“Ye Olde Bricke Wall”: still a Goalkeeper’s best training tool?

“The point of training is to increase the speed at which one can be precise” – Cesar Menotti, Coach of the Argentina National Team that won the 1978 World Cup.

After the spring season, I invariable get questions from parents and players about how to use the summer break to improve a keepers’ skill. Which camps to attend, or referrals to local coaches who provide one-on-one training, since I do neither. Some parents who have the time, space and desire to do so, ask for drills suitable for the back yards.

I’m a strong opponent of giving young players a break from organized training activities in the off-season so they can rest and recover, both physically and mentally. There are some great camps and coaches providing great training (and a lot of not-so-great ones) but if a young player attends one of them during summer break, I would suggest at least a few weeks without any mandatory soccer events. However, this doesn’t mean that the child should not be playing soccer, just that there shouldn’t be a coach or parent looking over his shoulder, analyzing every move. (You know, like the rest of the world does it). In summer, a kid’s “social calendar” is not as filled up as it is during the school year, and with other kids around, it is one of the few times they are in a position to play some version of “street soccer”.

That alone would be good practice for a young goalkeeper. Just figuring things out on his or her own with friends, playing in small sided games or just have them take some shots.  But sometimes, a young keeper might want to practice some of the more technical facets of the position, at his own pace.  To that end, there is still no better training tool than that old stalwart:  the brick wall. My informal research on the subject has led me to the conclusion that building codes in much of the world, including Europe and South America require that any windowless brick wall must have a soccer goal painted on it, preferably with the outline of at least one ball, most often in the upper ninety.


The United States seems to be one of the exceptions, as a result of which the only young players using the brick wall to practice their skills appear to be lacrosse players. This is regrettable since a brick wall gives soccer players a great opportunity to practice their technique and skills. Many last-second, World Cup winning (over Germany, naturally) goals have been scored by young players all over the world, using nothing but a ball, a wall and their imagination. But keepers can use a wall to improve their technique and muscle memory as well, and win that same imaginary World Cup (against Germany, of course) with an amazing point-blank save in the 94th minute.

“Habit is the second nature of man. We need to create habits – not as much physical or technical as mental. And you do that by constant repetition”. – Tomislav Ivic, former coach of Ajax, Anderlecht, Hajduk Split, Panathinaikos and Porto, the only coach to win League titles in five different countries.

A good technique is rooted in proper mental preparation, which becomes second nature as a result of constant repetition. When preparing to save a shot, the mental preparation is the same every time: proper set position, proper shape, proper hand position. The more you practice this, the faster you can do this. A good coach can help a keeper correct deficiencies in the technique but he doesn’t have to be present all the time. Spending time by himself practicing will give the young keeper the opportunity to figure out things on his own.

The brick wall allows a keeper to get in an amount of repetitions they would be hard pressed to get in a training session, even a one-on-one session. In addition, they get to practice additional skills that might not get much attention during regular training sessions.

The simplest drill would be to kick or throw the ball against the wall and catch it. But in order to make a good catch, you also need a good shot: it needs to bounce against the wall with enough speed and direction to return to the keeper. So while the player is working on catching, he also works on his kicking and/or throwing. By adjusting the distance from the wall, a keeper can vary the difficultly level, challenging himself.

If the wall is wide enough, a keeper can practice his footwork by shuffling the length of the wall while throwing and catching the ball, either underhand or overhand.

Move back from the wall, and a keeper can practice his long throws (or even kicks, space permitting) and catching high balls by kicking or throwing the ball high against the wall, then coming forward and catching the ball at the highest point possible.

I wouldn’t recommend doing it when the surface next to the wall is a hard surface like cement or asphalt but if it is grass, there is no reason why a keeper couldn’t practice his smother save or diving techniques. A good way to get 120 touches in 5 minutes is for a keeper to sit in front of the wall and feed himself balls to both the left and right of him to catch while falling sideways concentrating on hand position (10 on the left, 10 on the right), followed by the same sequence while sitting on his knees, and then squatting. 20 shots straight at the wall and back for smother saves, another 20 (10 left and 10 right) thrown underhand for a collapse save, followed by full extension saves. It’s a natural progression which gives the keeper a lot of repetitions while simultaneously emphasizing the mental preparation underlying the proper execution of the required technique. Whenever it gets too easy, the keeper can increase the difficulty level by moving closer to the wall, increase the speed at which the ball is thrown, or both.

Combine any of the drills above into a 20-minute work-out done 3 times a week during the off-season will give a keeper the amount of quality touches that would otherwise take a few training sessions. No cones, no field, no goal, no adult supervision required.

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Why the US produces better goalkeepers than field players: A Theory.

It was very exciting to watch the US Men’s National Team overachieve during this summer’s World Cup. But as Klinsmann’s men showed the world that the American spirit of determination, courage and relentless effort can lead to a place in the next round, it became painfully clear that the overall quality of the US field players was not enough to put them into contender status.

Punching above your weight is not a viable long-term strategy, so if we want the US to do better in future World Cups we will need better field players. Jurgen Klinsmann has started scouring the globe looking for players with dual nationality who qualify to play for the USMNT. Using “Oriundi” in World Cup competition has been an honored tradition ever since Luis Monti won the World Cup with Italy in 1934 after winning one with Uruguay in 1930. But that approach is simply treating a symptom, not curing the disease. The truth is that we need to develop better soccer players right here in the US.

According to FIFA there are almost 4.2 million registered soccer players in the US, (second only to Germany) and another 20 million unregistered players for a total of over 24 million soccer players. You can see the FIFA study here.

In comparison, fellow CONCACAF team Costa Rica has a population of 4.7 million and a total of 50,588 registered players. Two-time World Champion and 2010 semi-finalist Uruguay has 41,300 registered players while US World Cup nemesis Ghana has 27,500. Yet all of these countries have more representatives playing in the Top 5 leagues in the World than the USA. (See table below, league data from transfermarkt.com). 3 of the 13 US players are keepers, a disproportionate 23%.

soccerplayercomparisonThe MLS is a better league, both from a sporting as well as a financial standpoint than the domestic leagues in Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ghana, which might explain why some US players don’t feel the need to move abroad, but there have been plenty of US players who went to Europe in the hope of plying their trade in the best leagues in the world, only to find out that they don’t make the grade.

The data from transfermarkt.com shows that the 20 EPL clubs carry five Americans on their rosters, three of them goalkeepers, with only two of them (Howard and Guzan, both GKs) starting weekly. (The other three are Friedel, Altidore and Cameron). There are a total of 41 Americans active in the German league, but only 6 of those play in the Bundesliga. The majority of the players in the lower leagues have lived and played in Germany for most of their lives, and have not been developed in the US domestic system.

If we add Dempsey and Bradley (both of whom have proven they can play in the top leagues) to Guzan and Howard we come up with a current total of 4 top-class domestically developed players….out of approximately 2.5 million (the other 1.7 million that make up the 4.2 million USA total are female players). Of the 2014 USMNT squad only 3 domestically developed players will be under 30 in 2018 (Altidore, Gonzalez and Yedlin) compared to 5 “Oriundi” (Brooks, Chandler, Diskerud, Green and Johansson)

Organizations like the NSCAA and US Soccer are doing a great job producing well-educated coaches. US Soccer players have year-round access to the best equipment, the best support, the best facilities and the latest sports performance research and technology in the world. So why can’t the US produce world-class men’s soccer players, and why are US keepers doing so much better than their countrymen in the field? Having coached in the US for well over a decade, it seems to me that there are three main reasons that the US System is ineffective as well as inefficient: money, organization and short-term mindset. The three are inextricably linked which only complicates devising a solution.

Pipeline…what pipeline?

If there are so few US prospects in the pipeline, it is mainly because there is no pipeline. Want to drive an engineer crazy? Have him draw a flow chart of the byzantine American youth soccer league structure. (And when he finishes, the chart will be obsolete because leagues fold and start up with alarming frequency)

To begin there are very few soccer clubs in the US that use the integrated vertical development model commonly used in the rest of the world, and although this seems to be slowly changing, very few teams have adult teams associated with their youth program. The vast majority of clubs consists of a bunch of separate teams that share (public) facilities and a common club name. Each team is responsible for its own practices, development, game, league, and tournament schedule.

The absence of a clear organizational structure, on the national, regional and club level creates a void. And if there’s one thing Americans are good at, it is filling voids in the market place. As a result the youth soccer coaching market is booming in the US. There are some excellent organizations among these companies, but there are also (too) many who are little more than expensive babysitters with a bag of balls and a stack of cones.

