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Tactical theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeepers

Here it is, the final article in the series on intelligent movements.

Starring in this article are the goalkeepers, the final line of defence and the first line of the attack.

Since I’m not a goalkeeper coach or analyst by trade, I’ve invited some of my colleagues to contribute. They’re goalkeeper coaches and knowledgeable sounding boards for all of my goalkeeper questions.

This final tactical analysis on intelligent movements will look specifically at building out of the back, the role of the sweeper-keeper and how elite goalkeepers use angles to simplify their movements or draw predictable actions from their opponents.

Building out of the back

As the game has evolved, the goalkeeper’s role has evolved from a mere shot-stopper to now a hybrid of the traditional keeper and the now defunct sweeper. Especially now that the sweeper role is a thing of the past, goalkeepers have taken up a more prominent role in their team’s build-out. Without the 10th field player sitting deep behind the line to direct the build-out or offer a deep, negative pass, the goalkeeper has essentially become the 11th field player. This new ideation of a goalkeeper has put the onus on the #1 to contribute to the attacking phases, stressing the importance of technically sound goalkeepers.

Once an afterthought, goalkeepers are now central figures as their teams look to build out of the back. Their role can take on many different forms, accommodating the strengths and weaknesses of the players in front of them, especially the centrebacks. From short goal kicks to recycling play with a negative pass to the keeper, goalkeepers have stepped into a far more prominent role in the contemporary game.

Let’s break down exactly what this looks like during those early phases of the attack. We’ll start with goal kicks.

Though Marc-André ter Stegen has received considerable criticism in recent years, and rightly so in some cases, there’s no denying that he is still one of the top goalkeepers in the world when the ball is at his feet. When Barcelona is at their best, they are confidently building out of the back, coaxing opponents to venture forward in the hope of a final third recovery. In addition to his technical ability and tactical savvy, ter Stegen is very good at timing his passes forward.

Take this example from a match against Villarreal. Ter Stegen is positioned centrally in the box, allowing Barcelona to keep their opponents located centrally since there’s a threat that ter Stegen could pass to his left or right. The ball is played to his right and quickly returned to ter Stegen again. As the opponent gradually pushes forward to choke out any short and intermediate options, ter Stegen finds Frenkie de Jong in a pocket of space. The Dutchman does well to move higher up the pitch, improving his spacing between the opposition’s lines. Ter Stegen holds the ball long enough to force the opposition’s forwards to pressure him, which again buys more time for the rest of the high press to push higher.

Ter Stegen uses every possible second to draw the opposition forward before sending his pass into the feet of De Jong. The key here is in ter Stegen’s initial stillness and then his couple of touches forward to push the ball in front of him to prepare for his pass, encourage the first defender to close him down and invite the second and third defenders to advance higher up the pitch to restrict the short and intermediate passing options. The movement is subtle, but it unlocks a successful progressive pass.

“Remember, the same way a striker provides depth for their team in possession, a goalkeeper provides depth at the other end of the field. A goalkeeper’s position in possession can be key to creating space during the build-out phase of play.” Jamie Brackpool, goalkeeper coach RED Academy of Soccer

A common theme in this article will be slight movements to unlock larger possibilities. The position has such refined technical actions and movements that it’s no surprise that many of the tactical nuances will also follow that pattern.

That’s not to say all movements are slight. On the contrary, when goalkeepers participate in the build-out, many are often very active. The principles at play mirror those of the field players. Angles, distance, and the utilisation of space are all key if goalkeepers are to help their team build-out of the back.

There’s a great example of this movement from ter Stegen’s La Liga rival, Thibaut Courtois. When the big Belgian arrived at Real Madrid, critics bemoaned how uncomfortable he was with the ball at his feet. The criticism was fair. For a Real Madrid side that likes to build out of the back and use their goalkeeper heavily in those early phases, Courtois struggled in his first year in the Spanish capital.

