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 ( 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 / 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, 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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Accident Analysis for Goalkeepers.

Accident Analysis for Goalkeepers.

Just like with goalkeepers, airplane pilots are often the first ones blamed for accidents, even when they might not be at fault. And although placing the blame like this might be easy, it does not help much in explaining why, or even if, the pilot  / goalkeeper made an error. Without a proper explanation, it is impossible to understand why something happened and without this understanding there is nothing to prevent the error from happening again.

The Swiss Cheese Model

In the mid-nineties, as part of our training, pilots were taught about a risk-analysis model called the “The Swiss Cheese” model or the “cumulative act effect”. This model, which was originally constructed by Dante Orlandella and James T. Reason of the University of Manchester is sometimes deemed to be overly simplistic, but it is a very useful model for basic analysis.

The model states that most accidents happen because of the cumulative result of different acts. Imagine a couple of slices of Swiss cheese. Each slice will have air holes in it, but they are in different positions and of different size in each slice. If you put the slices together to form a block of cheese, some of the holes might line up, but it is not very likely that all the holes line up from the front of the block to the back. In the model, an accident occurs on the rare occasion that all the holes DO line up. Identifying what caused these holes to line up allows you to take action in order to prevent it from happening again.

In aviation each “slice of cheese” represents a barrier. One slice would represent for instance airplane systems, another standard operating procedures, yet another one external factors like weather or Air Traffic Control with the last slice being the pilot. Any of these barriers working properly would prevent a situation from deteriorating. For an accident to happen, all these barriers would have to fail, at least partially, lining up the holes in the Swiss cheese. Of course there are occasional exceptions where the situation has deteriorated to the point that there is nothing the “last slice of cheese” (the pilot) can do to prevent an accident from happening, or where everything works as advertised, only for the pilot to make a huge error.

Cumulative Acts leading to Goals

It’s the same with goalkeeping. If a defensive error leaves the goalkeeper alone facing two strikers, there is very little he can do to prevent a goal, other than covering the short corner and hoping that the striker will take the shot rather than pass it off to the side to the other striker. Alternatively, the team can do everything right only for the keeper to make a “howler” of a mistake leading to a goal.

Most cases aren’t this simple. Goalkeeping especially remains an area in which the available statistics often do not tell the whole story so analytical skills are required for coaches at any level. Game stats do not necessarily show where the first error is made, starting the domino effect that leads to giving up a goal.  OptaPro has an “errors to leading to goal” stats category, which is “allocated when there is a glaring error that leads directly to a goal. It normally applies to players that have miskicked the ball into the path of the opposition or misplaced a pass straight to an attacker, but only during the phase of play that leads directly to the goal and would have to be very obvious” (Thank you, Simon at OptaPro for taking the time to explain it to me) As a result, in almost every game at every level there are situations leading to goals where an analysis using the “Swiss Cheese” model can be of great use.

Sample Analysis – High School level

A few seasons ago, we gave up a goal and in watching the highlight tape it showed the opposing striker chipping our goalkeeper, who was at about the penalty spot, from approximately thirty yards out. It would seem like a clear-cut case of the goalkeeper being out of position. Until you rewind the tape a bit further and take a closer look at where the action leading to the goal started.

Our goalkeeper came out to intercept a through-pass in the box on his left hand side a few yards inside the 18-yard line. He then ran across to the top of the box on the other side of the goal and threw the ball to our right full back. That took a second or two. The ball bounced high, and the fullback had a difficult time controlling the ball while also coming under pressure from the opposition’s midfielder. The fullback got a weak, high pass off to our central defender who couldn’t immediately clear it. The ball bounced in front of the other team’s striker who didn’t hesitate and took a shot on goal, which went over the keeper who was still backpedaling from the top of the 18.

Had the back been able to control the ball, or the central defender been able to clear it, there would not have been a goal. These were “contributing factors” but the real mistake happened before that: By running from the one side of the box to the other before throwing the ball to the fullback, the goalie gave the opponent’s midfielder time to close the gap and put pressure on the defender. It wasn’t necessary for the goalkeeper to do so, because his arm strength was enough to get the ball to the defender from further out, as evidenced by the fact that he overthrew the ball, which was the main reason the defender could not handle the ball to begin with.