In any industry where the product sold is a commodity, it is crucial to differentiate your product from those of your competitors in order to be able to charge a premium. You have to justify your price. Unfortunately, very few coaching schools or camps stress the development angle. Instead, they stress the theory that the best coaches produce the best teams and obviously the best teams win the most games. A team’s success is measured by how it performs not how well it develops players. Many of the “elite” teams consist of players not developed over the years but recruited from other clubs, put together not unlike a Chelsea or Manchester City. Results are more important than development. Of course, this is particularly discouraging for those clubs in the same area, which do try to develop their own players only to see them poached away.

This need to justify the high, sometimes exorbitant, fees being charged by some teams / organizations, means that there have to be elite tournaments, and leagues and rankings, the participation in which also costs money. In order to maintain a sufficiently impressive ranking, a team has to play in as high a league a possible, play in as many games as possible and attend all the “right” tournaments. Since some leagues only run a limited schedule, teams have to enter multiple leagues whose schedules overlap, while simultaneously playing in a variety of tournaments.

Players pay for their own development.

These performances don’t come cheap. With each team in a club making their own decisions as to which coaches to employ at which price, the economies of scale associated with having a few coaches share equipment and train multiple teams is lost. In addition, the time commitment involved with traveling to and from multiple practices and games every week can be significant, especially in a country where efficient public transportation is the exception, not the norm. As a result, playing in an “elite” team does not just require a large time commitment by the player, it requires a lot of time and effort by the parents who are shuttling the player back and forth to practices, games and tournaments. For a single parent this is almost impossible to do.

This structure also makes it more complicated for a player to move from a recreational team to a travel or select team or vice versa since very often the coaches of the various teams in an age group do not communicate. The net result of this is that the cost of player development is transferred from the club to the players’ parents. The majority of teams don’t have the resources to provide financial or transportation assistance to players. Which means that a lot of promising players are unable to participate at the highest level, especially at a younger age when proper development training would benefit them most.

Some teams also like to showcase how many of their players went on to play in college, but again, that is not a proper measurement of development success. For the most part, soccer ability is only one of several selection criteria for college players. There are very few full soccer scholarships available in Men’s soccer. Unless you are one of the fortunate few who get a “full-ride” you first need to be able to academically qualify to attend the school you want to play at AND be able to somehow pay for it before your soccer ability even enters into the equation.

The proliferation of the so-called “College Showcase” Tournaments in recent years has been a particularly disturbing trend. The logic behind is that many elite teams competing at the same facility on the same weekend allows college coaches to scout as many prospects as possible thereby making the recruiting process more efficient. While it does make the college coaches’ job easier, the net result is that the cost of recruitment is transferred from the schools to the players’ parents.

The need to play in these tournaments adds to an already overfilled schedule. Thanks to the popular (but usually misinterpreted) adage that it takes 10,000 hours of play and practice to produce an expert, many teams cram their game and schedule to the point of overflow, which actually ends up doing more damage than good.

That is not to say that participating in these tournaments isn’t fun and that the players don’t enjoy playing in these tournaments and leagues. They do. But this doesn’t mean it is best for their development. Most players would also love to have pizza for dinner every night. From a development point of view these showcase tournaments and youth soccer rankings are utterly useless. (And before you ask, yes, all the teams I work with are nationally ranked in the Top 75)

We’re going to need a bigger net!

From a mathematical standpoint there shouldn’t be a need for these tournaments and leagues covering large geographical areas. Maryland, which is about the same size as Belgium, has 60,000 registered youth players, about 32,000 of which are boys. Virginia is the size of Portugal and has 140,000 registered youth players (about 74,000 boys) while Portugal has 132,0000 registered players TOTAL. It shouldn’t be necessary for teams from this area to travel to the other side of the country to find decent opposition.

There are 3 US Soccer Development Academy organizations in Maryland (Bays, Bethesda and DC United) all located in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Virginia also has 3 Academy teams, 2 in the Richmond area and one in Virginia Beach. Only DC United (MLS) and the Richmond Kickers (USL) are associated with a professional team. Each organization has 3 teams (U-14, U-16 and U-18) with approximately 20 players each for a total of 60 per organization. There are a 3 Development Academies organizations in the greater DC area that only field a U-14 team for another 60 slots which means that there are 420 available academy slots for 106,000 boys, all of which are out of reach for those players living outside of the Baltimore-Washington, Richmond or Norfolk areas. In comparison, Lisbon, Portugal (which is about half the size of Washington DC) alone boasts 4 professional academies fielding over twenty teams, providing training to more than 450 youth players.

As mentioned above, the US has over 4 million registered players, 75% of which are youth players, split approximately 52%-48% between boys and girls so there are about 1.56 million boys playing club soccer (or 39% of the total). The country also has 20 million non-registered players. Even if only 25% of those would be youth players this would equate to another 2.6 million boys playing soccer, more than doubling the talent pool. Many of these children are priced out of the game and cannot afford to play in the current system.

“Football is a coaches’ game, Soccer is a players’ game” – Rinus Michels

Because of the overloaded game schedules, youth leagues don’t play 90 minute games until the U-18 level, allow unlimited substitutes and play multiple games in a weekend or even a day. (the US Soccer Development Academy League is trying to avoid that, but still allows 5 substitutions per match) All of which are adversely affecting player development.

It is simply not possible for youth players to effectively play in multiple games during such a short time. The recovery time is insufficient. So players get subbed, with those that do play multiple full games during a weekend at a higher risk of injuries or burnout. Teams often have over 24 players on the roster with 18 allowed to play in a game. As a result, it is often not the team with the best players that wins but the team with the deepest bench.

Playing 80 minutes instead of 90 means game time is reduced by 11 %. Figure in a few substitutions and most players won’t be on the field for more than 50-60 minutes, coming out when they’re tired, and going back in when they’re rested. While on the sideline, players receive coaching points whereas in a game with only 3 substitutions, at least 8 of the players have to figure things out for themselves during the game, improving their soccer IQ even though it might result in some lost games.

It’s comparable to training for a marathon by running nothing but 200 yards sprints. It hurts development. Indeed, it is possible for a 21-year old player to graduate from a Division I soccer program having never played a full 2×45 minute match. At that age, the player is facing a development gap with the rest of the world that is all but impossible to overcome.

Maybe US Soccer should take a page from Feyenoord handbook. The team from Rotterdam had nine Academy products in the Holland squad that made it to the semi-final in Brazil (you can read some English language articles on the Academy here and here. If you can read Dutch, try to find a copy of Hard Gras’ “Everybody is talking about us” edition, which follows the Feyenoord U-16 team for a season). Named best youth academy in Holland for six years running, it stresses the “less is more” approach with only 18 players per team, four training sessions and a single game per week. The Academy even liaises with the players’ schools to make sure they are excused from certain P.E. activities in order to prevent overtraining. Until the U-17 level everybody on the team plays. Since there are only three substitutions allowed per game, this means that there is a rotation schedule where some players will have to sit out a game. Players are judged only by their progress as players, not by the league results or rankings, even though the teams win their share of Championships

So you’re 19. Now what?

Once a player graduates from the youth ranks, there are very few places he can go for further development. There are some fantastic coaches running some fantastic college soccer programs, turning out some very good, -but not world class- soccer players: Cirovski at Maryland and Brandt at Navy, just to name a couple right down the street from me, with Terps alums Zusi and Gonzalez making the USMNT WC 2014 squad. But college soccer’s main objective, like high school soccer, is not player development; nor should it be. Among other things, the season is too short (although that might change), the game schedule is too tight, and NCAA rules are too restrictive to allow for proper development.

The MLS is the main professional league and their teams have started their own development academies but there are only 17 US teams in the league, mainly concentrated in large urban areas. Major League Soccer has come a long way since its 1996 inception but it is far from an elite league. Having displaced China, Russia and the UAE leagues as aging superstars’ favorite “retirement home” is an important stage in its development as young Americans get the opportunity to learn from soccer legends who have “been there, done that”. But the MLS still finds itself in the seemingly contradictory position that its best homegrown players will have to serve a stint abroad for the league quality to continue to improve.

In the absence of a promotion / relegation system, the USL and NASL are competing second tier leagues where some teams (Rochester Rhinos, Richmond Kickers,) are well-run organizations that have been around forever but the majority of the teams are just trying to make it through the (short) season that runs from May thru August. There are also leagues run by the USSF and USASA which call themselves semi-pro but really are just a bunch of college kids home for summer.

The net result is that if you’re 19 years old and not “in the system” (either playing in college or for one of the MLS Academies) there is very little opportunity for you to get the quality training and playing time you need to improve as a player. This is especially worrying in the case of talented players who don’t have the grades or the money to go to college, or even those who decide to forego playing at a lesser college in favor of attending a more prestigious school for academic reasons. (i.e. attend Stanford or Virginia and not play rather than go to a small Div III school and play).

