct decision could have made such a huge difference.
Bringing it round to Saturday, it will be interesting to see what happens if Neuer faces a Dortmund penalty – he’s kept for three so far (Lewandowski missed, while Sahin and Hummels both scored; that fact alone at least leans to indicate that Neuer does refer to a crib sheet for more common penalty takers) – on Saturday night, even more so if it’s in a shootout. Cech, seemingly, used a shootout disappointment to change himself for the future. Neuer, after last season, has had that opportunity. We are yet to see if he, too, has developed.
The other thing I noticed during the shootout is how <i>good</i> a penalty Phillip Lahm took. As the leader of Bayern, it was important for him to set the tone and he was utterly flawless in his kick – Cech (of course) got his hands to it, but had no chance. So kudos to Lahm; he seems to go underappreciated as a fundamental member of the teams of many talents in which he plays, but he’s a brilliant, brilliant player.