Emiliano Martinez’s starring role for Argentina: the spread saves, the penalties and the mind games


In psychology, the butterfly effect describes how small, seemingly insignificant moments can have huge, unforeseen long-term effects.

A butterfly flapping its wings and causing a typhoon is an example. As is Brighton striker Neal Maupay accidentally injuring Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno in June 2020 as the Premier League played out Project Restart after three months of pandemic lockdown.

That paved the way for Emiliano Martinez, who had been at the club for a decade but made only six league appearances, to become part of Arsenal’s starting XI and end up, 911 days later, lifting the World Cup with Argentina last night. He was central to not only that team which squeezed past France on penalties but also the side that won last summer’s Copa America in Brazil, winning the Golden Glove — the award for best goalkeeper — at both tournaments.

So, what does Martinez bring to Argentina?

The spread

Big players are made by big moments. With the World Cup final deep into stoppage time, an Argentina error defending a long ball gave Randal Kolo Muani a chance to grab victory for France…

By holding his position, Martinez forces Kolo Muani to either go over him (curved black arrow) or beat him for power and go through Martinez (white arrow), not rushing out meant he was unable to be dribbled round either.

As analysed by John Muller using John Harrison’s model in March, goalkeepers should “wait and react” in one-versus-one scenarios when the shooter is closer to the edge of the box.

The France forward opts to shoot through Martinez — the pressure cooker of injury time and a World Cup final means players must rush their decisions even more than usual, but Martinez spreads himself incredibly well and fully extends his left leg to keep out the shot.

In a starfish-like spread that increases his surface area and maximises his chances of touching the ball, he can get a big surface (left-foot instep) onto the ball to deflect it away from goal and prevent a rebound or corner. It was one of the saves of the tournament.

In the round of 16 against Australia, Martinez made a similar spread save in second-half injury time.

Argentina fail to defend the cross and the ball drops to Garang Kuol at the back post…

… as Kuol swivels to control the ball, Martinez steps out to close the angle.

Again this narrows the finishing options to: one — chipped finish (black arrow), two — high finish into the near post (white arrow), or a finish through Martinez (red arrow).

Under pressure, Kuol fires straight at Martinez. The Argentina No 1 repeatedly forces opponents to make the least optimal decisions by narrowing their options and rushing them to execute.

You may have heard the goalkeeping term “make yourself big” before — Martinez’s use of the spread against Kolo Muani and Kuol are perfect examples of that phenomenon.

When it’s impossible to predict the direction of the strike, the goalkeeper covers as much of the goal as possible by moving forward quickly, and keeping their legs, arms and head between the ball and the middle of the goal.

This should not only decrease the area of the goal for a player to shoot past them, but should also decrease the saving area for the keeper, as well.

His consistency to perform in big moments is borne out statistically — head coach Lionel Scaloni had played seven different goalkeepers in his first 49 games in charge before settling on Martinez.

Including the World Cup final, Martinez has kept 17 clean sheets and conceded just 13 goals (excluding penalty shootouts) in 26 appearances.

The penalty shootout

In penalty shootouts Martinez is notably aggressive and disruptive to put pressure on the taker and encourage hesitation. And as we’ve seen time and again in recent years, it works — academic research shows that the longer players are forced to wait to take a penalty, the more likely they are to miss.

For every France penalty, Martinez came all the way to the penalty spot and was presumably engaging in some verbal warfare — the referee had to force him back and Martinez was eventually booked for his antics and delay tactics.

“We’d have conversations about what you can do to maximise your chances (against penalties),” said former Aston Villa goalkeeper coach Neil Cutler when speaking to The Athletic about the Argentine in November.

“The plan, whoever took the penalty, was to get into their head.”

Martinez has routinely been disruptive, loud and effective for Argentina in his three international penalty shoot-outs. Firstly against Colombia in last summer’s Copa America, after which Lionel Messi called him a “phenomenon”, and in the quarter-finals of this World Cup in the win over the Netherlands.

Cutler stressed how central this is to Martinez performing at his peak.

“He’s so emotional, he’s driven, he’s typical South American. He’s so driven to win and improve every day. The point you need to get Emi to is when his confidence is verging on arrogance. I don’t like to see Emi play dull.”

And in terms of technical ability, Martinez’s detail is fantastic.

His size (6ft 4in) means he does not need to dive early and usually Martinez makes his move as the opponent takes their penultimate step, not giving them time to change their mind.

