With such a wealth of riches in terms of pinpoint kickers it is entirely unsurprising that teams began to use their goalkeepers to take long range frees and 45s. Ever since Cluxton’s high-water mark moment in 2011, when his late free from long range sealed Dublin’s first All-Ireland final victory since 1995, the flood gates have opened for free-taking goalkeepers. Tyrone, Mayo, Roscommon, Kerry and Kildare, among others, have all used a free-taking goalkeeper over the last number of years at various stages of the league and championship, to varying degrees of success. Indeed it’s possible that peak free-taking goalkeeper was reached this season when Cavan dropped their long-term Number.1 for a wing forward Raymond Galligan, who had never played a game in goal due to his free-taking ability. As the cult of the goalkeeper grows however it seems as though teams are missing a trick in terms of picking up easy scores, which can be so vital in tight championship matches.
This brings us back to the game theory part. When the goalkeeper trots up the field to take a free the defence can take a moment to breathe and reset themselves. They know that the ‘keeper is coming up the field to have a shot at goal. This is a particularly useful piece of information to have, one which changes the behaviour of the defending team considerably. Knowing that they are about to be confronted with a direct shot on the posts the defence can afford to drop an extra man or two back to crowd up the area around the goalmouth and snaffle up any free which drops short of the target. Knowing, as they do, that the ‘keeper is going to have a direct shot at the posts the defending team have nothing to lose by failing to mark space out the field and everything to gain by using the extra man or two to prevent forwards winning frees dropping short and scoring goals as a result, particularly during the closing stages of a tight game when conceding a goal would be disastrous.
The entire situation is highly reminiscent of the study of the behaviour of two firms who hold a competitive advantage over one another. Both, therefore, have what is known in game theory as a dominant strategy to utilise their competitive advantage and maximise their return. However, if both do so neither will maximise profit. As such, if a firm wishes to maximise their return they must not only engage in their dominant strategy but also deter their competitor from engaging in theirs. They must send a credible, understandable signal to their competitor that they are going ahead with this specific course of action and to challenge them on it is to invite ruin upon oneself via, for example, a costly price war. There are countless examples of this form of signalling one could think up but perhaps one of the most dramatic and easily understood is the decision of Christopher Columbus to burn the Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria on arrival in the “New World”, a clear “Death or Glory” message to his men. There would be no turning back. Adapt or die.
Bringing up the goalkeeper is, in effect, a similar form of signalling. In doing so Team A announces to Team B that they’ll be having a shot now, no need to stand a man near the kicker to prevent a short free being taken, thank you very much! Taking this signal to be credible the defending team duly oblige, dropping men back to protect the area in front of goal. This, of course, creates a huge amount of space for the attacking team to exploit. A savvy manager should see the potential to play the free short to an unmarked forward in acres of space giving him a free shot at the posts from an easier location with no pressure being exerted on him from any member of the opposing team. While this may be only a feasible option once a game, or indeed once or twice ever as teams cotton on to the possibility, the choice to exploit this inefficiency could be something which is the difference between championship glory or dejection.
Indeed, returning to our poster boy of free-taking goalkeepers, Stephen Cluxton, a recent example can highlight the point being made here. Falling from a high of 12 points in the 2013 season Cluxton has yet to score in this year’s championship. As recently as last Sunday, in the semi-final versus Mayo, he had three attempts on goal in the closing stages all of which sailed wide of the target. In the end the match turned out to be a draw. What if Cluxton, realising that Mayo expected him to shoot on every occasion, had slipped the ball to sharpshooters Bernard Brogan or Diarmuid Connolly, before he received his marching order, and they had duly swung the ball over the bar? It is something that can be seen with relatively high frequency in games of all levels when a snoozing defence neglects to mark a runner and a free taken short is popped over for a handy, cheap score. It is amazing to think teams pass up on this sort of opportunity, enhanced by the signal of a direct shot coming from the goalkeeper’s presence, with impunity. Dublin would now be preparing for another All-Ireland final had they exploited a glaring opportunity created by their own actions. In the event of the ploy failing they would have been no worse off, given the 0% return they have come to expect from Cluxton’s shots at goal this season. Of course it is disingenuous to suggest that Cluxton’s lifetime expected points per shot is zero but, given the lack of comprehensive statistics on the success rate of goalkeeper frees, one is left to wonder whether teams are missing a chance to add to their points tally relatively easily in a game where defences now rule the roost and scoring is at a premium.