What makes a great Goalkeeper?

What makes a great goalkeeper?

As a goalkeeper coach, there are two questions that I am almost always asked. The first one is  “what is the most important skill / attribute for a goalkeeper to have?.” This question is impossible to answer, as it is equivalent to asking a doctor “which organ is the most important?”

The second question is “what makes a great goalkeeper?” Although certainly not as impossible to answer as the first question, the answer is not likely to be short, or universally agreed upon. So what would be the definition of a “great goalkeeper”?

There are various attributes and characteristics a great goalkeeper is required to have. Athleticism, courage, speed, reflexes, insight, strength and technique are just a few of the many qualities a great goalkeeper needs to succeed. But a shortage (or even absence) of one of these conditions can be compensated for by having an excess of another. One only has to look at some of today’s top goalkeepers to realize that there is no “one size fits all” formula.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden spent several decades perfecting his definition of “success”. The final version of his definition was “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”  I certainly don’t want to put myself in the category of Coach Wooden but if it takes a legend like John Wooden several decades to perfect a definition, imagine how long it will take a mere mortal like me.

But where to start?

I’m going to assume that there is no controversy in stating that the primary objective of a goalkeeper is to keep the ball out of the net.

Every goalkeeper wants a shut-out, and not just because of personal pride. You can still tie with a shutout, but you can’t lose. In their book “The Numbers Game; Why everything you know about football is wrong”, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally calculate that a shutout results in an average of 2.5 points per game (assuming 3 points for a win) whereas the scoring of a goal only gets you a single point per game. A team would have to score an average of over 2.5 goals per game in order to get the 2.5 points per game that a shutout gets. Therefore 0 is bigger than 1 or: 0>1. As Anderson and Sally say: “Goals that don’t happen are more valuable than those that do.”

So what is the best way to keep the leather out of the old onion bag? Johan Cruyff once stated that “You have got to shoot, else you can’t score”. A goalkeeper’s perspective would be the reverse of that: if they don’t shoot, they can’t score.

That doesn’t mean that I advocate a return to catenaccio (I’m Dutch, and we are forbidden by law as well as DNA to even think about that) As Barcelona has shown in recent years, possession can be as effective a defensive weapon as it is an attacking one. But this requires the modern goalkeeper to have a skill set that goes well beyond being able to make a save. Positioning and organizing are at the center of that skill set.

Of course, I do not mean to say that we should ignore the shot stopping part of goalkeeping. Absolutely not. We just need to recognize that goalkeeping is a multi-faceted discipline, and that goalkeepers cannot (and should not!) be judged by just the amount of recorded saves or their goal against average.

Every great goalkeeper is a great shot stopper, but not every great shot stopper is a great goalkeeper. And superior positioning skills are the basis for superior shot stopping skills. As Harry Rennie, (1873 – 1954) the former Hibernian, Rangers and Scotland goalkeeper said: “Master the theory of angles, and you master the men who score the goals”.  Those words are as true today as they were over a century ago. I don’t care how good your hands are, or how catlike your reflexes; if you’re standing in the wrong spot you’re not going to make the save.

One thing that has changed since Harry Rennie’s days is the requirement for a goalkeeper to be much more involved in field play, not just by clearing the ball as the “last line of defense” but also as the “first line of offense”, starting the possession.

According to the stats, a goalkeeper touches the ball with his feet seven times more often during a game than with his hands. And not every touch with his hands equates to making a save. So how important is it for today’s goalkeeper to have the organizing, positioning and foot skills to deal with the ball with his (her) feet in addition to the ability to make a glory save in the upper ninety?

In a recent interview with talksport.com Chelsea great Petr Cech, addressed the paradigm shift that occurred in the game:

“I remember when Ajax started playing with Edwin van der Sar basically as a libero. Everyone was like: ‘Wow, they are playing like this with their goalkeeper!’ But then you realise that this was the way forward – a goalkeeper shouldn’t just be in the goal to catch the ball when it comes to him. He is an extra player, he can see things from the back, he can pass the ball.

Players don’t just kick the ball for the sake of it, so why should a goalkeeper? You always want to find the solution that enables you to retain the ball, and you always need to know how to control the space behind the defenders. I was about 13 when Van der Sar started playing like that for Ajax, and I saw that this was the way. So as a goalkeeper now, you work more with your feet to make sure that, when you receive a back pass, you haveno problem; you can control, you can dribble, you can pass with both feet. He was the perfect example that goalkeepers are not only there to use their hands, but that is how he was brought up at Ajax. Now you see all goalkeepers try to develop like this, but it is important they do.”