But when he dives, Martinez puts his body weight initially through the opposite leg to the side he is diving — see below his left leg when diving to the right for Coman’s penalty…

… but then initiates a power step, pushing off from the leg of the side he is diving to — in this case his right leg — to generate extra power across the goal, but also propel him forward and closer to the ball.

This power and smart footwork helps Martinez consistently save penalties on either side and ensures he keeps one foot over the line as the ball is kicked to stay within the laws.

His reaction to saving Coman’s penalty — France’s second — would make you think Argentina had won the shootout. Fist pumps, kissing the shirt.

Perhaps he has read the academic literature that finds celebrations for saving/scoring penalties is linked to increased team success in shootouts.

Then, when it was Aurelien Tchouameni’s turn, Martinez took the ball from the young France midfielder and threw it away from him at the final moment, delaying the kick and disrupting his routine.

It is marginal but there were no such antics from Hugo Lloris when Argentina took their penalties, and the France captain made no attempt to secure the ball for his team-mates before they stepped up to take their spot-kicks.

Martinez went the right way again — he guessed correctly for three of France’s four penalties — but did not need to make the save as Tchouameni dragged the shot wide. If the goalkeeping was David Seaman then the dancing was David Brent.

“There could not have been a World Cup that I have dreamed of like this. I was calm during the penalties,” said Martinez after the game. These celebrations are not a reflection of emotional uncontrollability; they are all part of his mind games.

On their own, these actions, behaviours and details seem small but add them together and they make a big difference.

In Martinez’s three penalty shootouts for Argentina, opponents have scored only seven times from 14 attempts, a conversion rate of 50 per cent.

Martinez has made a save against at least one of the first two takers in the three shootouts too.

Martinez — WC and Copa America penalties

Opponent Player Outcome

Kylian Mbappe


Kingsley Coman


Aurelien Tchouameni


Randal Kolo Muani


Virgil van Dijk


Steven Berghuis


Teun Koopmeiners


Wout Weghorst


Luuk de Jong


Juan Cuadrado


Davinson Sanchez


Yerry Mina


Miguel Borja


Edwin Cardona



Dealing with aerial balls is challenging because it involves almost every single attribute of goalkeeping — a combination of timing, technique and confidence, but making the right decisions at exactly the right times is equally important.

You only have a split second to decide whether you stay or go and must make your move (or not) as soon as the cross is kicked. Then you have to judge the trajectory of the ball and be aware of where players are located, before finding a route to catch it at the highest point possible. All with bodies in the way.

It makes this particularly difficult to do at set pieces.

Argentina’s zonal line of three provides aerial cover but also leaves space for Martinez to have a clear run at the ball…

… so that he can claim without pressure…

… and immediately launch a counter-attack.

Martinez’s confidence is evident in how he handles long, lofted balls from deep with total domination. He takes an aggressive starting position a few yards from his line and isn’t afraid to come and challenge for the ball anywhere in his box.

See his take against Croatia, starting on the edge of the six-yard box before claiming the ball almost 12 yards from goal…

… Martinez is incredibly effective at claiming the ball at the highest point of his jump, getting well above the heads of defenders and opponents to take the ball cleanly.

He cleverly takes short steps to reposition and prepare as the cross is delivered, before making big strides to attack the cross at pace…

… and then laying on it to kill time.

“I’m not being funny but no-one catches more balls than me from open play,” Martinez told The Athletic in February 2021.

The 30-year-old is almost spot on. His 11 crosses stopped and 16.4 per cent rate of stopping crosses were the most of any goalkeeper in the 2021 Copa America and his 15.7 per cent stop rate was the third-most of any 2022 World Cup goalkeeper.

His take against the Netherlands was pure Martinez — the timing of his exit, claiming at the highest point despite pressure from the opposition No 9 Luuk de Jong

… before squaring up to him.

Former Arsenal goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton said he is a “natural” at defending crosses and former Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme described the World Cup-winner as “really good” when defending his box.

A goalkeeper’s size and reach can give them an advantage when dealing with high balls, but more important than any physical trait is positioning. Martinez has both.

Proper positioning allows the goalkeeper to extend their range and minimise the distance between themselves and their defenders, which helps clarify the decision of when to come versus when to stay closer to your line. It helps with your timing and being able to attack the ball at its highest point.

Martinez has great hands, exceptional footwork and timing, and unwavering bravery when balls are pumped into the box. His aerial ability gives confidence to the defence because they know that any pass in and around the box belongs to him and he can  bail them out.

He was crucial to Argentina throughout their World Cup campaign, both in open play and at set pieces.

(Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images)


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