So how come goalkeepers aren’t affected as much?

It has been said that US keepers are so good because they learn early hand-eye coordination playing baseball and football. Although cross training certainly has its advantages, I doubt that in this case it is the silver bullet it has been made out to be.

I would like to say that the reason is that the goalkeeper coaches in the US are the best in the world, in particular those that read this blog, but as much as I like to believe that, it’s probably not completely true. The way I look at it, the explanation is much simpler. US goalkeepers do better because the flaws in the US developmental system don’t affect them as much.

Most obvious is the fact that keepers peak later. Where most of the field players reach their peak in their mid to late twenties, goalkeepers often don’t hit their strides until their early thirties. So there is more time to develop.

The goalkeeper position is physically less demanding in games than that of field players. So the reduced recovery time between closely scheduled matches doesn’t negatively affect the goalkeeper as much as it does the field players.

Goalkeepers don’t get subbed as often as field players. Even if the team has multiple goalkeepers, they most often will alternate games instead of halves, giving the keepers both the learning experience of playing a complete game as well as giving them the appropriate rest periods.

Goalkeepers do their most intensive work during practice, not during a match. Games teach them how to read the game and how to apply the techniques they learned and practiced during training sessions. During practice, keepers often get a more intense work-out with many more repetitions than the field players. If a coach lines up the players for a shooting drill, a keeper will have to face every shot (or every other shot if there’s two) while the shooter will only get to touch one out of every 15 or so balls.

Finally, goalkeepers aren’t affected as much by formation, tactic or personnel changes. No matter which team or coach they play for, goalkeepers either play in goal or they don’t play at all. They aren’t asked to fill in at left back for a game or play holding midfielder because the coach thinks they’re better suited for that, or he doesn’t have anybody else for the position.


In their 2009 book “Soccernomics”, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski write that “the best bets for the future are probably Japan, the US and China: the three largest economies on earth which can afford coaches like Hiddink, where potential soccer players have enough to eat and don’t get terrible diseases. There are already omens of their rise: the US has the most young soccer players of any country and has reached a World Cup quarter final”

Five years later it seems that this rise has stagnated. In order to reach the highest level the US has to revamp its approach to player development. It doesn’t bode well for the future that the Youth National Teams are not performing very well. There are fewer slots available in Youth Tournaments but the US still should be able to qualify since they play in the relatively weak CONCACAF.

The US U-23 team did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics while Mexico (324K registered players, 8.1 million non-registered) and Honduras (61K registered / 359K non-registered) did. The US U-17s did not qualify for the 2013 World Cup, losing out to Mexico, Honduras, Canada (865K / 1.8Mil) and Panama (61K / 150K) while the US U-20s did manage to qualify for their World Cup together with Mexico, Cuba (46K registered players / 1.0 mil non-registered) and El Salvador (42K / 411K). The U20s finished last in their group, losing 4-1 to both Spain (653K / 2.1 mil) and third place finisher Ghana and tying 1-1 with tournament winner France (1.79 mil / 2.39 mil)

With 1.7 million registered male youth players, the sheer amount of potential talent is so great that the US should produce a few world-class players every year just by chance. But we don’t. The only young US player to make some impact at the World Cup was then 20-year old DeAndre Yedlin. We don’t have a Toni Kroos, an Adnan Januzaj or a Paul Pogba, players who are able to perform at the highest level, while still in their teens. This is not a talent problem; it is a development problem. There are thousands of hard-working, well-qualified coaches in the US doing their very best every day to develop players but not succeeding. It’s not the coaches; it’s the system.

There are a lot of things we can do, none of them easy. We need to get our young players to play soccer like the rest of the world does it. In order to get rid of the unlimited substitutions, we need to get rid of the multiple games in a short period of time. Which means we need to get rid of the tournaments and leagues that schedule their games like that. Which means we need an alternative league structure, which requires a unified commitment by all organizations involved to put development of US Soccer players first. As you might have guessed by now, I’m a proponent of the vertical development structure. US Soccer Development Academy is a step in the right direction but its reach is not big enough, yet. I’m not very familiar with its inner workings or future plans so the organization might already be working on it, but here are some suggestions:

Ideally, there should be enough Academy teams to allow for a full competition (14-16 teams per region/division) without having to travel more than two/three hours, leading to a full round-robin season while playing only a single game per week and time off over the summer (or winter, if mimicking the MLS calendar). It will also have to find a way to deal with the Academy / High School conflict, perhaps by allowing Academies to lower the amount of teams it fields during High School season. It could consider “affiliate” clubs or multiple divisions to give clubs the opportunity to comply with USSDA rules and regulations over a few seasons. Just like it offers a US Youth Coaching certificate, the USSF could add an “Academy Coach” course. This could even be an online-based course, available as an add-on to any coach already licensed at a certain level. They could certify existing coaching schools as “Academy-compliant” if their curriculum, organization, finances and coaching staff meet the development standards of the USSDA. This would allow clubs wanting to join the USDDA to contract the training out rather than recruit and train their own staff, eliminating the learning curve associated with such an endeavor.

Emphasizing long-term development over short-term results, and finding a way to include those players currently priced out of the game are crucial to improving the quality of US Soccer, and making the USMNT into the World Cup contender we all want it to be.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.



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World Cup Penalty Kick Analysis

WC 2014 Penalty Kicks and the Data Analysis Arms Race.

During the World Cup, my Twitter feed confirmed what everybody already knew: Goalkeepers are different. When all the “normal” people were dreading the prospect of extra-time and a shoot-out, most goalies were hoping for it, cheering for the keeper, no matter what team he was playing for.

So how did they do? In the last few years, penalty kick data analysis has exploded, giving both the shooter and the keeper additional tools and better insight in the battle for that little edge that will make the difference between a goal and a save.

I’m still not smart enough to use some of the data available from Opta or Infostrada so I had to do it the way our granddaddies did it: by watching grainy video on You-tube. The result is a somewhat correct overview of the penalties taken in the World Cup: 49 total, 13 in regular play, 36 in shoot-outs.


According to the data in Ben Lyttleton’s excellent book “Twelve Yards” the historical PK conversion rate in the World Cup is 80.3% in open play and 71.3% in shoot-outs. In the 2014 tournament, the conversion rate in shoot-outs is almost equal (0.9% difference) but the conversion rate from open play is 12.3% higher with only a single miss in 13 penalties. (Benzema missed a spotkick against Switzerland in the 31st minute, when the French were already up 2-0 by then and dominating the game).

Lyttleton also discusses the two basic penalty-taking approaches:, the “Goalkeeper-dependent” method of shooting which relies on the goalkeeper moving first (once the goalkeeper moves, the shooter sends the ball the other way, or through the center) and the “Independent method” where the shooter picks a spot and relies on his shooting skill to put the ball in a place the goalkeeper can’t get to. According to Littleton’s research, the latter is the more common approach while the former is currently the more successful.

How to rate goalkeeper performance against penalty kicks.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog suggesting that maybe it is time we took a more nuanced approach in analyzing a goalkeepers’ performance in regard to penalty kicks. I envisioned a calculation of “expected saves” vs. “actual saves” based on the placement of the shot in areas with high, medium and low save probability. (On Twitter Simon Gleave pointed out to me that Ken Bray came up with a similar graphic in his book “How to Score”. I haven’t read that book yet but I’ll be the first to admit that my outline is not based on any kind of scientific research. Doctor Bray’s graph is probably much more accurate than mine, but until I get a copy of his book, my unscientific graph will have to do.)

It should be pretty straight forward, take the area in which the shot was placed, take the probability that the keeper will make the save, do that for each penalty the keeper faced, calculate an “expected saves” amount and compare it to the actual saves made. The problem that arises (for me, anyway) is how to account for a keeper guessing the wrong way. In that case, the quality / placement of the ball becomes less relevant because the keeper never gave himself a chance to make the save.

With that in mind, I charted the placement of all the penalty kicks but differentiated between those where the goalkeeper guessed correctly, and those where he didn’t. This is what I came up with:

PK overview

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the majority of the shots in the medium/high zone have the goalkeeper either saving the shot, or moving the wrong way. There are only two kicks placed in the high/medium zones where the goalkeeper guessed correctly but didn’t make the save: Neymar’s penalty against Pitiekosa in the Brazil-Croatia game and Rodriguez’ spotkick against Cillessen, the winning spotkick in the Holland-Argentina shoot-out. Both goalkeepers made contact on those shots but deflected the balls into the goal. (We could get into a discussion about deflecting with open palm vs. deflecting with a fist but that’s not the topic here)

Interestingly enough both missed kicks (Willian against Bravo and Jara against Cesar) occurred even though the keepers moved the wrong way.

