“This does not fucking slip now!” Liverpool captain Gerrard encouraged his teammates after a dramatic win against fellow title contender Manchester City. “Listen! Listen! This is gone! We go to Norwich, exactly the same!” he continued his team talk, huddled in the middle of Anfield pitch as City players walking in the direction of the tunnel that leads to the dressing room, heads down.
Seven days later, they went to Norwich and did exactly the same. They did not slip, for what was shown in the scoring board was the same as in the match against City. Liverpool were getting closer to the title they’ve never won; the Premier League. They did win the top flight eighteen times, but in the Premier League era they have spent most of their time watching as their fierce rival Manchester United lift the prestigious trophy and brag it every now and then.
After adding another three points to their tally, Reds’ quest continued with a home match against another title adversary Chelsea FC. Facing a relatively weak Chelsea starting eleven, a win was always on sight. Chelsea’s concentration was on the Champions League in midweek, so adding another three points was never a job too difficult to do for Brendan Rodgers’ men. Not until they have a mountain to climb after Steven Gerrard slipped and let Chelsea’s Demba Ba run with the ball towards his opposition’s goal without facing any significant challenge from anyone in a red shirt. Not even Gerrard whose mistake made Ba have Simon Mignolet at his mercy.
Ba slotted the ball between poor Mignolet’s feet perfectly. Trailing by one goal was never seem to be a problem for prolific Liverpool side, but the way Chelsea defended that day made scoring one goal a huge task even for Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, the ones who occupied first and second place in the Premier League’s scoring chart. In the hunt for an equalizer, Liverpool was being left behind even further. Their former golden boy Fernando Torres helped Willian to score Chelsea’s second that day.
At the end of the day, it was Liverpool 0, Chelsea 2. They slipped because their captain slipped, literally. The man who urged his teammates not to slip, experienced a slip that could cost Liverpool a Barclays Premier League trophy. Gerrard held his head down, very likely having a regret about his mistake. Chances were, Terry was trying to say “I know that feeling, Steve” to Gerrard himself. He couldn’t because he wasn’t a part of the win. But I’m pretty sure he was celebrating.
The slip that cost Chelsea a Champions League trophy
It was May 21st, 2008 at Luzhniki Stadium located in Moscow, Russia. John George Terry was standing three steps behind the penalty spot, and Edwin van der Sar was guarding the goal for Manchester United. Both of them had more than sixty-seven thousand people watching their every move in the stadium alone.
The Adidas Finale Moscow was lying between those two, right on the said spot. Successfully putting that red-and-gold round thing past van der Sar and into the back of the net would make Terry a hero, landing the Big Ears at Stamford Bridge for the first time. He stepped forward confidently, but slipped as he kicked the ball. He did send van der Sar diving to the wrong direction, but the ball hit the post and no goal was scored. Terry had failed Chelsea.
No. The slip that happened to Terry had failed Chelsea.
One could argue that had Terry hit the ball with power to his left rather than placing it to his right, he would have hit the ball perfectly. The chance of slipping would have been reduced, and the goal would have been scored. That, however, was never a choice against van der Sar. Avram Grant knew it.
Thanks to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics, I know that Terry wasn’t placing the ball in the wrong spot. He did exactly what was asked by Grant. Mr. Kuper and Mr. Szymanski believed that a friend of Grant, an Israeli professor who is also a friend of a Basque economist named Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, gave a secret about winning a penalty shootout against United to Grant. There were four points in this secret, according to Soccernomics;
- Van der Sar tended to dive to the kicker’s “natural side” more often than most keepers did. This meant that when facing a right-footed kicker, Van der Sar would usually dive to his own right, and when facing a left-footed kicker, to his own left. So Chelsea right-footed penalty takers would have a better chance if they shot to their “unnatural side,” Van der Sar’s left.
- Huerta emphasized in his report that “the vast majority of the penalties that Van der Sar stops are those kicked to a mid-height (say, between 1 and 1.5 meters), and hence that penalties against him should be kicked just on the ground or high up.”
- Cristiano Ronaldo was another special case. Ignacio wrote in the report: “Ronaldo often stops in the run-up to the ball. If he stops, he is likely (85%) to kick to the right hand side of the goalkeeper.” Ignacio added that Ronaldo seemed able to change his mind about where to put the ball at the very last instant. That meant it was crucial for the opposing keeper not to move early. When a keeper moved early, Ronaldo always scored.
- The team that wins the toss before the shoot-out gets to choose whether to go first. But this is a no-brainer: it should always go first. Teams going first win 60 percent of the time, presumably because there is too much pressure on the team going second, which is always having to score to save the game.
Here’s how the slip that cost Chelsea a Champions League trophy happened: Rio Ferdinand won the coin toss and Terry tried to convince him to let Chelsea go first. But Ferdinand decided that his team kicked first.
So United went first. Carlos Tévez sent Petr Čech the wrong way and scored via a low kick to Čech’s left. Chelsea’s first taker, Michael Ballack, hit the ball to van der Sar’s left, and even though the Dutch goalkeeper’s guess was right, he could not stop Ballack from scoring. United 1, Chelsea 1.
Next up was Michael Carrick. For the second time that day, Čech dived to the wrong direction. Chelsea’s second taker was Brazilian defender Juliano Belletti, who is right-footed. He hit the ball low to van der Sar’s left, obeying two orders from Grant. The score was level, 2-2.