So using the “Swiss Cheese” model allowed us to determine that the most important thing to fix in this situation was the goalkeeper’s awareness in regard to restarts, not necessarily his positioning skills. By throwing the ball earlier, he would not have signaled his intentions to the midfielder. It also would have given him the chance to let the ball bounce earlier and stay low, making it easier for the defender to handle the ball. This simple action could have been enough to prevent the situation from escalating the way it did. But even if it had escalated, the keeper would have been in a better position to get back to his line quickly, minimizing the possibility of getting chipped. This one action would have made the holes in every slice of the Swiss cheese smaller.

Sample Analysis – Professional Level

Things like this happen in the professional game as well. For instance, in their 6-1 loss to Man City, Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris made a couple of great initial saves only for the rebounds to be converted. But this doesn’t tell the whole story.

In the first goal, a backpass was poorly cleared by Lloris and retrieved by City. The ball came to Negredo who had enough time to take a shot. Lloris made the save but palmed the ball back into play, which was tapped in by Navas. There are “contributing factors” here, like the Spurs defense failing to put pressure on the City players on several occasions, but the cycle leading to the goal started with Lloris’ failure to properly clear a backpass.

The second goal was very similar, a bad clearance by Lloris caused a loss of possession, insufficient pressure by the Spurs defense allowed City to counter and take a shot on goal, leading to a palmed save by Lloris falling to a City player who scored.

Plenty of blame to go around on both of those goals and a better performance by various Spurs’ players in any of those areas would have prevented these two goals. But using the Swiss Cheese theory, two things tend to stand out to a goalkeeper coach:  poor foot clearances by Lloris followed by him allowing rebounds to fall back into play.

I have only watched a limited amount of Spurs football this season and I don’t have any empirical data to back it up but from my observations it seems like Lloris gives up more rebounds back into play than the other EPL goalies. If anybody has any data on that, I’d love to see it.

The other problem area suggested by the analysis clearing the ball which could be particularly concerning for a keeper that likes to come off his line. Of course, the example is only one match so these two errors could just be a fluke. But historical data might suggest otherwise.

In an article in the Guardian a few weeks back, Jonathan Wilson wrote that Lloris had “successfully swept up behind his defence 33 times, more than anybody apart from Newcastle’s Tim Krul (39).”  He also noted that Lloris’ pass completion rate was only 42.5%. I don’t know how that pass rate compares to the other goalkeepers in the Premier League, but in this week’s Bayern-Arsenal game, Manuel Neuer completed 14 of 15 passes in the first half alone for a completion rate of 93.3%. (

To me, it seems that if you are going to sweep up behind your defense, your pass completion rate should be (much) higher than average for two reasons. First and foremost, a keeper successfully coming off the line to intercept a through ball leads to a change of possession, which gives his team a great opportunity to start a counter attack. But when you are playing that far ahead of your goal, you are going to be out of position to make a save, if required to do so. Therefore, not giving the ball away, especially in your own half is crucial. Blindly banging the ball long or out of bounds gives a keeper time to get back in position, but at the expense of losing the possession you just gained, and should therefore be avoided whenever possible. That’s why it is so important for modern goalkeepers to have the ability to make an accurate pass, both long and short.

An interesting stat to track would be how many of a goalkeeper’s inaccurate passes or clearances lead to loss of possession in the team’s own half, leading to shots by the opposing team


These examples are not meant to pick on Hugo Lloris. I think he’s a solid goalkeeper who has not yet realized his full potential. He has made his share of mistakes this season but some of them have come as a result of his willingness and courage to play the way the modern game requires. I’m convinced that improving his passing skills will greatly improve his effectiveness.

The examples above show that, regardless of playing level, the use an analytical model like the “cumulative act effect” can be very useful in interpreting keeper performance, identify probable weak areas, and fix them.



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Building Confidence in young Goalkeepers

Building confidence in young Goalkeepers.

“To risk life and limb and subject oneself to the ridicule that follows in hot pursuit of any silly error demands a special sort of courage and confidence” – Bob Wilson, (Arsenal Goalkeeper 1963-1974).

The importance of the mental aspect of being a goalkeeper has been universally recognized. But it takes a long time for a young goalkeeper to feel truly comfortable with his skills, and to understand the responsibilities that the role requires. As a coach, it is our responsibility to integrate this facet of the position into the training program as early as possible.

Knowledge and Understanding breed Confidence.

“You have to have fun. Once you work hard and do everything you can, the result is irrelevant. The key is to have conviction that what you are doing is the right thing.” – Ivan Lendl (Former #1 ranked tennis player and 8 time Grand Slam winner).