The analysis of the saves is more problematic. Did the goalkeeper force a shooter using the “goalkeeper-dependent” method into a bad shot by not moving or was it simply a case of bad execution by a player using the “Independent” method? Did the goalkeeper read the player who shot through the middle correctly or did he decide to react to the shot rather than guess?

Guessing correctly increase the chance of stopping a kick by about 30% . But even guessing correctly will mean nothing if the penalty is well taken. (Keepers saved only 14% of the kicks in open plays when they guessed correctly, but 44% in shoot-outs).

Goalkeeper Performance: Battle of the Back-ups.

The most heralded penalty save performances in the tournament were by Cesar (back-up at QPR), Romero (back-up at Monaco) and Krul (starting at Newcastle but third choice in the Holland squad). So how do their stats stack up against the other goalkeepers who faced at least 4 penalty kicks in the tournament. And do these stats tell the whole story?


With the average for penalty conversions being around 80%, it means that the average goalkeeper saves 1 in 5 penalty kicks or 20%. Guessing correctly on all five kicks roughly doubles that percentage. Using those numbers, the argument can be made that Navas’ performance was sub-par (11% save% while guessing correctly 56% of the time), Krul’s was as expected (40% save% while guessing correctly 100% of the time) as was Cesar’s; while Romero’s was excellent (50% save% while guessing correctly 50% of the time). However, when looking at the quality of the penalties faced, the story changes a little bit:

4GK distribution

Of the 9 penalties Navas faced, 7 were well placed in the “low” area, 1 was in the “medium” area and 1 (his lone save) in the “high” area. Similarly, Krul faced five penalties only one of which was clearly in the “medium” area while the other four were in the “low” area, yet he saved two.

In contrast, four of the penalties Cesar faced where in the medium and low areas, while one of the three kicks placed in the high area hit the post. Similarly, three of the four penalties faced by Romero where in the high/medium areas and one barely in the “low” area.

Looking at these charts, one could conclude that Krul’s performance was superior to that of both Cesar and Romero while Navas was just extremely unlucky to face a series of very well-taken penalties at a particularly bad time for both him and the Ticos.

Costa Rica and Holland overview.

Navas’ (and Costa Rica’s) bad luck becomes even more evident if we take a closer look at the penalty placement of the Costa Ricans and the Dutch in their two shoot-outs.

Holland Costa Rica distribution

It has been calculated that the team that takes the first kick in a shoot-out wins 60% of the time. However, both Costa Rica and Holland lost the shoot-outs in which they went first. In both cases, it was the team’s second consecutive shoot-out of the tournament, and no team has won two shootouts in a single World Cup finals tournament since Argentina in 1990, when they beat Yugoslavia in the quarter- and Italy in the semi-final.

The Dutch performance is like night and day. Against Costa Rica all four penalties were placed in the “’low” area with Navas guessing correctly twice, while against Argentina three out of four were in the high/medium area, with both Vlaar and Schneijder rushing their kicks, resulting in bad placement and relatively easy, but not less important, saves by Romero.

The Costa Ricans actually did much better than their Orange counterparts. Against Greece they managed to send Karnezis the wrong way on four out of five occasions while putting the ball in the “low” area the one time the Greek keeper guessed correctly. Against Holland, Krul guessed correctly all five times on the Costa Rican kicks, but every single one of these was placed very well, casting serious doubt on the theory that Krul’s pre-kick psychological warfare affected the shooter’s performance.

The Hoek Method: Anticipating vs. Reactive

The shooters didn’t lose the match for Costa Rica, Krul won it for the Dutch. And he didn’t get into the game until a shock substitution in the 118th minute. Which means that we should look into why the Dutch coaching staff made that change to begin with.

Several years ago, Holland goalkeeper coach Frans Hoek wrote an article (which you can read here) in which he categorized goalkeepers as “anticipating” vs. “reactive”. In reading the description, it would seem that starters like Navas, Cillesen and Neuer fit in the “anticipating” category while Krul, Cesar and Romero appear to be more “reactive” like. However, the “reactive” type keeper appears to be better suited for penalty shoot-outs. In addition, Krul is five centimeters (2”) taller than Cillesen, and looks somewhat more intimidating than the Ajax keeper who, at age 25, still can be mistaken for one of the ball boys.

Against Greece, the Costa Rican shooters appeared to favor the “goalkeeper-dependent” method. After the Holland-Costa Rica shoot-out, Tim Krul stated that in their game preparation, Hoek had instructed his keepers to wait as long as possible before committing and then explosively dive to the corner. This method takes away the visual cues a “Goalkeeper-dependent” type shooter looks for in his run-up. Not seeing the expected indications forces the shooter to change his plan just before he kicks the ball, increasing the chances of him making an error. Yet, as shown in the graph, the Ticos got off some excellent shots. But there might have been some kind of “tell” as Krul went the right way on all kicks, saving two of them in the far low corner. Of course, the more penalties a keeper faces in his career, the higher the chance becomes that he chooses correctly five –or more- times in a row, so this could have been one of those times. Only those inside the Dutch camp know for sure, and they aren’t talking.


Admittedly, 13 kicks is not exactly a large enough sample to draw any definite conclusions from but, as the data analysis arms race continues, it appears that the regular penalty takers might be gaining a slight edge for now.

In shoot-outs, the numbers remain relatively stable in comparison to previous tournaments, most likely indicating that near equal progress on both sides of the ball cancel each other out. With the “goal-keeper dependent” method of taking penalties gaining in popularity, the “Hoek-method” of saving penalty kicks might be something keepers and coaches will need to take a closer look at.

Whatever the next developments are in this area, we need better metrics to properly analyze goalkeeper performances in saving penalty kicks. In this article, I took a very amateuristic try at coming up with something. It is my hope that somebody much more qualified in this field than myself, can come up with such a method.



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In Defense of Iker Casillas

OK, I’m a little late to the party but I spent the last five days on the road and haven’t been able to really take a look at the Spain-Holland game until just now.

I am surprised by the large amount of commentators and fans blaming Cassilas for Robin van Persie’s fantastic equalizer. Many claim that it was similar to his error in the Champions League Final. Having looked at the video many times now, I have to say that, in my opinion, Casillas was in the right position. The only thing he can be blamed for is getting caught playing the percentages.

That is not to say that Casillas played a great game. Far from it. He was at least partly to blame for the third goal and he bore all of the responsibility for the fourth.

None of his other actions that night will make it to his career highlight reel, but then again, the same can be said of most of his Spain teammates. But whatever you want to blame Iker for, the van Persie goal is not one of them.

In the Champions League final, Casillas ran out to the penalty spot to try to intercept a ball that was played to a striker who was covered by a defender, only to be chipped. That was a certified howler. The Holland goal was not.

Let’s go to the replay

The Guardian has a great photo-by-photo breakdown of the goal that you can read here. I took the picture taken just before the ball gets to van Persie and photoshopped Casillas out (admittedly not very well). Look at the picture below and ask yourself where you would position yourself in a situation like this. Then check out the article to see where Casillas was. I’m convinced that the position you chose was very close to Iker’s….or at least it should be


When the cross is played, Casillas is on his six yard line. The bending ball drops just inside the penalty box and is too far away from the goal for Casillas to intercept so he stays in his position. But as fantastic as it is, the pass by Blind is a little on the high side for van Persie as he makes his run. A one-touch volley, or any other kind of shot, is not a possibility. So RVP has three options:

  1. Chest the ball down and either shoot or run to goal.
  2. Head the ball on goal to the near post
  3. Header flicked to the far post.
  4. Chip the ball over Casillas.

Because of the direction and speed of his run, the first option would take Robin away from the goal as he controls the ball, and narrows his shooting angle, even if it would put the ball on his favored, and deadly, left foot. A header to the near post from sixteen yards out would need a lot of power to beat a keeper like Casillas, while a flicking header to the far post needs to be both powerful and accurate. Chipping a header would require a dive and a touch gentle enough to get the trajectory required yet powerful enough to reach the goal before Casillas gets back to his line.

By standing where he was, Casillas was in a position to minimize all four threats. Any further forward and chipping the keeper would be a lot easier. Any further back and Casillas gives the striker a better angle to both the near and the far post. No matter what option van Persie chooses, it will require an exceptional finish to beat the keeper. Unfortunately for Casillas, that is exactly what happens. RVP chooses the most audacious option and executes it perfectly. Of course, it took a little luck, but that’s soccer. Later in the game Van Persie has an equally magnificent finish that rattles the cross bar. Casillas is also correctly positioned for that shot, and this time Lady Luck smiles on the Spaniard rather than the Dutchman.

