Howler’s resident goalkeeper explains why Buffon’s Champions League save was so impressive
In the first half of the Juventus-Barcelona match, we saw Andrés Iniesta with a clear chance to tie the game up at 1–1 only to be denied by the big left paw of Gianluigi Buffon. Minutes later, Paulo Dybala would score his second goal of the night to give Juventus the 2–0 lead.
The save, while maybe not as spectacular looking as a top-corner, full extension save, was, in my opinion, much more difficult of a save to make. Let me break down for you how Buffon managed to shut down Iniesta and why I feel the difficulty level on this save was a 10 out of 10.
In the 21st minute Lionel Messi found himself in the middle of the pitch with the ball at his feet—a terrifying sight for Juventus. Naturally when you give Messi that much time on the ball, your eyes as a defender are drawn to him. This is where Messi is most comfortable because all the eyes of the defenders are on him and this allows his teammates to make runs in the spaces between the defense, just as Iniesta does here to the Juventus backline.
Messi sees Iniesta take off on a streaking run on the outside shoulder of Dani Alves and manages to spray a pass along the ground in between Alves and Giorgio Chiellini. Because both their eyes are on Messi, they temporarily forget about Iniesta, which gives Barcelona the advantage here.
As the ball makes its way to Iniesta, Buffon is watching the play unfold and is already anticipating Iniesta’s next move. As a goalkeeper, you are always expecting the worst case scenario. This allows you to anticipate the play before it happens so you can make the difference between making a save and letting in a goal. The best goalkeepers in the world are proactive goalkeepers instead of reactive. Buffon is probably the best proactive goalkeeper of the last 20 years and that has afforded him the ability to consistently play at such a high level as he approaches his 40th birthday.
Here Buffon notices quite early that Iniesta will receive the ball in space and that this will create a 1-v-1 situation in front of him. As Messi plays the ball, Buffon immediately takes off to close the angle on Iniesta. Buffon must judge the pace of the pass, the space in between him and Iniesta, and whether Iniesta will have any pressure on him from a defender (all as quickly as possible, mind you), while keeping an eye on the ball. In this situation, Buffon knows Iniesta will find himself in space with no defenders in sight. This tells Buffon that he must close the angle as fast as possible on Iniesta. If he has a defender covering Iniesta, he can afford to stay a bit closer to his line because he will have to help close the angle on the attacker. But here he isn’t afforded this luxury and must take matters into his own hands.
As Buffon is closing the angle as fast as he can, he is trying to time Iniesta’s touch. In a perfect world Buffon wants to get set before Iniesta shoots, because this allows him the benefit of being able to push off and react towards either post to make the save. As Buffon is closing the angle, Iniesta keeps one eye on the ball and the other on the spacing in between him and Buffon, all while trying to time his shot. It’s a skill that Iniesta makes look easy but most certainly is not. Iniesta knows he won’t have much time for two touches (well, he does have time for two touches but knows if he does so his chances of finishing past a goalkeeper of Buffon’s quality will diminish), so instead he tries to catch Buffon mid-step (and before he gets set), and shoots one touch towards the far post.
I believe Buffon initially expects Iniesta to take two touches. The reason I think this is because he never gets completely set before Iniesta shoots. A goalkeeper of Buffon’s quality doesn’t make this mistake purposely. However, in a 1-v-1 situation against one of the smartest players in the world, you can understand how this can happen. Therefore, Buffon must be ready for anything—and ready to improvise—just as he does here. Iniesta elects to shoot first time towards the back post and just as he squares his body and brings his leg back, Buffon realizes this. Buffon doesn’t have time to use what he has been taught to make the save and instead relies on the instincts and skill he’s amassed over 1,000+ career games to make the save. All in a split second he manages to change the momentum of his body (that is taking him towards his near post) and stick out his left hand back towards the far post (all without getting completely set) to push the ball to safety. Breathtaking save!
In this situation most goalkeepers elect to go down early towards the near post, trying to smother the ball at the feet of the attacker. However, if you do this you expose your far post, limit your chances of making the save, and open yourself up to the possibility of drawing a penalty if you get your timing wrong. Instead, it’s best to stay big with your body frame (wide arms, narrow legs, while keeping your head and chest square to the ball), while closing down the angle to give yourself the best chance to stick out an extremity to make the save, just as Buffon does here.
The thing about this save is Buffon makes this all look easy and almost effortless. For Buffon to be able to change his direction as quickly as he did while running full speed towards his near post, in addition to sticking out an arm and having the wrist strength to push the ball around the far post almost defies logic and what we are taught as goalkeepers (we want to get set before the shot in order to make the save). Yet, here, Buffon managed to perform a minor miracle and push the ball around the post and out for a corner kick while preserving the clean sheet for Juventus.
This is the perfect example of where a save from a goalkeeper can be just as important and impactful as a striker scoring a goal for his team. If Iniesta scores here, the game immediately tightens up and gives Barcelona new energy and life in the match, while swinging the momentum in their favor. On any other day, this probably happens. But today, Buffon happened and Juventus walked away with a 3–0 victory at home in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.