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5 attributes a goalkeeper must have

In the old days field players looked down on goalkeepers, but not anymore. Goalkeepers are part of the backbone of any team. In modern football goalkeepers are stars of the game. In this post we discuss the key skills required to be become a great goalkeeper.

Size

In today’s political correct world, saying that size matters may be a bit controversial but it is a fact. While in other positions in the field it is not a crucial attribute to have, it does matter at goal. A short goalkeeper is a risk factor in every corner kick or high ball into the box. A tall goalkeeper is better at high balls, and also more effective at stopping direct shots. Their longer limbs and body cover more surface than a small goalkeeper.

Have a look at the height of some of the goalkeepers playing at big clubs: David De Gea (1.92m, Manchester United), Manuel Neuer (1.91m, Bayern Munich), Thibaut Courtois (1.99 m, Real Madrid), Franco Armani (1.9m, River Plate), Alisson Becker (1.91m, Liverpool) and so on. We are talking of modern football, years ago it was more common for clubs to have average height and even short goalkeepers (Jorge Campos and Rene Higuita, are famous examples).

If you are a young goalkeeper looking at a career at the highest level (EPL, La Liga, etc.) and you or your parents are under 1.8m height, try playing in other positions or be outstanding in the other attributes in this list. Carles Puyol is an example of a field player that couldn’t continue a career as goalkeeper due to injuries. Over his career, Carles demonstrated having all the other attributes mentioned in this post.

This blog is dedicated to help Sunday League teams and players, in that context it is difficult to find a goalkeeper, let alone a tall goalkeeper. However, having a big goalkeeper does make a massive difference. We struggle in my amateur team to find tall goalkeepers. We had once a goalkeeper that was outstanding in many areas of his game but he was under 1.7m tall. We suffered all season. He even finished in hospital after crashing with our center back (1.85m) and the opposition striker (also a big unit).

The video below from J4K confirms that size matters but also provides good advice for small goalkeepers.

Agility and quick reflexes

As much as goalkeeping has evolved, it’s still all about keeping the ball out of the net. The ability to react in split-seconds, contorting your body to block shots from close range is one of the most important treats of a goalkeeper. This requires agility and quick reflexes.

When a goalkeeper saves an unexpected shot or a deflection, it is often said that they had good reflexes. In reality, reflexes alone are not enough to stop the ball in these scenarios, agility is also required. Lets see the definitions of both terms. A reflex is“an action performed without conscious thought as an automatic response to a stimulus” and agility is “the ability to move your body quickly and easily”. Therefore agility and quick reflexes go hand in hand. For example, some people may have quick reflexes to play videogames, but they may be coach potatoes and not able to move their body quick enough. You need to work on both your agility and reflexes.

Reacting to shots from close distance is the most common way of training, but you can also work with tennis balls, ping-pong balls, all these different things being fired at you at a quick pace. You have to practice on it often and regularly. You can improve your reflexes at home on daily basis by using a reaction ball (see our training solo post).

In terms of agility, my experience is that the best way to improve it is to practice an additional sport that emphasises agility. Martial arts such as Taekwondo are great to improve your speed and agility. In matter of fact, Taekwondo is a Korean martial art with a heavy emphasis on kicks, which can become very handy to quickly deflect balls with your legs. Science confirms this: “Taekwondo training improves the neuromotor excitability and reaction of large and small muscles“. Zlatan Ibrahimovic earned a black-belt in Taekwondo at 17 when he was a still practicing both sports. While he is not a goalkeeper, his acrobatic goals are proof that his martial arts background had a positive impact in his agility.

Other sports like handball and indoor football are also good to improve reflexes and agility. Peter Schmeichel said once that he would never become best in the world if he wasn’t combining his football goalkeeping with handball goalkeeping.

Positioning

Positioning requires a good understanding of the game and concentration. Goalkeeper’s positioning is not restricted to know where to stand in a corner kick, a possible shot to goal, a penalty kick, etc. Like outfield players, goalkeepers must know where to position themselves during the game in relation to their team mates and opposition. The only difference with the rest of the players is that their position and movement in the field does not change with tactics.

In modern football, a goalkeeper that stays most of the time under the upright is a disadvantage. A goalkeeper needs to be in the right place at the right time to provide options to the defense, intercept and kick away a deep pass to the opposition striker, etc. In summary, goalkeepers are an additional defender, and as such, they must read the game and predict the movements of the opposition team.

Goalkeepers have to move with the last line of defense. For example, if their team is high on attack, there is no point to stay inside the box. It will leave a big gap between the defense and the goalie. If the opposition kicks away the ball behind the defense, their striker can pickup the ball and run to goal at ease. But if the goalkeeper is closer to the defense, they can intercept the ball and kick it away, or at the very least make the striker job more difficult and give the defense time to recover.

The video below showcases Manuel Neuer skills with the ball at his feet, and how he plays as an additional defender when needed. It is all about positioning.

Communication

This is probably one of the most important attributes of a goalkeeper. The goalkeeper is the only player who gets enough time to watch/read the game unlike the rest of the team that is busy focusing on the ball or their area of the field. For example, in a counterattack a defender may be focusing on chasing their mark but unaware that a second player is running free behind them. While field players are meant to constantly scan the field, it is very difficult to do it at full speed. In these scenarios is very important that the goalkeeper helps defenders to identify threats.

Sometimes team mates just simply lose concentration for a split second, it is the duty of the goalkeeper to quickly wake them up. For example, a defender may not realise that is leaving onside a striker and that needs to move one step forward. Another scenario is a free kick close to the goal. Players often argue with the referee or an opposition player instead of standing in front of the wall or simply making it difficult for the opposite team to take a quick free kick. A goalkeeper should not be shy about shouting at their team mates when needed.

Good and effective communication requires confidence. It is essential that goalkeepers are commanding and demand respect. If a goalkeeper is not confident, they will not be trusted by the players around them. A respected goalkeeper has the ability to lift the rest of the team through the way they handle themselves and communicate.

The video below from The Keeper Institute is a full session on how goalkeepers should communicate. I highly recommend watching this video.

Distribution

A great save is of little value if the ball is returned straight back to the opposition. Modern goalkeepers must be precise with both their hands and feet. Their ability to take opponents out of the game by turning defence into attack, over both short and extremely long distances, and whether heavily pressed or not, is crucial.

There are many ways of distributing the ball. While ideally a goalkeeper should be equally good at passing the ball with their feet, kicking long balls or long throws with their hands, depending on the playing style of a team, one skill will take priority over the others. For example, teams that play football from the back require goalkeepers to play with their feet more often in order to start attacks. Other teams may prefer an airborne game, in these scenarios a goalkeeper with a powerful volley kick is preferred.

Do not underestimate the importance of the overarm throw. Throwing the ball can be one of the most efficient ways of accurately bypassing multiple opponents. Manuel Neuer uses the overarm throw more than most keepers. The technique he uses is rarely seen these days, but it allows him to set counter-attacks up quickly.

The video below showcases a variety of distribution techniques used during professional games.


There are more attributes that make for a good goalkeeper, but the above are a good place to start. Goalkeepers that combine these skills make champions of otherwise average teams.

What do you think makes the perfect goalkeeper? We would love to know. Leave your comments below.

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