However, by year two, he was considerably more confident with the ball at his feet. That trend has continued into the current campaign. With his teammates under duress from the Sheriff press, Courtois made himself available to relieve the pressure of the build-out. The ball into him was poor, forcing him into the wide regions of the box. Fortunately, the ageless Luka Modrić was in the right-wing and ready to help out. The Croatian dropped deep to receive the pass from Courtois and Real Madrid calmly went about their buildup. As you can see in images numbers two and three from the four-image sequence, Real Madrid is enjoying a numeric superiority near the corner flag. Though there is some risk to the build-out while they’re pinned in the corner of the pitch, Courtois does well to offer an outlet at all times. His movement is along the end line and constantly corrected to ensure his teammates have a way to play into him. The ball does eventually make its way back to Courtois as the opponents become unbalanced near the ball. Once Courtois receives, the job is a simple one, playing to Casemiro who finds Modrić, breaking the press.

Ultimately, the principles of movement in the example are very similar to a deep field player. While there is still that lingering concern as to how he should position himself and react if the ball is lost, Courtois is best serving his team as the deepest outlet and is situated outside of the press of the first and second defenders. This approach to the build-out makes goalkeepers who are comfortable using their feet a real asset to their team.

Goal kicks and the build-out will generally dominate the goalkeeper’s attacking actions. However, after a failed attack, they can also serve their team as a deep outlet to recycle play. Sending the ball all the way back to the keeper allows the team to reset their attacking shape and decompress the opponent’s press block. Playing all the way back to the goalkeeper gives a build-out modelling, but there is room for tactical improvisation here, particularly when a negative pass precedes a long pass that skips lines in the attack.

The example I’ve picked out is one from Manchester City’s match against Chelsea. After City failed to break down the Chelsea press, the ball was played back to Ederson.  As they moved into their more expansive attacking shape, Ederson safeguarded the ball. With the incredible range and accuracy of his passes, opposing teams can’t afford to wildly pursue the ball without proper defensive structure. That added threat is good enough to buy him a few spare seconds.

As City gets into their expansive attacking shape and Chelsea sets their defensive structure, a gap emerges centrally with a 2v1 advantage in Manchester City’s favour. Ederson’s pass is on the money, but, surprisingly, Kevin De Bruyne is unable to complete the pass for an open field 2v1.

Whether from a goal kick, a standard build-out or recycling play after a field attack, goalkeepers have become an integral part of football’s attacking tactics. The better a goalkeeper is with his feet and the better he moves in tight spaces at the back, typically the more preventative his approach to the game and the greater his ability to help his team construct attacks.

Sweeper-Keeper

While the concept of the sweeper-keeper isn’t new, you could certainly argue that it has peaked in popularity. Manuel Neuer’s heroics at Schalke, Bayern Munich, and for Germany have shown the world the value of a goalkeeper who can also play the role of the sweeper as well. The first section addressed many of the attacking concepts that we tie back to the sweeper-keeper, so this one will look more broadly at the role. We want to understand the general concept, then turn to the specific actions that lead to success at the position.

At its core, the role of the sweeper-keeper is to manage the space between the backline and the endline. Without a field player in the old sweeper role, the responsibilities shift to the sweeper-keeper. Though he can’t stay as closely connected to the backline as the sweepers of the past (he does have to protect the goal), there is an acknowledgement that he bears responsibility for protecting the space behind his backline, offering them coverage and responding to balls played through or over the backline.

So, why is there so much space to defend?

First, the absence of a sweeper means there’s more ground for the other members of the backline to cover. Second, with the use of the high press, teams are requiring the defenders to play a higher line so they maintain connection throughout the pitch. That higher line leaves them exposed to balls played in behind. Sweeper-keepers compensate for those two changes in tactics.

“As well as providing depth in possession, a goalkeeper is responsible for keeping his team compact out of possession. As Scott mentioned, a team playing a highline requires protection from balls over the top and the goalkeeper, in absence of a traditional sweeper, should be called upon in these situations. If the opposition have possession in their defensive third, there is no real threat to the goalkeeper’s goal. Therefore, they have the freedom to take up an advanced position, closing the gap between them and their defensive line, without the risk of being chipped.” Brackpool

And no one does it better than Neuer. As mentioned, he’s not the first sweeper-keeper in history. That honour goes to Gyula Grosics, who played in the 1950s. However, it is fair to say that Neuer has revolutionised the role in the post-sweeper era. With his combination of defensive coverage and attacking contributions, he’s the face of the Sweeper-Keeper’s Union.

