Tim Howard vs. Ukraine - 03.05.14

I would have a lot of pity for a goalkeeper who was faced with more 1v1 situations than Tim Howard. Finding this collage was relatively easy:

 Mexico - August 15, 2012

Mexico - August 15, 2012

 Belgium - May 29, 2013

Belgium - May 29, 2013

 Bosnia and Herzegovina - August 14, 2013 

Bosnia and Herzegovina - August 14, 2013 

 Chelsea - February 22, 2014

Chelsea - February 22, 2014

 Ukraine - March 5, 2014

Ukraine - March 5, 2014

 Ukraine - March 5, 2014

Ukraine - March 5, 2014

If those gifs don't sorrow your soul then you are likely a robot and I think I've made myself clear about how I feel about robots. And there were more I considered but I didn't want to highlight the end of Bob Bradley's career with the US team.

You may notice something similar about all these gifs. No, they are not all goals because I managed to cut it before it got that far on just about all of them. It's that in each gif Howard makes a save but the ball doesn't go where Howard expects. They are all different circumstances, yes, but in each one, Howard is put in a squeeze, makes a save, yet the ball is still in play. Is there a pattern we can find here?

No. (Haha got you.) I realize I set myself up to not answer my own question but I do have a hypothesis that I can't prove. That is why it is a hypothesis. But first you must understand some goalkeeping philosophy. Walk with me.

When a goalkeeper is in a 1v1 situation where he cannot slide to challenge the striker with the ball and he has to stay on his feet he turns into a wall of sorts. He is in a unfavorable situation but he will make the most of it by covering as much of the goal that he can. He does not cover the upper 90s but the center of the goal because a goalkeeper covers the high percentage shot areas. (A lot of you are saying "duh" right now. Keep walking with me.) In addition to being in the center of the goal, his body shape is important too. He wants to be as big as possible without giving away gaping holes between limbs. (So this hilarious piece of art would not be good goalkeeping because of the gaps between the arms and thighs, and his feet are too far apart or too close.) If the striker hits the cobwebs in the corner, then good for them that is a great goal. But the ball should not enter the goal down the middle of the lane. Or, the ball shouldn't enter the goal by passing through a goalkeeper's grasp. So they are as big as possible without holes in their defense.

The above paragraph is easier said than done. The realization that it is only you to stop a favorable goal scoring opportunity does weird things to the body. If you are doubtful, have a friend kick a ball at your face as hard as they can then try to stop a 1v1 situation. (Spoiler alert: your face does not like this.)

But being a wall is not enough because a wall predictably returns what it is given. So a goalkeeper must quickly transform from a wall to a different shape to ensure he does not simply give the shooter another chance on frame. Pushing a shot wide is the first choice but a kick save usually redirects the shot up and away.

All of this to say, I do not think Howard is changing his body shape enough to make sure he isn't allowing a second chance. Looking at the six examples above, I'm going to walk through why this may be true. All the examples have links to videos of the save/goal and on some of them you can slow it down to see intricacies. (There is a popup settings panel on the bottom right corner of the video.)

1. Mexico - August 15, 2012 - Some may remember this as the historic win with one of the more lucky goals I've seen where three offensive players half-accidentally/intentionally scored. Howard was Man of the Match for his two heroic saves at the end, including the first gif where he dives to his left to save a header from five yards away. But the ball does not characteristically continue going to Howard's left. Instead it redirects to the middle of the box. This occurs because his palm hits the ball and allows it to roll off of his hand and to the middle. Think of catching a basketball. The change in hand position is minute from catching it versus palming it away. (Please air-catch a basketball so you know what I am talking about. Now turn your fingers back to the point where your palm would hit it first. It's not that much, right?) The save is at 5:20 but on the slowmo replay, look at the spin of the ball. That is created from the palm slapping at the ball. It is such an immense redirection that Howard's left foot has to then kick it out to stop an own goal.

2. Belgium - May 29, 2013 - This probably isn't the best example so I won't spend a lot of time on this but his hand positioning is interesting. His elbows aren't extended all the way out to make himself as long as he can because he is trying to slap with his hands on the ball again. I would like to see him either go long (almost completely extended elbows) or using a Z arm shaped approach that this site calls the "Double Cobra" which is pretty cool. But basically Howard is only trying to hit the ball away. Can he hold it? Maybe, maybe not. But he's not trying to. Scroll through the pictures below to see how wide his hands are attacking the ball and how just his fingers hit the ball.

3. Bosnia and Herzegovnia - August 14, 2014 - Oof Eddie Johnson. Anyway, Howard gets the skate save but returns it to sender. Slowly watch 0:19-0:20 where Howard moves his foot up and over to make the save instead of just over. Doing so, Howard gets more contact on top of the ball and can't get enough leverage to hit it up. Also he doesn't redirect it out for a corner. Instead he basically traps it for Dzeko who puts it away with his next touch. This is very harsh critique as the power of the shot can't be understated so Howard's reaction time is even less than what one would expect in such a small area. 

4. Chelsea - February 22, 2014 - Return of the palm. Howard palms this into the goal because... Well I'm not exactly sure why but he does. I think he is a little rattled with the superb free kick and onrushing John Terry so he doesn't want to hold the shot but it's too close to his body to fingertip it away. Thus, the untrusty palm returns.

5. Ukraine - March 5, 2014 - (Everyone blasts Brooks here but it's Castillo's player that scores, which is even more embarrassing in my book.) Look at Howard's body shape. He is leaning very far back and lets the ball hit him. This is good that he doesn't go to the ground early but he doesn't try to redirect it any certain way. He throws his body up (not the vomit kind) and the inside of his left palm catches the ball. With his arm going up but only catching a side of the ball, the ball bounces down with a weird spin and ends back at the striker. If Howard moves his arms out on the contact instead of up, maybe there isn't a second chance.

6. Ukraine - March 5, 2014 - Howard loses his balance because he is leaning back so far. He gets up to make a big save. However the ball hits his palms again and spins back into his body, deflecting off his thigh and returning back to the shooter for a second time in one day. The shot is hit hard so I'm going to give his palms a break on this one. But right after making a stellar save he wildly kick at the second shot. Skip to 0:34 in the video to see the angle perfectly. If he just stands up he blocks the second shot Instead he gives a huge gap between his feet for the ball to roll under.

 As the ball passes Howard.

So how do we rate Howard on the Ukraine game? (First, take a moment to be thankful you are in a country that allows you to post whatever player ratings you want on the internet.) It should be positive but with caveats that Howard could have been better. I realize these six situations are spread out over a year and a half but I think the idea holds some weight. Howard is very good at getting to the ball, there is no doubt about that, but in certain spots it appears he is not thinking a step ahead to avoid more catastrophe, like he is more intent on predicting the play than reacting to it.