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”

Despite the defeat, it is way too early to declare an end to the era of Casillas, the Spanish National Team and/or tiki-taka. The final score might not indicate it, but the Spaniards were close to putting the game away in the first half. If David Silva converts one of the two good chances he had early on, Spain is up 2-0 in the first half and we are looking at a completely different game. Del Bosque, Casillas and the rest of the Spanish squad know this. They are amongst the most experienced teams at the World Cup and I think the loss will only strengthen their resolve and focus. Wins over Chile and Australia would put Spain in a good position to move on to the knock-out stages. There is a chance that they might have to play Brazil in the round of 16 and the “Selecao” (or any other team for that matter) would be well advised not to underestimate the reigning World Champions.

The win is a great start for the Dutch but as somebody who has been bleeding Orange for almost half a century, I’m always anxious of the over-confidence that invariably seems to follow a great victory like this one. I’m reminded of the 2008 European Championship where, in the group stage, the team dispatched the 2006 Word Champion Italy (3-0 ) and runners-up France (4-1) in convincing fashion only to fall to Guus Hiddink and Arshavin’s Russia in the semis (1-3 AET). The Dutch are firmly in charge of their own destiny, and a first place in the group would allow them to (most likely) avoid Brazil in the round of 16, enabling them to possibly make a deep run. But the team will have to keep its focus, and take care of business in the group stage first.

Another Spain-Holland final? It can still happen. If it does, my money is on Casillas being in goal.



07/23/14  Post Script after Spain exits in the Group Stage:

Obviously, I was wrong. Looking back, rather than quoting Mark Twain, I should have gone with Monty Python (“this parrot is no more”). Thankfully for both myself and my passengers, I’m a better pilot than I am a pundit.

Whenever a dynasty comes to an end; be it through war, revolution or decay, it is impossible to properly analyze the reasons without at least a partial view from the inside. Ever since I forgot Vincente del Bosque’s birthday several years ago, he stopped returning my calls, so somebody with more access than myself will have to do the autopsy. Was Spain’s disappointing World Cup campaign due to the players being too old, did they lack desire after all the years of success, was there a lack of unity, or were the players fatigued because Real, Barca and Atletico were all involved in the chase for the “Treble” until very late in the season? Did Mourinho and Ancelotti bench Casillas because he lost his edge or did Casillas lose his edge because Mourinho and Ancelotti benched him? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this Spanish team will be remembered long after its last members have retired. It had an unmatched run spanning almost a decade during which time its members won everything there is to win, both on the national and the club level. Like Hungary in the 50’s and Holland in the 70’s, Spain changed the way the game is played forever. Stalwarts like Iniesta, Xavi and Casillas will be enshrined in the Pantheon of the immortals of the game, and right fully so, even though it is unclear what the immediate future holds for them, especially in Casillas’ case. Reports have him leaving Real Madrid on a free transfer, and if that proves to be true, maybe he will join David Villa in a move to the MLS, the current favorite retirement home location for aging European stars. I would love to have the opportunity to see him play in person in something other than an exhibition match.

On September 5, 2014, Spain will begin its qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 with a match against Macedonia. The Spaniards are in a group with Ukraine, Slovakia, Macedonia, Belarus and Luxembourg. Not the toughest group, which affords Spain the opportunity to rebuild using the next generation of talented players at their disposal, such as de Gea, Azpilicuata, Alba and Mata. Count on them being a factor in France two years from now.

Of course, that is just my opinion….I could be wrong.

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World Cup Goalkeepers Stats you never asked for.

World Cup Goalkeepers Basic Stat breakdown.

One of the not-so-great byproducts of the World Cup is that many people feel the need to create spreadsheets containing some of the most obscure statistics, the vast majority of which fall somewhere between “Do we really need this” and “I might be able to use this one on Trivia Night”. I wish I could say that I was immune to this phenomenon, but when the Guardian published a datasheet with all the WC players’ vital stats on it, I just had to tinker with it. You can find the original Guardian data file here

Using the Guardian’s data as a start I filtered out the goalkeepers and added the height and weight information for each player, for no other reason that to come up with the following goalkeeper statistics (I used kilograms and centimeters because that it what most of the civilized world uses. If you insist on converting to US lbs. and feet just remember, 1 kg is 2.2222 lb and 30 centimeter is about a foot):

The Average World Cup GK at a glance

Avg Age:                                                      28.45            (Range 20–43 / Median: 28)

Avg Height (in cm.)                                187.7            (Range 178-199 / Median 188)

Avg Weight (in kg.)                                 81.85            (Range 68-95 / Median 82)

Avg Caps                                                      23.96            (Range 0 – 153 / Median 9)

Total International Goals scored by WC Keepers               0

Top Leagues Represented:

England                                                                                    10
France                                                                                        8
Germany                                                                                    7
Spain                                                                                          5
Italy                                                                                            4
Belgium                                                                                     4
Russia                                                                                        4

Most Caps:
Iker CASILLAS                       Spain                                       153
Gianluigi BUFFON                 Italy                                        139
Noel VALLADARES               Honduras                               120
Stipe PLETIKOSA                   Croatia                                   110
Tim HOWARD                        USA                                         100

Fewest Caps:
Luis LOPEZ                             Honduras                                    0
Oliver ZELENIKA                   Croatia                                        0
Mattia PERIN                          Italy                                              0
David DE GEA                         Spain                                            0
Roman BUERKI                       Switzerland                                0
Camilo VARGAS                     Colombia                                     0
LEE Bumyoung                        South Korea                               0
Sammy BOSSUT                      Belgium                                      0
Jasmin FEJZIC                        Bosnia & Herzegovina              0
Rodrigo MUNOZ                     Uruguay                                      0

Oldest Goalkeepers:
Faryd MONDRAGON             Colombia                                   43
Noel VALLADARES                Honduras                                   37
Gianluigi BUFFON                  Italy                                            36
Nick Rimando                           USA                                            35
Tim Howard                              USA                                            35

Youngest Goalkeepers:
Stefanos KAPINO                    Greece                                         20
Luis LOPEZ                              Honduras                                    20
Oliver ZELENIKA                    Croatia                                        21
Mattia PERIN                           Italy                                             21
Sayouba MANDE                     Ivory Coast                                 21

Heaviest (in kg):
Jasmin FEJZIC                         Bosnia & Herzegovina              95
Brad GUZAN                             USA                                             95
LEE Bumyoung                         South Korea                               94
Faryd MONDRAGON              Colombia                                    94
Pepe REINA                              Spain                                            92
Manuel NEUER                        Germany                                     92

Lightest (in kg):
Cedric SI MOHAMMED         Algeria                                        68
Boubacar BARRY                     Ivory Coast                                 69
Igor AKINFEEV                       Russia                                          71
Patrick PEMBERTON             Costa Rica                                   72
Maty RYAN                               Australia                                     73
Hugo LLORIS                           France                                          73

Tallest (in cm.):
LEE Bumyoung                        South Korea                               199
Thibaut COURTOIS                Belgium                                       198
Jasmin FEJZIC                        Bosnia & Herzegovina               197
Stefanos KAPINO                    Greece                                         197
Joe HART                                 England                                        196
Asmir BEGOVIC                      Bosnia & Herzegovina               196
Alexander DOMINGUEZ        Ecuador                                       196

Shortest (in cm.):
Nick RIMANDO                         USA                                            178
Noel VALLADARES                  Honduras                                  179
Patrick PEMBERTON               Costa Rica                                 179
Fraser FORSTER                       England                                      180
Donis ESCOBER                        Honduras                                   180
Fatawu DAUDA                         Ghana                                          180

Like the above wasn’t enough superfluous information, I decided to break the categories down by country. Of course, this doesn’t mean much since with only three goalkeepers, a single outlier, like Casillas, will skew the average significantly. (and every average will end in either .00, .33 or .67) but there are some interesting surprises in the numbers, for instance, the low amount of average caps of the Netherlands goalkeepers (8.67), which have an average age of 27.0 and include Premier League starters Vorm and Krul. (I think we can blame van der Sar’s and Stekelenburg’s longevity for that). We also might have to start asking ourselves what it is that the Bosnians put in their cevapcici because they “grow ’em big” over there.