Let’s take a look at the role from a defensive standpoint. As Bayern Munich attacks, opponents will often play the odds and smash a ball into the Bavarians’ half of the pitch. If they can get a 1v1, or even a 1v2, there’s enough of a chance to gamble on a moment of individual brilliance or an opponent’s mistake. That’s exactly what we have here.

As the goalkeeper’s distribution is played into the path of his forward, it’s Neuer who gets to the ball first calmly heading it to Kingsley Coman while 45 m from goal. Neuer has spoken of his nervenstärke many times in the past. He describes the German word as showing his preparedness and confidence to deal with any scenario. At that distance from goal, his teammates can certainly sense it.

In our first Neuer example, his high positioning allowed him to head the ball to a teammate, who could then restart the attack from a high position. Anticipating the punt from the goalkeeper, Neuer quickly stepped up the pitch to end the counterattack before the opponents had a chance to link up. His high starting position and confidence were on full display, but, in this instance, it’s likely his anticipation that gets him to the ball ahead of the opponent.

Time for Neuer to outdo himself. Though we don’t know exactly how high Neuer was positioned in the first example, there’s no denying his aggressive starting position in the second. This doesn’t even come from a clear change in possession, such as a goalkeeper distribution.

In the second instance, the Dynamo Kiev defence manages a clearance and thinks they have a 1v1 high up the pitch. Enter Neuer. He’s first to the ball, this time claiming it a few meters into the opponent’s half of the pitch.

One of the things I love about the sequence is tracking Neuer’s movement. Once he plays a first-touch pass, he retreats until he’s roughly halfway between midfield and his own endline. After recovering his ground and seeing his teammates are 4v4, he corrects his body orientation and makes himself available to receive.

That final point is key. One of the greatest assets of a sweeper-keeper is his ability to contribute to the attacking phases of the game. Even in this instance where Bayern Munich is 4v4 with a significant gap between the lines, they have full confidence that any pass played back to Neuer will not only be handled well, but also help the team relaunch the attack. He relieves pressure from his teammates then puts it back on his opponents. Additionally, while Neuer and his four teammates navigate the high press, the remaining six outfield players are free to move into more dangerous spaces. They can do that knowing that the sweeper-keeper will take care of the ball and not require their deep drop.

Another way to say it is that the sweeper-keeper gives his teammates structure. As the 11th outfield player, his ability on the ball, which includes his passing, affords his team greater control of the pitch. Knowing that a player like Neuer or Alisson, who stars in the final example of the section, can be a playmaker from a deep, central position, everyone else in the squad can take up more aggressive starting positions.

Turning to the Alisson example, Ibrahima Konaté found himself facing his own goal and wisely decided to play his goalkeeper. As soon as he released his pass, Konaté moved in line with the 18, but stretched the pitch by moving into the wing. His movement into the wings was a little wider than expected, but with Alisson on the ball and two teammates in ball near positions relative to their marks, Konaté is well-positioned to take advantage of all the space on the wing. His teammate opts to turn inside rather than play wide, but Liverpool’s expansive shape creates a dilemma for the AC Milan defender. Move too far inside and he concedes to the wing. Move too far to the wing he gives space for dribble penetration in the central channel. Alisson’s dependability in possession is the starting point and a more expansive attacking structure is one of the benefits.

There are the naysayers who fault the aggressive starting positions and attacking participation of sweeper-keepers, pointing to the risk of losing the ball and the quality of the proceeding chance. While that is bound to happen on occasion, the confidence of the sweeper-keepers to deal with long balls high up the pitch and the value they add to their teams’ attacking tactics contributes to far more goals and defended opportunities than simply sitting back in a reactive orientation.

The sweeper-keeper, the 11th field player, is an aggressive and confident player who manages the space between his backline and goal. Their value is easily seen on film, but my hope is that this analysis has furthered the details surrounding the role and the benefits of a sweeper-keeper.

“For any coaches out there encouraging young goalkeepers to play a higher line, encourage them to have confidence in their decisions. If they make the decision to come for a ball outside of their box, they should stick to that decision. If they decide to stay in their box, that’s fine, but if they decide to sweep they must commit to winning that ball.” Brackpool

Playing the angles

To be quite honest, I had a difficult time with this section’s heading. Finding that catch-all phrase to classify each of the remaining ideas and examples under a single umbrella was a challenge (on three or four occasions), but I’ve gone with playing the angles.

