You probably saw this goal recently: Robin Van Persie of Arsenal beating Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes at his near post. Now this is a great example of the keeper getting it all wrong. Van Persie has almost no angle, and by positioning himself right at the near post, Valdes would have effectively nullified any threat to his goal. He could have stood there counting his money and medals, and the ball would have hit him and stayed out. Instead, possibly anticipating a cross, Valdes left a gap, and Van Persie exploited it.
Another example, this time from the normally reliable Iker Casillas, as he takes a step to his left, anticipating a cross, and can't recover fully, allowing Pipo Inzaghi, accidentally not offside for once, to nod home.
Goals like these give non-expert commentators a chance to repeat that old chestnut: a goalkeeper should never be beaten at his near post.
There are two main problems with this maxim. The first is that some shots, even at the near post, are simply unstoppable. This example from Fernando Torres demonstrates both this idea and the fact that Fernando Torres was once useful:
What makes a shot like that almost impossible to save is the combination of pace and height. If someone drills a shot under the bar from close range, even the world's best keepers are going to have an awfully hard time keeping it out.
Here's another example Liverpool fans will enjoy, very similar to the first:
Manuel Almunia is correctly positioned (pause the video at six seconds to check) and reacts as well as can be expected to the shot, but he's beaten by the pace and height. He took a lot of criticism for this goal, mostly unwarranted.
You could perhaps argue that what both Van der Sar and Almunia could have done a bit better is kept their weight forward and stood up a bit longer. But there's no guarantee that that would have made a blind bit of difference. Those were two well-hit shots that found vulnerable spots.
So are high shots simply more difficult to save than low shots? No, it's not that. Generally speaking, they're easier. The problem in these cases is the combination of height and angle from which the ball is struck. Even if Almunia or Van der Sar had managed to get a good strong hand to either shot, they likely would just have palmed the ball into the side netting. A keeper has to change the direction of a shot towards the near post by almost ninety degrees to keep it out, whereas merely the slightest of touches to an angled shot to the far post will send the ball harmlessly skittering toward the corner flag.
There certainly is a strong basis for the idea that a keeper must protect his near post. From an angle, it's the closest available target for a striker, so therefore should be eliminated. Make him beat you with a more difficult shot, goes the thinking. Also, as mentioned above, by making him shoot across you, you can keep it out with the slightest of touches. The problem with many pundits is their adherence to the idea that a keeper should never be beaten at the near post. As long as there is space for a football, some shots are going to find it no matter how well the keeper does.
Another way pundits misuse this maxim is by misunderstanding what "near post" actually means. In the examples above, Torres and N'Gog are both at fairly acute angles, so it's accurate to call the post closest to them the "near" post. But when the shot comes from a more central position, the idea of "near" and "far" post loses validity. Yes, one post might be marginally closer to the shooter, but if the angle isn't acute, the striker is going to have plenty of the goal to aim at on either side of the keeper. Here's a good example from Ji Sung Park of Manchester United, scoring an injury time winner against Wolves at Old Trafford. By the time he's done cutting in from the right and actually strikes the ball, he has reduced the angle such that he has plenty to aim at either side of Marcus Hahnemann.
So while the near-post maxim has validity, there are exceptions to the rule. Next week we'll take a look at the other big myth: the idea that keepers are "overprotected" by referees.