Statistics by Country:
Most Average Caps:
Spain                                                61.67
Italy                                                 49.00
Honduras                                       46.67
Nigeria                                            45.00
USA                                                  46.33

Fewest Average Caps:
Cameroon                                    4.00
Australia                                      5.67
Iran                                               6.33
Greece                                           7.33
Netherlands                                 8.67

Oldest Average Age:
USA                                                33.0
Brazil                                             32.0
Columbia                                       31.0
Mexico                                           30.7
Uruguay                                         30.3

Youngest Average Age:           
Greece                                            25.0
Belgium                                         25.33
Cameroon                                      25.67
South Korea                                  25.67
Switzerland                                   26.00

Tallest Average Height (in cm)
Bosnia & Herzegovina                 194.33
Belgium                                         192.67
Croatia                                           192.00
South Korea                                  192.00
Argentina                                       191.67

Shortest Average Height (in cm)           
Honduras                                       180.33
Costa Rica                                      182.00
Chile                                               184.00
Mexico                                           185.00
Cameroon                                      185.33
France                                             185.33
Ghana                                              185.33
Japan                                               185.33
Portugal                                          185.33           
Highest Average Weight (in kg.)
USA                                                88.67
Bosnia & Herzegovina                88.00
Germany                                       86.67
South Korea                                 86.67
Argentina                                     86.00
Lowest Average Weight (in kg.)
Costa Rica                                     75.67
Ghana                                            76.00
Algeria                                          76.67
Honduras                                     76.67
Russia                                            78.67

You can download the full spreadsheet I made here: World Cup 2014 GK data

Let the games begin!


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Lancashire Legacy

“I like to win, but above all, I want to teach universal values. Giving everything while competing with dignity is victory” – Pep Guardiola

As coaches, we learn from those we work with over the years and from our experiences as we find our own way. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great coaches and mentors who have inspired and taught me along the way, but in hindsight, it was my a few days in Lancashire before I had even though about being a coach, that ended up having a profound effect on my coaching methods and philosophies thirty years later.

Remember the scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where Kevin Costner’s character, a veteran pitcher toiling in the minor leagues, tells the younger players about the one time he made it to the Major League? “I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life”. I had a less than mediocre playing career so after a few adult beverages the best I can do is, once again, bore my fellow coaches to tears with the story of how I got to experience the life of a football apprentice at Blackpool FC and Bolton Wanderers for a week. (I know, technically Bolton is not in Lancashire anymore).

I don’t want to make this a self-indulgent trip down memory lane (OK, maybe just a little, it is after all my blog). So if this entry is a little long, even by my standards, just scroll down to the bottom to read the conclusion by clicking here.

I hear you’re short a goalkeeper?

Like many goalkeepers, I came to the position late. For most of my “career” I was a forward, playing for Xerxes Rotterdam, at the time appearing in the Dutch First Division-Sunday Amateurs and the 1979/80 Dutch Amateur Champion. The thought of playing goalkeeper had never crossed my mind until two teachers at my high school decided to put a school team together with the sole purpose of going to England during Easter break to play against the youth teams of some lower level professional and semi-professional teams and to attend as many matches as possible.

For a soccer-mad fifteen year old it was a no-brainer. I had to be on that team. But try-outs were reminiscent of the scene in the Vinnie Jones version of the “Mean Machine”: The majority of the players trying out were strikers, most of them upperclassmen, including two who also played at Xerxes. Things were looking grim, until I realized that there was only one goalkeeper trying out. I had heard the teachers talk about wanting to take two goalkeepers on the trip. Although not the best at math, even I could solve this equation: I was trying out as a goalkeeper. And made the team. Now all I had to do was convince my mom to let me go on the trip, and talk her into getting me some goalie gloves.

Off to England

I managed to accomplish both those objectives. A few months later in early 1983, with my shiny new Uhlsports in my kitbag, we went on the trip, led by our coaches, math teacher Bart Hillebrand , PE teacher Wijbrandt Rus and Administrator Aad Bremer. The three of them, and 18 of us players jumped in the rented minibuses and took the ferry over to England. Final Destination: the Lytham-St. Anne’s YMCA where we were allowed to put our sleeping bags on the floor in some unused rooms for the week.

During my high school years, we went on this trip three times and I don’t recall us winning a single match. (I think we tied Morecambe once) Our first game ever was against Blackpool where Sam Ellis was the coach at the time. Having ended his playing career a few years earlier, he was in his first season as the Manager. He somehow knew our teachers and helped us set up some of our other matches. We lost 7-0 with me in goal. The next game we lost to Blackburn Rovers, 16-0 with a little winger named Francis Carr tormenting us, until he was substituted with Rovers up 12-0. I was grateful to be on the bench and felt bad for the other goalie, who actually played quite well. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt so, because after the game one of the Blackburn coaches came over and gave him a green Rovers goalie jersey. I recall wondering where between 7 and 16 the cut-off for a consolation shirt was.

We went to watch games at Bloomfield Road, Blackburn as well as Burnley, and played another two or three games that we lost, albeit by more respectable score lines. On the way back to Holland we stopped to play one last game, against Chesterfield. They let us play in the stadium under the lights, which was of course a huge thrill. All sixteen of our players got a run in, and I came out halfway through the second half. (I think we were down 3-1, and ended up losing 4-2). Pretty muddy, I went straight to the locker room to make good use of the best part of an English stadium locker room: the huge communal bath tub with enough room for the whole team. Filled it up and got in a nice hot bath with two or three other players who had also been substituted. About 5 minutes before full-time, the equipment manager walked into the dressing room to bring in the customary pot of tea when he saw us in the bath: “Did you lot fill that thing up? We only have enough hot water to do that once”. Oops. The rest of the team had to make do with cold showers. We might not have been the most popular guys on the team bus that day, but we were the best smelling ones.


Welcome to Blackpool.

After we came home, the team didn’t play much, just an occasional friendly against club competition since Rotterdam didn’t have any type of high school competition. The 83/84 school year started and we practiced every now and then in preparation for our trip that Easter break. One day in late September, out of the blue, Bart Hillebrand asked me if I was interested in going back to Blackpool during fall break and spend some time training with them and Bolton (the Seasiders were in the Fourth Division then and the Wanderers had just been relegated to the Third Division). Of course, I did! I was so excited it never occurred to me to ask what I had done to earn this privilege. My parents were not convinced at first but my solemn vow to never, ever ask for anything, ever again as long as I lived, won them over.

So Bart, Aad and I went back to Blackpool, where we were able to crash at the Lytham YMCA again. Monday morning was the big day: report to the Blackpool training facility at 0900AM. The facility was on the southside of town next to a residential area and consisted of two practice fields and a small building containing two dressing rooms, a shower, a kit room and the gaffer’s office. Sam Ellis was in his second year in charge. His office door had that rough semi-opaque glass all office doors had in those years with his name stuck on it in adhesive black plastic letters. The name of one of his predecessors was still faintly outlined in the glass: “Alan Ball”.

I had met Sam during our visit the previous spring and he introduced me to some of the real apprentices and the rest of the team. I don’t recall names but there was one red-haired kid who, very surprisingly, went by the nickname of “Ginger”. Sam told me that I would be the only goalkeeper at practice since both first team goalkeepers were injured. The next day there was an away game at Wrexham, and the boys needed some finishing practice so it would be a busy day for me. For a brief, terrifying moment I thought that he was thinking of putting me in goal the next day but thankfully Sam kept me from wetting myself in front of the team by explaining that the replacement goalkeeper they signed would not get to Blackpool until that evening.

Training started with a few laps around the pitch, and then it was off with the assistant coach for some basic goalie drills. Right after that, I got to show off what little skills I had in the finishing exercise. The team came off two straight two losses without scoring a goal and it was obvious Sam had told them that this had to change. The pace and intensity with which the drill was executed showed that the lads got the message, and they were charging the goal and firing like the 3rd Infantry Division storming Sword Beach on D-day, with me playing the role of an overwhelmed German private. These guys put more pace on the ball than I’d ever seen and the speed of the drill was amazing. The competitiveness among the players was pretty intense as well, and I remember wondering what the word “wanker” meant, since it was used whether I made a save or let in a goal. I came to the conclusion that it had to be a term of endearment

Somehow I managed to survive the drill with a tiny sliver of confidence left. After that, it was decided that what we needed was a nice run. I was in good shape and always ran so I didn’t think it would be a problem. The training facility was near the famous golf course and across from the dunes so off we went at a pretty nice pace. Slowed a little bit when we hit the sand but the real surprise came on the other side of the dunes: the October wind coming off the Irish Sea straight in our face. The practice session had taken more out of me than I realized and pretty soon I was falling behind, with the team out of sight. Thankfully, the trail was pretty easy to follow and I found my way back. The team was sitting there, enjoying a cup of tea. I joined them but just as I reached for my cuppa, Sam came in and stated “Last guy is here, break is over”. Welcome to Blackpool. Even today, an aerial shot of the dunes around the Lytham-St.Anne’s golfcourse during television coverage of the British Open is enough to cause me to curl into the fetal position in the corner of the room and suck my thumb.

After the initial shock had worn off, I was able to more or less hang-on in subsequent days and even have a few decent saves in scrimmages. In the afternoons, I joined the other apprentices in shining the senior players’ boots, cleaning the showers, sweeping the dressing rooms, etc. In the evenings Aad, Bart and I went to matches, watching Liverpool play Athletic Bilbao in the Europa Cup One and attending a mid-week fixture at Tranmere Rovers.