While I never played goalkeeper at a high level, there was always one idea that stuck in my mind. Namely, that a goalkeeper should remain on a straight line from the ball to the middle of the goal then adjust the height of his positioning to account for the height of the ball. Seems logical, right? I can’t quite recall where I picked up that tidbit, be it from goalkeeper training way back at the start of my club play or if it came from a clinic with a renowned goalkeeper coach from one of Europe’s top national teams or clubs. Either way, that’s the way I’ve always coached my goalkeepers.

Then I studied film.

This could be down to a lack of deliberate focus on the goalkeeper position while analysing matches, but some of the starting positions I witnessed in the research phase of this article were truly extraordinary. They rocked my goalkeeper knowledge to its core.

When choosing an angle, the objective is typically to cover as much of the goal as possible at all times. Again, if something goes wrong, there has to be a plan to recover ground and make the last-ditch save. Or at least that’s the way I’ve always thought about it.

What I saw when analysing the best goalkeepers in the game is that their decisions go far beyond the straight line between the ball and the centre of the goal philosophy. What I saw was goalkeepers gambling, playing the odds that they could cover the near post while cheating, at times significantly, towards the expected delivery destination elsewhere.

Let’s take an example from Chelsea’s match against Leicester City. The home side created a 2v1 in the left-wing, which enabled them to slip Jamie Vardy behind the Chelsea backline. As he received the ball, his first touch came on the edge of the box, roughly 15 m from the endline. In frame number three we see that he’s approximately 12 m from the endline, still on the edge of the box.

Now, look closer. Look at Edouard Mendy’s positioning. He most certainly is not in line with the ball in the centre of the goal. In fact, he’s a step or two away from that positioning. As you can see from the shadow, which shows roughly which angle to the goal he’s cutting off, he has the far post covered while leaving the near post exposed.

Let’s break this down. You would assume he doesn’t expect the right-footed Vardy to have a shot at the near post with his left foot from that angle. That’s a difficult strike. Plus, the typical action in this series of events is to square the ball to the goalmouth for the oncoming runner to tap in. Third, if you zoom in on the picture, you can see that Vardy’s body mechanics show that he is going to square the ball towards the centre of the goal.

Mendy reads those cues and understands that he can afford to play the cross more aggressively. In frame four, he easily collects the pass at the top of the six. In the end, it’s a very simple interception, but it’s Mendy’s movement to concede space at the near post while aggressively positioning himself to collect the squared pass that keeps this from being a goal.

Final passes from the half space are in vogue. They carry a much better chance of connecting with the target than a cross from the wings, So goalkeepers have had to adapt. We’ve all seen that goal where the goalkeeper is hugging the post as the first attacker dribbles into the half space region of the box. Once he squares the ball to his teammate who’s running towards the goalmouth, the goalkeeper will quickly shuffle back across the goal to ready himself for the save. That’s when the forward uses the goalkeeper’s momentum against him, calmly disposing of his shot at the near post while the keeper hopelessly falls towards the far post. We’ve all seen it dozens of times.

So how do goalkeepers adapt?

Jan Oblak can help.

Vinícius Júnior has the ball in frame one and is weighing the possibility of dribbling 1v1 at his defender or buying time to play into the streaking run of Karim Benzema. With his defender playing so far off of him, delaying engagement for as long as possible, Vinícius Júnior decides to play into the path of his teammate.

This is where we’ll freeze for an analysis of Oblak’s positioning. In frame one he’s approximately eight metres from his endline and a step or two towards the near post. He is covering exactly 0% of the goal. Move to frame two and he’s now five metres from the endline and a step away from the centre of the goal. As you can see, he has the centre and far post well covered while conceding the near post to Vinícius Júnior. If the young Brazilian wants to have a crack, the chance is there.

