Barcelona – though nobody knew it at the time, bar the collective fates of the universe – were on their way to a historic comeback, the kind of Champions League night where people truly, truly regret having switched off/gone for a walk/made a cup of tea with ten minutes left.
Just minutes after scoring a potentially vital away goal, Cavani was slotted through by Julian Draxler into the left half-space (what tactics wonks use as shorthand for ‘that space between the centre, ie the width of the goal or six-yard box, and the wings, ie the width outside of the eighteen-yard box’).
It was like the Uruguayan was in a bubble, Barcelona defenders a comfortable small number of yards away from him, just Marc-Andre ter-Stegen between him and goal. He was around 14 yards out, on an angle; he aimed a shot low, right-footed, for the far corner; ter-Stegen read it easily and saved with his left boot. The goal would have put PSG into a surely unassailable 6-3 aggregate lead, with the additional psychological blow to Barcelona of conceding a double whammy which would have taken their on-the-day lead down from 3-0 to 3-2.
It played into the narrative of Cavani as Bottler-in-Chief. But what is a bottler?
Stattos have fought online about the Cavani Conundrum since the dawn of time. The argument largely consists of saying that Cavani performs about as well as other top strikers do, if not quite as well as top, top strikers.
For example: in the most recent 3 seasons, Lionel Messi has scored 0.72 (2013/14), 1.04, and 0.66 league goals per 90 minutes in the penalty area. Cavani – not actually all that far off – scored 0.59, 0.6, 0.7. I’m counting the penalty area only because, well, it’s only what happens inside the box that makes a striker a bottler.
But if Cavani scores a decent amount, does he miss a ton of chances? Well, Messi’s penalty area conversion rates for those years were 18%, 29%, and 20%; Cavani’s were 20%, 19%, and 24%. Astonishingly, Cavani is within a decent distance of the One True Footballing God, albeit in a marginally lower quality league (the lesser quality team-mates balancing things out a little).
I’ll level with you though, these kind of stats aren’t going to properly tackle whether Cavani – or anyone for that matter – is a bottler or not. Bottling requires a specific set of circumstances, and one which the footballing public may not have given the thought that this psychological phenomenon deserves. It’s the kind of easiness of situation which allows overthinking to occur, a tightening of muscles in the nervy awkwardness of one who feels they’re under pressure.
This is why I propose Thompson’s Laws of Bottling:
- The relative balance of probability must be in one’s favour
- One must be aware of the favourable balance of probability
- One must perform worse than expected in the given scenario: a failure is not a bottle if the opponent performs a feat of an unreasonably superhuman nature
Handily, the internet is a place where compilations of players missing chances exist, and there is one for Cavani for the 2016/17 season (posted, it is worthy to note) in September.
It starts off with a miss against Arsenal in the Champions League. A through-ball is attempted but the man covering Cavani’s run slides to intercept – unfortunately, this manages to take it straight into the striker’s path. He just gets there before the onrushing Ospina on the edge of the box, taking it onto his left foot where he shoots wide of the near post.
While Cavani must have been aware of the quality of the situation (Thompson’s Second Law of Bottling), and performed worse than expected (3), it’s arguable whether the balance of probability was really in his favour. He was on his weaker foot, hitting a ball that was moving quickly away from goal across his body, from about seventeen yards out. This is not a bottle, or at least not a cast iron one.
The second clip fulfils none of Thompson’s Laws, but the third – a miss against Chelsea – ticks all of them.
Finally, there is a controversial one, featuring Cavani for Uruguay rather than PSG. Receiving the ball just inside the box, he dribbles sidewards to take him around a slightly wrong-footed defender, a clear path between him and goal now open just a yard away from the penalty spot. He fires wide.
While the balance of probability (1) may not have been completely in his favour – he was under some pressure, moving at speed, with a keeper in the way – his dismal missing of the entire frame of the goal falls far short of expectations (3) in this situation. He would likely have been aware of having such a good opportunity (2) and so, on balance, this qualifies a bottle according to Thompson’s Laws, though I recognise that this may be a debatable claim.
There is a key factor missing from Thompson’s Laws so far, though, which is what a player does in truly big matches – ‘Gonzalo Higuain misses in three finals with Argentina’ pops up when one searches ‘football bottler’. For the record, three (including a skied penalty) were definite bottles, one in the Copa America may have been intended as a pass, and so is open to debate.
Given this collection of individual bottles, it may lend support for calling Higuain a big-time bottler, but what if he’d never got into those positions at all – what if he’d been intimidated by the occasion, bottled it, and just hidden from view for the entire 90 minutes? The Laws would need to be altered to be applied to teams too, as otherwise any time a big side lost to a lesser side would likely be classed as a bottle.
Further research is clearly required within the field, but for the moment let’s return to Cavani. His chance against Barcelona was a bottle. His choice to shoot happens too early, from too wide an angle, and is broadcasted in his body shape far too much. It’s not so much the fact that ter-Stegen saved the shot, but that Cavani made it so easy for him that makes this a case of performing worse than expectations in a good opportunity.
But exactly 127 seconds earlier he scored a goal at a big moment. The ball fell back to him from a cushioned header, taking long enough to be aware of the situation (2), seeming to suggest that this is counter-evidence to the Cavani as Bottler-in-Chief theory. However, it would be a stretch to say that the balance of probability was in his favour, the ball almost at knee-height as he connects with it and with Gerard Pique diving in front of him.
Head over the ball, right foot snapping out and back down like a viper, his eventual-meaningless goal was the work of a great striker – but it isn’t an example of a non-bottle. Until further evidence is put forward, the Cavani as Bottler-in-Chief theory is on top.
Postscript: For the stattos out there who will come to read this piece, Expected Goals is not a reasonable tool for measuring Thompson’s First Law of Bottling. The samples will, naturally, include a hell of a lot of bottles in them, and, I posit, your values would be higher if no-one was a bottler. But that’s a footballing philosophical discussion for another time.