Is that a dog track around the practice field?

Thursday was another big day. Off to Bolton for a day of training with the Third Division Wanderers! My coaches had already informed me that the team actually had a dedicated goalkeeper coach. We got to Burnden Park and I was still a little surprised that they were actually expecting us. The receptionist told me to go to the second area in the dressing room and use kit number 33. The fact that they had two(!) sections in a dressing room and were using numbers higher than 22 blew me away. At my club team we were given our jerseys for matches, but here they gave you the whole kit, including underwear, for practice! So this is how the big boys do it!

It was time to meet my boss for the day. Charlie. I could say his last name was Mc-something but the sad truth us that I never got his last name since my high school English had a hard time understanding some of his brogue. Charlie was a Scottish keeper who had spent time playing in Asia and, if I understood it correctly, made an appearance for Hong Kong. To a sixteen year old everybody over 21 looks ancient, but he must have been in his late thirties, early forties at the time. ( Edit 04/08/2016: While reading Sam Allardyce’s autobiography “Big Sam”, I found out that Charlie’s last name was Wright, and he had quite the career at Charlton Athletic. Only took me 34 years to find that out) He introduced himself, Aad and Bart joined us and we talked about football and goalkeeping as we walked to the training field, which was down the way a bit, in the middle of a dog track. An active dog track, as I was to soon find out.

There were three other keepers, the two Bolton first team players and a kid a year or two older than me who said he was the fourth or fifth choice at Southampton and was trying to get a transfer in search of playing time. We did a couple of general ball handling drills and Charlie took me aside a few times to make some coaching points.

Having never had any formal training, I had decent basic technique but some of the finer points of the craft were foreign to me, in particular how to best protect yourself when coming of your line or going for crosses. Charlie taught me how to do that, pressing the point that keepers have to be aggressive and fearless. I had been told that before, but Charlie punctuated it by sliding out his fake two front teeth with his tongue. “Made the save, though” he said grinning with his teeth missing which reminded me of Joe Jordan.

Charlie had his own unique way of making you deal with pressure. When we were starting a finishing drill, he explained that for every goal I gave up I owed him a pound, for every save I made he owed me 10 pence. Only shots on target counted. After three full days at Blackpool I was finally getting used to the pace of play so I was pretty happy with myself that I only ended up owing him less than three pounds.

Practice was about two hours, after which Charlie asked if I wanted to work on something in particular. Despite being a good field player, I had a hard time with goalkicks and punts, which tended to veer to the side so I asked him for help on that. We went over some of the basics and kicked some balls into the net. It seemed like I was trying to overpower the kick in an attempt to get distance leading to slicing or shanking, so we went about fixing that. When it seemed like I was making some progress, Charlie decided to up the stakes by having me kick and punt downfield, gently reminding me that we were surrounded by a dog track where there were races going on. People were betting on those races. “Punters won’t take kindly to a ball bouncing in front of the dogs during a race” he said “and you have to walk past them on the way back to the locker room.” It did the trick, by concentrating on direction rather than power, my kicks went both straighter AND farther. Lesson learned. No mad punters waiting for me at the gate. I was so relieved that I never asked Bart and Aad if they put any money on the dogs.

Friday was the last day at Blackpool for a light practice since there was a match the next day. We watched the team beat Chesterfield on Saturday and. after saying our goodbyes to Sam and my “teammates” we travelled back to Holland on Sunday.

That Easter we travelled back and played Blackpool again; and lost again, (5-3 I think, so at least there was progress) Talked to Sam and the coaches while there. I saw Charlie that spring as well. We went to watch a game at Bolton and the club was kind enough to allow all of us access to the clubroom after the match. I talked to Charlie about goalkeeping and my progress for about an hour before we left. Charlie was a teacher, and I left the stadium with a headful of tips, pointers and things to think about. The last I saw of him was when we were walking to the team buses and he drove by in his large golden-brown Mercedes (it was the 80s!) and waved.

I graduated high school in 1986 and went to the US a few years later. With no internet, very limited media coverage, and a career to pursue, I drifted away from football until I started playing again in 1997. It was when I started coaching a year later that I realized how important these men, and the experiences they had given me, and what they would lead to later in life.

So what did you learn?

I’m not going to pretend that I learned everything I needed to know in that one week. But that week watching Sam and Charlie planted a seed, and provided me with a baseline. Later on, when I started coaching myself, I realized that the good coaches I worked with had a lot of things in common, with each other as well as with Sam and Charlie. As different as their personalities, training methods and playing philosophies might have been, there were three things they all seemed to have in common.

1. You need to have a clear vision.

One thing I did learn immediately. You have to have a clear vision of how the game should be played. Just like Dennis Bergkamp would later say that “there has to be a thought behind every ball”, Charlie had taught me that there had to be a thought, a philosophy behind a keeper’s actions. Everything you did had to have a purpose. From ruling the box, to organizing your defense, to using the right technique not just to protect yourself, but to send a message to the world: “This is my penalty area. I own it. Enter at your own risk”. When you coach a team, you need that same clear vision. People might not agree with your philosophy, in fact there are going to be plenty of people who disagree with it, but you still need to have a clear idea on what you want to accomplish and how you are going to go about doing that (paging Jose Mourinho!). If you can’t sum up your philosophy in a few short sentences, it’s no good.

2. You have to be yourself.

You have to be able to get your players to believe in your vision. Charisma might help with that but what you really need is the ability to effectively communicate with your players in order to impart the knowledge they need to understand your philosophy, which allows them to accept and realize your vision. You can’t do that if you’re pretending to be somebody else. Players, and young players in particular, pick up on that. Your delivery has to fit your personality. There is a reason you never hear about Arsene Wenger’s “hairdryer” treatments.

3. It’s not about you, it’s about your players.

You can’t be a (volunteer) youth Goalkeeper coach for the money (the pay is awful, but at least the hours are terrible) or the fame (it is rumored that at least half the GK coaches in the world are actually in the FBI witness protection program). The coach’s responsibility is to make the kid that shows up for practice a better keeper. You don’t have to make him a champion. You just have to make him the best goalkeeper he can be. It’s impossible to be an effective youth coach, if you put your own interests first. You have to teach because you love the game.


“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Albert Schweitzer

I went to Lancashire in 1983. I was a decent keeper but I wasn’t that good. At the time, Third and Fourth Division teams didn’t sign foreign adult players, let alone apprentices. Sam and Charlie didn’t have any reason to allow some pimply skinny Dutch youth player to practice with their squads. There were no agents shopping marginally talented kids around all over Europe. Bart, Aad and Wijbrand didn’t spend their vacation driving a bunch of unruly teenagers around England because they were hoping to make a quick guilder. They did it because they loved the game and wanted to share it with the next generation. That is what good coaches do. These five were the first to show that to me, but since then I have come to the realization that it is a trait that all good youth coaches share. You can’t be a good, effective youth coach unless you love the game.

And maybe that was the biggest lesson of all.





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Penalty Kicks: Is guessing a sucker’s bet?

“I think of them [penalty kicks] as no-lose situations for a goalkeeper. All the pressure is on the field player, who is supposed to score”. – Brad Friedel (Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Tottenham and US MNT GK)

So much has been said and written about what the best method is to save a penalty kick that yet another entry seems a bit like beating a dead horse. But a lot of research has been done in recent years, and a lot of additional statistical tools have become available so considering that there are a bunch of Cup finals and a WC Tournament coming up, so maybe we should take one more wack at the old nag.

Game Theory

One of the first scientific approaches to saving penalty kicks was a study done by Dr.Ignacios Palacios-Huerta (http://www.palacios-huerta.com/research.html) He used the mathematical game theory approach to analyze several hundred penalty kicks. The conclusion of the study was that both striker and goalkeeper should adopt the “Mixed Strategy” approach to maximize their chance of success. The shooter should go to his “natural side” (left side for right footed players or to the goalkeeper’s right, right for left-footed players or the goalkeeper’s left) 61.5% of the time and to the other side 38.5% of the time. A goalkeeper should dive to the shooter’s “natural side” 58% of the time and choose the other side 42% of the time.

You can’t save a well-taken penalty kick

In 2010 ESPN Sports Science ran a short item comparing the degree of difficulty of hitting a baseball to that of saving a penalty kick. 

Their calculations showed that a 90mph fastball reaches home plate in 440 milliseconds, while a batter needs 150 ms to react and swing his bat. A 70mph penalty kick reaches the goalline in 400 ms while a keeper needs 100 ms to process the information and another 100 ms to initiate a dive. And even though a 6’3” goalkeeper can cover the area of the goal with just a single powerstep, it takes him 730ms to reach the posts in a dive.