The winger disguises his intent well, opting for a trivela that is almost impossible to defend against. At this point, Benzema is in the clear. Zoom in again and look at Oblak’s movement from frame two to three. Since he was only a step away from the centre of the goal in frame two, his recovery into a set position in frame three is incredibly simple. One side step and he’s set. From that position, he has taken away the majority of the goal and forced Benzema to hit a perfect half volley in stride into the side netting. As you can see, it’s Oblak who comes away with the save. Watching Oblak’s film, it wasn’t his footwork that amazed me. Rather, it was his ability to consistently get into a set position before his opponents could take their shots.

Between his set positioning and world-class reflexes, Oblak has established himself as one of the top goalkeepers in the game. What goes under the radar is the intelligent movement that we see in this scenario. It’s subtle, but it’s often those small movements that make the greatest difference.

In the Oblak example, you get the sense that he’s in control the entire way. Even though it’s a quality opportunity for Benzema, Oblak isn’t sliding across the goalmouth or quickly changing his positioning along the y-axis. He’s very well set there and the dynamic action comes at the end of the play with an excellent reflex save.

So what happens when the goalkeeper is forced to quickly move forward to cut down an angle to goal?

That’s where we turn to legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. In the away leg against Tottenham in the 2017/18 Champions League Round of 16, Buffon was caught too close to his line. Dele Alli played a through ball to Harry Kane, who ran beyond Giorgio Chiellini and into a 1v1 with Buffon.

Every goalie will step up and close the angle to goal in this situation, but it’s the aggression the Juventus keeper shows in this situation that is particularly impressive. He runs out quickly, yet under control. As you can see in frame two, he has the entire angle to goal covered due to the aggressive nature of his step. Going into frame two, you can see Buffon expects either a shot or dribble towards the near post. His left foot is in the air ready to make a kick save or attempt to stab at the ball as Kane dribbles past.

Buffon times his approach perfectly so that he makes up the most ground immediately after Kane’s prep touch. With the angle to goal closed down, the Englishman has no choice other than to dribble around the keeper towards the near post. Buffon’s raised left foot forces Kane even further to his right than he would have liked, taking him well away from the goal.

Those last few yards of Buffon’s step and the timing of it led to Kane taking a heavy touch, pushing the ball too high into the half space to give him a quick shot on goal. The touch was so severe that Buffon essentially gave his trailing defender ample time to make a recovery to the near post. In frame three, Kane is in the process of taking a weak shot. You can still see a path to the near post, but it’s a slight one given the defender still has half a second as well as the length of his slide to cover that ground. By the time the ball passes the defender and frame four, the post is well covered and the ball trickles wide.

Buffon’s movement to aggressively take away the angle to goal is a small detail, but it’s so important to this analysis. First, the odds of Kane’s scoring are incredibly low in this instance, at least from where he is in frame two. Second, the aggressive movement results in a poorly weighted chop away from the goalkeeper, worsening the angle to goal and buying time for the trailing defenders to recover. Third, it’s the timing of Buffon’s final two or three steps that finishes the job. He knows he’s not going to stop Kane himself, but he does know that his actions play a major role in affecting the quality of Kane’s actions. Buffon arriving when he did forced Kane into a lunging, heavy touch. Again, these are all small details, but they could very well have been the difference in determining which team progressed.

“Closing down the angle is an essential part of goalkeeper shot stopping. It is taking a proactive approach to raising the odds of success. However, coming out of your net isn’t always the best way to raise your odds. It depends on the angle of the shot. If the approach of the attacker is central, yes, come out and close the angle down. If the attacker’s touch takes them wide, much closer to the goal line, many goalkeepers will retreat to their net. This isn’t cowardice, but actually a really smart way of playing the odds. On a tight angle, the goalkeeper only has a small section of the net to cover, so, taking a starting position closer to the net gives them more time to react. It is also crucial that, when a goalkeeper does decide to come out and close the angles, they are set when the shot comes in. As the attacker’s head goes down to hit the ball, they should stop their approach and prepare for the shot.” Brackpool

Thus far, we’ve discussed how goalkeepers can use intelligent movements to find angles that optimise their engagement and impact in open play. But what about set pieces?

In open play, there are so many reference points goalkeepers have to take in on the fly and quickly perform a threat analysis. That analysis then informs them on the positioning they should take. And don’t take this as saying they’re doing Euclidean geometry in the flow of the game. In many instances, these are almost instinctual positions based on the experience the goalkeepers have acquired. It’s no surprise that goalkeepers peak so much later than position players. Experiencing different scenarios gives them feedback that they can then apply at a later time. The more they experience and deliberate reflection, the greater the growth possible into the early and mid-30s.