There are two very important statements in this Ivan Lendl quote. The first one is that you have to have fun. That doesn’t mean that you have to walk around with a huge grin on your face all the time, but it does mean that you have to enjoy being a keeper, that you are on the practice field because you want to be there, because you want to get better, not because your calendar says that practice is from 3 to 5.

The other important statement is that, not only should you have the confidence that you can do the job, you have to know that what you’re doing is right. So not only does a goalkeeper have to know where to position himself in relation to the ball, but he also has to know why he has to stand in that particular position and understand the reasoning behind this.

This understanding is crucial for a keeper to remain confident in the face of adversity. It is easy being confident when everything is going right. The difficult thing is remaining confident when you give up a goal, even if you are doing everything right.  But if you are 100% sure that what you did was the right thing, you can accept the fact that sometimes things don’t go your way, and remain confident.

Dennis Bergkamp once stated that he likes to curl the ball in the far corner because that is the most logical thing to do if the goalkeeper is positioned correctly. You can drill the ball right at the keeper and hope he makes an error but if you can curl it around him, the keeper has very little chance to make the save.

This is solid logic on the part of the Dutch striker. And it leaves goalkeepers with an apparent dilemma. Should you still cover the short corner, knowing that Dennis is going to curl the ball to the far post. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Because if you leave the near post, you give up the easy shot that anybody can take. By staying there, you take away the easy option and force the striker to take the difficult shot. Thankfully for goalkeepers – but unfortunately for football fans – there are only very few Bergkamp quality players in the world.  But even if you did give up a goal on a shot like that, your knowledge will tell you (or should tell you!) that what you did was the right thing, that you were beaten on a great shot and that by sticking with your position you have prevented many more goals than you have surrendered. “Once you work hard and do everything you can, the result is irrelevant”.

The knowledge which is at the core of this confidence cannot be gained only from games. It begins in practice. Coaches have to teach the position, not just the mechanical skills that are part of the position. Repetition and communication are key in achieving that.

Repetition and Communication.

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”  ― Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos QB)

Good players practice until they get it right. Great players practice until they never get it wrong. For a keeper, repetition is crucial. Not just for the muscle memory that it provides but also because it reinforces the knowledge that he has the understanding of the game to be in the right place, at the right time to take the right action to keep the ball out of the net. Or in Lendl’s words: “The conviction that what you are doing is the right thing”

Communication and discussion are crucial in teaching a goalkeeper the intricacies of the position. In most instances, there is more than one correct way to get the job done.  Sometimes it comes down to personal preference, sometimes there are other concerns that make you favor one approach over another. Telling a young goalkeeper to do something a certain way “because I said so” doesn’t teach him anything. Explaining why you want him to perform a certain action does. Explaining why different professional goalkeepers sometimes have different techniques helps a young keeper understand the thought process behind their decision making which in turn helps him develop his own style

For instance, if a goalkeeper asks why he was told not to come out for crosses outside the 6 yard box while Buffon does it all the time, a coach has to tell him that it is because Buffon is 6’3” and has been playing for decades while the goalie is 12 years old, 5’4”, and in his first season as a keeper. A question like that would be a good point to begin explaining how a goalkeeper’s physical attributes are among the factors determining a keeper’s playing style which in turn would be a good starting point in discussing with the player what his strengths and weaknesses are.

Finally, knowing what the right thing to do is also aids a goalkeeper in putting an error behind him. If you know what you did wrong (or even if you did something wrong to begin with), and know how to fix it, you will be able to tell yourself that this will not happen again, and believe it. An added benefit is that seeing their goalkeeper maintain his confidence and poise after making an error has a calming effect on the rest of the team.

No Pressure, No Diamonds

Football’s not pressure; it’s fun. If you want to heap the pressure on, then that’s you as an individual. But you play football as a game – Brad Friedel (Liverpool, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Tottenham and US MNT GK)

A professional goalkeeper like Friedel will have to deal with a few thousand people standing just behind his office, throwing a variety of objects while loudly questioning the purity of his father’s heritage or the marital fidelity of his mom. And although high school age goalkeepers play in front of much smaller crowd, the knowledge that the spectators are often family, friends, peers and students from a rival school can be quite daunting for a teenager.