That makes for very simple math: You cannot save a well-taken penalty kick. In order to have a chance, the keeper has to give himself a 330 ms head-start. But diving that far ahead of the kick, gives the shooter time to put the ball somewhere else.

It is interesting to note that, even though they have much more information available to them than goalkeepers do (a pitcher will throw between several hundred to well over a thousand times over a season while a batter will have a few hundred “at-bats”, often consisting of multiple pitches thrown, which means that there is an incredible amount of statistical data available on the habits and tendencies of each player in every possible situation) and even though they have three “strikes” available, baseball hitters don’t guess when hitting. They wait until they see the pitch before swinging. Granted, they have 150 ms more to think than a keeper but that’s still not a lot of time.

More Research

Michel Bar-Eli and Ofer H. Azar at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have done several interesting studies in regard to goalkeeping, among them Penalty kicks in soccer: an empirical analysis of shooting strategies and goalkeepers preferences. Soccer & Society, 10:183-191) as well as Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology -2005

The conclusion of these studies shows that: “Given the probability distribution of kick direction, the optimal strategy for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s center. When goalkeepers remain in the center of the goal and the shot is placed in the center, they make the save 60% of the time. Given that about 30% of penalty kicks are placed in the center third of the goal, remaining stationary in the center of the goal increases the keepers chances of stopping the shot from about 13% to more than 33%. Thus, the best strategy for goalkeepers is to remain in the center of the goal during the penalty kick. Goalkeepers, however, almost always jump right or left. We propose the following explanation for this behavior: because the norm is to jump, norm theory implies that a goal scored yields worse feelings for the goalkeeper following inaction (staying in the center) than following action (jumping), leading to a bias for action.

Thus the idea that keepers should jump left or right and hope they guess correctly is not supported by these numbers”  

Let’s look at Lamps.

With the above research in mind, I wanted to take a closer look at how a player takes penalties. I don’t have access to a lot of penalty stats but Paul Riley (@thefootballfactman / http://differentgame.wordpress.com/) did some great research work involving Frank Lampard’s penalty kicks and he graciously allowed me to use it. You can find Paul’s original articles here and here.

Paul does an excellent job breaking down the numbers in relation to the mixed strategy approach so I want to focus on some other numbers: lampard PK2 There are three stats that jump out:

1. Lampard doesn’t have a “tell”. Goalkeepers facing Frank Lampard guessed correctly 48.5% of the time. All the investigating, the data analysis, the cognitive science research, the dvd watching, etc. and the success rate for guessing the correct direction of a Lampard penalty kick is just about equal to tossing a coin. So in 51.5% of the situations, the quality of the penalty kick itself was irrelevant since the goalkeeper went the wrong way. Essentially, 35 out of 58 Lampard goals were “freebies”, because the goal was already scored prior to the kick.

When the keepers guessed correctly, their save percentage was 27.3%. Which means that, even if a keeper guesses correctly, 7 out of 10 Lampard penalty kicks still go in. In my opinion that proves the point: You can’t save a well-taken penalty kick.

2. Lampard is extremely accurate. If a player is aiming for the far corner, you would expect him to occasionally make an error and miss the target. In 68 attempts, Lampard went wide once. The reason for this could be that he places his penalties further inside the post, but that would mean that his shots are easier to save when the goalkeeper guesses correctly. But even when they guess correctly, goalkeepers only save 27% of Lampard’s penalty kicks, which means that his placement is very accurate, once again showing that you can’t stop a well-taken penalty kick.

The second graph shows even more proof of that. In the 16 PKs (23.5% of Frank’s total) taken against Friedel, Reina, van der Sar and Given, these four worldclass keepers guessed correctly 62.5 % of the time, yet saved only 2 penalties, for a save percentage of 12.5%. So even though their guessing correct percentage was 15% above the average, their save percentage was 1.1% lower than average. (Trivia: the only keeper to save more than 1 Lampard PK is Hull City’s Allan McGregor who saved both Lampard spotkicks he faced, one in the Premier League with Hull City and one in a friendly with Rangers).

3. Lampard knows Neeskens. In their research paper “The Penalty-Duel and Institutional Design: Is there a Neeskens-Effect?”, authors Wolfgang Leininger and Axel Ockenfel noticed that the scoring probability in penalty shooting increase by 11% after 1976 compared to rates prior to 1974. They presented evidence that part of this increase was due to Dutch international Johan Neeskens taking a penalty through the middle in the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany. As a result of going through the middle, Neeskens (probably unwittingly) changed the game-theory terms regarding penalty kicks from a 2×2 game to a 3×3 game form where “The scoring probability in equilibrium of the latter institution is higher than in the former one”.

Frank Lampard went through the middle 11 times (16.2%), and scored all 11 times. The research by Bar-Eli and Arfa shows that if a goalkeepers remains in position, he will save 60% of the shots through the middle third. In Lampard’s case, that means that if a keeper had stayed in place, he could have expected 7 (OK, 6.6 to be exact) of those penalties to hit him squarely in the schnoz. In comparison, Lampard had 9 out of 68 penalties saved. In order to match that number a goalkeeper who stayed in position would have to save an additional 2.4 penalties out of 57. When facing Friedel, Reina, van der Sar and Given, Lampard went through the middle three times, which would give them 1.8 “expected saves” almost the same amount as the actual 2 saves they made in 16 total penalties.

Should we track penalty kicks a different way?

With all kinds of new technology at our disposal, maybe it is time that we start thinking about changing the way we track players taking and saving penalty kicks. Maybe use something similar to the “Expected Goals per game” stat. Rather than tracking a kick by placement left, right and center we should use some of Bar-Eli and Arfa’s research and categorize a penalty kick by the save possibility percentage , maybe based on keeper reaction time. The 3 or 4 feet either side of center could be categorized as “high save probability”. I’d imagine that the “unsaveable” area would be a curve from about 2 feet inside the low post to about 4-5 feet inside the crossbar with the rest of the goal area designated “medium save probability”. With that done you could more easily compare performance between both keepers and shooters. Maybe something like this:


A method like this would allow easier performance comparison between goal keepers. For instance, Friedel has a 0% save percentage against Lampard and McGregor has a 100% save percentage. And according to transfermarkt.com, the Scottish international has a career penalty save percentage of 30.3%, almost twice that of the American keeper (15.9%). Does that make McGregor a better penalty stopper than Friedel? Maybe. Friedel guessed correctly on 60% of the Lampard penalty kicks he faced but all three of them went in. Did Lampard put them in the “unsaveable zone”. What if the two kicks saved by McGregor were in the “high save probability” zone? Friedel is one of only two goalkeepers to save two penalty kicks from open play during a World Cup final tournament. (Poland’s Jan Tomazewski is the other). Where were those penalties placed? How about the kicks Tomazewski saved?

By considering where the penalty kicks faced by a goalkeeper were placed would allow us to calculate an “expected penalty save percentage” for each individual keeper which could be compared to actual performance to determine if a keeper over- or under-performs. It would also allow for a better performance comparison between keepers.

The method could also be used to analyze shooters. For instance, if a shooter has a high scoring percentage but places a lot of his shots in the high and medium probability zone, one would have to conclude that this player is very good at making a goalkeeper move prematurely (i.e. Mario Balotelli) Conversely, one could identify players that put a high percentage of his shots in the “unsavable zone” and then separate the ones who tend to go wide a lot from those who hardly ever miss (I would suspect Rickie Lambert and Matt LeTissier fall in that category). Comparing shooter behavior in different situations such as league games vs. shoot-outs could give insight into a player’s mindset in different situations.


Legendary NY Yankee catcher Yogi Berra could have been talking about saving penalty kicks when he stated that: “90 percent of this game is half mental”. The psychological aspect of the penalty kick is crucial, and, unlike the mathematical aspect, favors the goalkeeper. I agree with Friedel that with penalty kicks, all the pressure is on the shooter who is expected to score. That pressure only increases during shoot-outs when the keeper doesn’t have to worry about rebounds.

So make the shooter beat you. By reacting rather than guessing, a goalkeeper can increase the pressure on the penalty taker by forcing the shooter to take a good penalty. Go for the “low-hanging fruit” and give yourself a chance at saving the less than perfect kicks. Eliminate the “Neeskens effect”. If a player knows the keeper is not going to guess, it makes the option of kicking the ball through the middle less appealing. Fewer kicks through the middle mean more shots to the side which increases the chance of a PK being off-target, which, from a goalkeepers perspective, is just as good as a save.

My philosophy for in regard to saving penalty kicks is simple: Don’t guess, go for the low-hanging fruit, make the saves you’re supposed to make and force the shooter to beat you.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.



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