The best save of Euro 2024? Analysis of Mert Gunok’s 95th-minute heroics against Austria

Matt Pyzdrowski is a coach and former goalkeeper who played professionally in the United States and Sweden. He is a goalkeeper analyst for The Athletics.

With Turkey still leading 2-1 deep into second-half injury time last night and Austria desperately seeking an equaliser, Turkish goalkeeper Mert Gunok produced the best save of the tournament, miraculously stopping Christoph Baumgartner’s close-range strike to secure his country a place in the last eight of Euro 2024.

It was an incredible save, reminiscent of Gordon Banks’ iconic save on Pele for England against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup. And I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.

The way Gunok returned to goal on a rainy evening and stopped the bouncing ball on a soaking wet surface at such a crucial moment was sensational.

There is a level of instinctive awareness in Gunok’s save that can only be built through hours of consistent work. The movements and interactions he makes when he throws himself at the ball can only be done thanks to the countless hours he has put in on the training field; the result of putting himself in the right place at exactly the right time, time and time again. This save did not happen by accident.

With the ball high in the air, Gunok first turned his body and then took three quick shuffling steps over his goal, keeping his head and eyes on the ball above him. This was important because it helped him judge its flight and trajectory in a split second, while also predicting its ultimate destination. If he had hesitated for even a moment, it would have been a goal that would have sent the ball into overtime.

It didn’t take long for Gunok to realise that the first looping ball wasn’t one he could claim in the air and he quickly scanned the area ahead of him and spotted Baumgartner all alone at the back post. With the ball still in the air above him, Gunok decided to avert his eyes and focus on Baumgartner’s expected point of impact.

It may sound strange for a goalkeeper to take his eyes off the incoming ball, but it is a major reason why Gunok was able to make this save.

By anticipating the point of impact, he was able to see the ball throughout its flight, keep his feet in almost constant contact with the ground, and time his approach perfectly, helping him to be ready at exactly the right moment to influence the play. If Gunok had kept his eyes on the ball and tried to react to the shot after impact, it is unlikely he would have been able to reach the ball in time, even with his great reflexes.

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The information in front of him (the speed of the cross, the bouncing ball, Baumgartner’s body shape) told him that the ball would likely come back the way it came. Given his limited reaction time, Gunok resorted to using a smaller step (instead of a more traditional forward step) because he no longer had the time or distance to take a larger step to the right. Instead, he had to tuck his right foot under himself, pushing off primarily with his outside (left) foot toward the ball.

As the ball headed towards goal, Gunok pulled his right leg under him and launched himself explosively to his right with all his strength, using every inch of his 196 cm (6 ft 5 in) frame, and pushed the ball wide of the post. His ability to momentarily gather his feet under him at the last moment helped him organize his footwork at a crucial moment and anticipate the ball back across his goal to make a breathtaking save.

What made it even more difficult for Gunok at that moment was the way the ball bounced towards the goal.

When a ball bounces in front of you, you are no longer dealing with a ball that has a predictable path to the goal, but with a ball that can change direction and vary in height after that bounce. It is at times like this that a keeper typically has to make two movements, which is a major reason why it is so difficult to save a bouncing shot or header, similar to Baumgartner’s. The keeper must first move down to react to the low shot, and then jump up as the ball bounces off the grass – all while simultaneously moving his body sideways and forwards to get behind the shot and cut it off.

Getting your timing right and building a solid barrier behind the ball can be hard enough when you’ve got the play down. It’s infinitely harder when the thing changes direction on its way to your goal. At times like these, the keeper’s focus and timing are paramount.

It’s hard to put into words how hard it is to get your back foot off as powerfully and quickly as Gunok did here to make the save. He simply had no business with that ball.

Gunok’s enthusiastic reaction after his save and the non-verbal reactions of the Austrian players after they failed to equalise say more than words could about how great it was.

Saves are a lot like goals: the consequences and the stage on which they occur determine their greatness.

If Gunok’s save last night comes at a different time in a few other games, it won’t be etched in history. The fact that it happened at the last moment, and could have made the difference between Turkey advancing to the quarter-finals or going out of the tournament, either in extra time or on penalties, makes it that much more special.

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(Photo: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images)

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