I agree with Petr Cech that, in the evolution of the modern goalkeeper, van der Sar is one of the players who moved the position into a new era. It speaks volumes about Cech’s commitment to the position that he was able to recognize the upcoming change in how goalkeepers play when he was 13 and van der Sar was still at Ajax. But this playing style wasn’t really universally accepted until Edwin moved to Manchester United (after a less than successful spell at Juventus and a few season spent rebuilding his confidence at Fulham). But van der Sar was not the first to play that way at Ajax. His predecessor, Stanley Menzo, introduced the “keeper-sweeper” into the Ajax system.

Nothing illustrates how important this added requirement for goalkeepers is than a comparison between another legendary Manchester United goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel and van der Sar.

Peter Schmeichel was the best of his era, but as good as he was, his foot skills would be deemed wanting in today’s game. It is hard to imagine any of the Manchester United players of his time playing a 40+ yard back pass to Schmeichel from deep in the opponents’ half in order to switch the attack like they did on a regular basis with van der Sar.

Partially as a result of van der Sar’s way of playing, today’s goalkeepers now need to have foot skills almost on a par with the field players. This added responsibility means that there are also more opportunities for error, especially when the goalkeepers aren’t in the correct position when leaving the relative safety of their six-yard box.

Earlier this season Southampton’s Artur Boruc, who is an excellent and usually reliable goalkeeper, made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. First he gave up a goal to Stoke City when goalkeeper Asmir Begovic’s long clearance bounced over Boruc into the net after just 13 seconds of play. The game ended in a 1-1 tie. A few weeks later, the Polish International made the highlight reels again when his attempt at pulling a Cruyff turn on Arsenal’s Oliver Giroud went horribly wrong, leading to Arsenal’s first goal. (Giroud scored a second goal on a penalty kick). That means two out of the three goals surrendered in these two matches came as a result of positioning, organizing and foot skill errors.

Boric was credited with two saves in the Stoke game and with 4 saves in the Arsenal game. So do his two errors and 50% save percentage in these two games tell the whole Boruc story? Of course not! Although these two games do point out areas in which he can obviously improve, the rest of his performance in those games cannot be accurately evaluated without looking at the whole game.  In a 2006 interview with US Soccer, US WNT goalkeeper Hope Solo was spot on when she opined that “most fans don’t really know the intricacies of goalkeeping and can’t see in games if you are organizing your defense well, which limits chances, or reading the game, which can make your saves much easier. People will look at a stat sheet and see that a goalkeeper only made three saves, but that often doesn’t reflect the goalkeeper’s performance.”

How do you measure the goal not scored? How do you measure the action that prevents a shot from being taken?

To the best of my knowledge, despite the increasing use of game analysis, there is currently not a statistic that accurately measures the amount of saves a goalkeeper doesn’t have to make or the amount of goals not surrendered because of his (her) positioning and/or organizing skills.

So taking all this into account, I decided that my starting point for the definition of a great goalkeeper would be a slightly modified aviation adage that I learned in flight school:

“The Superior Goalkeeper uses his (her) superior positioning and organizing skills to prevent situations that might require the use of his (her) superior shot stopping skills”.

It’s a long way from perfect but I’m hoping for enough readers / comments to revisit the definition in a future entry.



About Coach Johan

I was born and raised in the Netherlands, and have been playing "real football" since I was old enough to identify a ball. Currently residing in Maryland, I hold USSF “D” and NSCAA “National” Goalkeeping coaching licenses, and have been a part-time Assistant / Goalkeeping Coach at the High School, Club, ODP and NCAA Div 1 levels since 1999. When not playing, talking, writing or thinking about football and goalkeeping, I remind airline passengers to keep their seatbelts comfortably fastened around them, in my day job as a pilot for a major US airline. I can be reached at jdevicq at icloud dot com. Please note that I do not do private training or camps
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5 Responses to What makes a great Goalkeeper?

  1. Jeff weimer says:

    Well thought out, I concur, I believe it is a combination of anticipation and positioning, not just on the shot but the buildup.
    Jeff ( going Friedl an their asses) Weimer

  2. jair1970 says:

    Great article.
    Really interesting to see the statistics movement trying to move into the ‘known unknown’ kinda area!

  3. Greg Marshall says:

    Excellent essay. I see so many coaches – especially at younger ages – that value the acrobatic GKs that are more style than substance. Casillas comes to mind at the professional level. Watching some of his saves in slow motion is almost comical. You’ll see that he makes the save w both feet on the ground, but he ends up flying through the air. He is skilled, but he’s more style than substance imho. I think it was Kasey Kellar who once said that some of his best games were the ones in which he didn’t have to make a save.

  4. LisaG says:

    Great article!

  5. LisaG says:

    Thanks for your articles! As the parent of a young goalkeeper I have been reading through several of your posts and found them really informative and helpful.

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