What’s incredible is when a young goalkeeper can process the game at a world-class level at an early age. That’s what we see in Gianluigi Donnarumma. Of all the goalkeepers in this analysis, it was he and Neuer that I enjoyed watching most. Both are so incredibly aggressive with their positioning that the viewer must decide whether the two are crazy or supremely confident in their abilities. I leaned towards the latter, though there’s possibly a touch of the former in there as well.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the analysis was in watching Donnarumma defend set pieces. Even when he’s defending corner kicks from the top of his six where he’s taking away 0% of the goal, his movements stray far from the norm, but in a good and fascinating way.

In the set piece example, frames one and two are from Italy’s qualifiers against Northern Ireland, whereas frames three and four are from the Euros final against England. Both are direct set pieces. The first is from deep and wide and the second not quite as deep and comes from the central channel. Two very different looks, but certainly a commonality in the theme.

In the first set piece, Donnarumma is standing at about the penalty spot, almost daring Northern Ireland to try and chip him. In the end, he takes two steps back and makes an easy catch. Against England, he’s at the top of the six as England prepares their set piece 37 m from goal. Again, it’s an aggressive starting position. Most goalkeepers will start three metres off their line in this instance, but Donnarumma is again daring the shot while anticipating the cross.

To help unpack Donnarumma’s actions, I’ve called upon my goalkeeping mentor, Tony Faticoni, manager of the Pfeiffer University men’s soccer team in the USA. He’s a former division one goalkeeper from Rutgers University where his goalkeeper coach was none other than Bob Bradley, who would later go on to coach the USA in the World Cup.

Faticoni said, “Donnaruma takes up some of the most aggressive starting positions I have ever seen.  The rule of thumb is goalkeepers are responsible for two/three of the space behind the backline. Due to his starting point, he can easily cover that space and then some. I am sure this is a tactic developed over years of trial and error. There is a huge benefit to his team, as he will handle many of the services and this in itself will become a big deterrent for teams delivering balls in the box.”

That trial and error Faticoni mentions is incredibly important. On a theoretical basis, you can certainly justify a higher starting point so that the goalie can more easily contest the first ball. But there is that balance between contesting the initial delivery and protecting the goal. A taller goalkeeper like Donnarumma has the size to protect against getting chipped. A few quick recovery steps and he’s well covered in each scenario. Plus, from those distances, they would have to be exceptional shots. The run-up to the shot itself would give away the free kick taker’s intent.

In each instance, you almost get the sense that he’s asking how high can I start without getting punished? He certainly gambles with the starting position, but it’s his aggressive placement that makes it easier for him to move during crowded and fast-paced set pieces. Runners in the box aren’t generally generous with the space they allow the goalkeeper to move into, so it’s Donnarumma’s intelligent starting position that creates simpler, smarter movements once the kick is taken that make him so effective during opponent set pieces. In the England example, in particular, if Donnarumma isn’t there to collect the delivery, England is winning the header. Though we’ll never know if they would have scored on that opportunity, what’s important to note is that Donnarumma played the odds game with his starting positioning into decisive and intelligent movement to end the threat. It’s cool keeping brilliance from the best young goalkeeper in the world.

Conclusion

And there you have it, the culmination of a four-piece series on intelligent movements. We’ve hit each of the four lines, producing roughly 20k words on the topic.

If you would like a recap of the articles, here are the links.

The first tactical analysis was entitled, “Tactical theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers”.

Second, “Tactical theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders”.

Third on the docket was, “Tactical theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders”.

The bad news is that this marks the end of the intelligent movement series on Total Football Analysis. That means I’ll have to find another topic to write about. The good news is that I’m expanding the research I’ve conducted in this series to write my next book which will focus on the intelligent movements of elite players and how we can deliver these ideas through training exercises.

The release date is to be determined, but follow me on Twitter (@CoachScottCopy) or connect with me on LinkedIn and you’ll be in the loop on the big announcement.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and, if so, that you’ve taken a moment to share it with a player, coach, analyst, or fan of the game.