Third time asking, Čech did the right thing. Against Cristiano Ronaldo who stopped midway through his run to the ball, Čech did not move for he knew that Ronaldo would score if he moved. And knowing that Ronaldo would almost certainly hit the ball to goalie’s right if he stopped midway through the run, Čech dived right and saved the penalty. Frank Lampard did his job well to put Chelsea in a better position. Being right-footed, he kicked the ball to van der Sar’s left and scored, even though the keeper managed to guess it right. United 2, Chelsea 3.
Čech made a right guess again to Owen Hargreaves’ penalty. Unluckily, Hargreaves hit the ball so well Čech could not save it. After Hargreaves came Ashley Cole, the first left-footed taker of the day. Cole ignored the order and shot the ball to van der Sar’s left. What makes it worse was the fact that Cole did not put the ball up high, nor did he put the ball down low. Van der Sar did touch the ball but the kick was so strong the ball went in. United 3, Chelsea 4.
A millisecond before United’s last taker took his chance, Čech pointed to his right, trying to convince Nani to kick the ball to the direction he wanted. Nani kicked the ball to the direction Čech wanted, but the ball went in. Čech’s attempt to become a hero failed, and the responsibility was automatically transferred to Terry. As we know it, Terry slipped. And the rest was history. Or, let me give you one of my favorite parts in Soccernomics:
So far, Ignacio’s advice had worked very well. Much as the economist had predicted, Van der Sar had dived to his natural side four times out of six. He hadn’t saved a single penalty. Five of Chelsea’s six kicks had gone in, while Terry’s, as the whole world knows, flew out off the post with Van der Sar in the wrong corner.
But after six kicks, Van der Sar, or someone else at Manchester United, figured out that Chelsea was pursuing a strategy. Admittedly, the keeper didn’t quite get its strategy right. Wrongly but understandably, he seems to have decided that Chelsea’s strategy was to put all the kicks to his left. After all, that’s where every kick he had faced up to that point had gone.
As Anelka prepared to take Chelsea’s seventh penalty, the gangling keeper, standing on the goal line, extended his arms to either side of him.
Then, in what must have been a chilling moment for Anelka, the Dutchman pointed with his left hand to the left corner. “That’s where you’re all putting it, isn’t it?” he seemed to be saying. (This is where books fall short as a medium. We urge you to watch the shoot-out on YouTube.)
Now Anelka had a terrible dilemma. This was game theory in its rawest form. United had come pretty close to divining Chelsea’s strategy: Ignacio had indeed advised right-footed kickers like Anelka to put the ball to Van der Sar’s left side.
So Anelka knew that Van der Sar knew that Anelka knew that Van der Sar tended to dive right against right-footers. What was Anelka to do? He decided to avoid the left corner, where he had presumably planned to put the ball. Instead, he kicked to Van der Sar’s right. That might have been fine, except that he hit the ball at mid-height—exactly the level that Ignacio had warned against. Watching the kick on TV, Ignacio was “very upset.” Perhaps Anelka was at sea because Van der Sar had pressured him to change his plans at the last moment. Van der Sar saved the shot. Alex Ferguson said afterward, “That wasn’t an accident, his penalty save. We knew exactly where certain players were putting the ball.” Anelka’s decision to ignore Ignacio’s advice probably cost Chelsea the Champions League.
Nicolas Anelka’s failure to beat van der Sar in the sudden death cost Chelsea a Champions League trophy, according to Soccernomics and maybe some of you. To me, it was Terry’s slip that crowned United the European champion.
Bad news for Liverpool faithful: what happened to Terry could happen to Gerrard
It was true that Gerrard’s slip helped Chelsea snatch an important win. The win made sure that Liverpool was no longer in a comfortable situation. Chelsea moved closer to the top, trailing with two points while City was three points behind with one game in their hand. The pressure is on Liverpool now and there’s huge chance that City or even Chelsea can finish the season on top, dramatically. If it happens, then Gerrard’s slip is one of the reason why Liverpool failed to crown themselves a Premier League champion.
Should we blame Gerrard for the slip?
Brendan Rodgers decided not to blame his captain. “Steven is a boy who has picked up this club many times and it was just unfortunate because he slipped at a crucial moment and it was right on half-time,” said Rodgers as quoted by Metro. “There’s certainly no blame because we are in the position we are in now because of him; he’s been instrumental for us this season.”
But should we blame Gerrard for the slip? Should we blame him for his slip?
Well, in Terry’s case, we can blame him. But Gerrard’s was different. Mostly because he still has the chance to make it right, while Terry did not have such luxury. There is still two games left for him, and for Liverpool. There is still an away trip to Crystal Palace and home match against Newcastle United in the last day of the season. Should they take six points from these matches, they don’t need to worry about Chelsea’s win against Norwich City and Cardiff City. Therefore we don’t need to blame poor Steven George Gerrard for his slip.
But wait! There’s more
City have three games remaining; against Everton at Goodison Park followed by double home-fixture against Aston Villa and West Ham United. It is nine points for City to take. Should they win them all, they will be level on points with Liverpool. Who will be the champion, then? If the goal difference remains the same, then City will replicate the way they broke Manchester United’s heart in 2012.
If that happens, should we blame Gerrard?