Whatever the situation, at its core pressure is a self-inflicted state of mind, caused by a keeper’s fear of the consequences, either real or perceived, associated with failing to make the save and giving up a goal The mechanics required to make a save don’t change. The underlying physics don’t change. The only thing that changes is what’s going on between a keeper’s ears.

This mental state is not something that can be truly replicated in practice, because you can’t accurately recreate such a game environment You could try throwing hand grenades at a keeper during practice and it still wouldn’t be the same because the worse thing that could happen in that case would be merely death, while a goalkeeper who gives up a crucial goal has to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life whether he is at fault or not (something experienced by goalkeepers from Brazil’s Moacir Barbosa to England’s Robert Green).

But if pressure is self-induced it causes a bit of a Catch-22 situation.  You can relieve pressure by not caring so much about the outcome, but if you wouldn’t care so much, you would not be playing to begin with. And since good goalkeepers care, about their performance, there will always be at least some pressure on them. That’s where the “special sort of courage and confidence” mentioned by Bob Wilson comes in. A goalkeeper has to have the courage to face the fears that are the underlying cause of the pressure he is feeling. Fear can cause self-doubt, which can lead to a loss of focus, which in turn causes can cause a loss of confidence. So not knowing or understanding how to deal with pressure can cause a downward spiral. The way out of this spin is by limiting the amount of pressure you put on yourself, and force yourself to concentrate only on what’s happening in front of you, right now.

Swedish tennis star Bjorn Borg once stated that his greatest strength was his ability to forget about bad shots almost immediately, instead choosing to concentrate on the next point. This is something goalkeepers should try to do as well, and their coaches have to help them achieve that goal. So what to do if your keeper is not blessed with the short-term memory capacity of a Golden Retriever, and instead tends to dwell on his mistakes, however small? Include drills in your training program that force a keeper to maintain his focus and increase his mental strength. One technique I found particular useful is never allowing a drill to end with a goal or a dropped ball. If a goalkeeper gives up a goal on the last shot of the drill, continue until he makes (at least) one save, forcing him to keep his concentration level up and continue, rather than allow him to dwell on the error. By doing this on every drill, it slowly becomes a habit.

Once a goalkeeper has the mental strength to deal with pressure, it will be possible for him to become a diamond.

Set high, but achievable, goals.

It has been my experience that dedicated goalkeepers are much harder on themselves than their coach could ever be. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that a goalkeeper has immediate feedback on his actions: if the ball ends up in the net, something went wrong. My acid test for evaluating a goalkeeper consists of noting whether or not he gets irked when giving up goals in practice, even during finishing drills. The truly motivated ones hate giving up goals, whether in practice or in a game. Which means that yelling at them during a game for making a mistake or giving up a goal is not going to do anything except destroy their confidence, since they’re already down on themselves for making a mistake in the first place.

That doesn’t mean that a goalkeeper should be coddled or given a free pass every time he makes an error. It does mean that performance should be evaluated in a calm, unemotional environment, not during or right after the match. Analyze what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how this can be fixed. Then design training sessions so that any deficiencies or shortcomings are addressed and demand that the goalkeeper performs the drill at the appropriate performance level. In this environment, the keeper knows exactly what is expected of him.

What I mean by that is that you wouldn’t expect a 10-year old girl to perform a drill at the same level that Brad Friedel does it. Asking players to do things that they aren’t yet ready for is counterproductive. Demanding such a thing only lessens a coach’s credibility while frustrating the player. But practice should force a keeper to perform at the peak of his or her ability. You have to set the standards at a high, but achievable, level. The pressure comes from him attempting to meet those expectations. Confidence comes when the keepers manages to meet the expectations. In a drill, perfection should always be just one save away.

A coach’s “bedside manner” matters. Every goalkeeper’s personality is different. Each individual deals in a different way with pressure, and how it affects their confidence. Which means there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. Figuring out what approach works best with a particular goalkeeper is a very difficult, but crucial, part of the goalkeeper coach’s job.


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Knowledge and Understanding breed Confidence. Confidence allows a goalkeeper to deal with pressure. Therefore knowledge is essential to a goalkeeper’s ability to perform under pressure. It is a coach’s responsibility to teach that knowledge through repetition and communication, and increase confidence by setting high, but achievable, goals for each drill and training session. The manner in which that knowledge is taught has to be custom fit for each individual goalkeeper, especially in the modern environment where coaches and players often come from a variety of nationalities and/or social backgrounds and have often grown up with wildly different playing philosophies.

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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 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.



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