Field players looked down on goalkeepers in the old days, but not anymore. Goalkeepers are part of the backbone of any team and stars of the game in their own right. In this post, we discuss the key skills required to become a great goalkeeper.
In today’s politically 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 a goalkeeper due to injuries. Over his career, Carles demonstrated having all the other attributes mentioned in this post.
In the context of a Sunday League, it is difficult to find a goalkeeper, let alone a tall goalkeeper. Yet, having a big goalkeeper does make a massive difference. For example, our amateur team struggled to find tall goalkeepers. So we had 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 centre 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.
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 a 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. Let’s 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 a close distance is the most common way of training your reflexes. You can also train with tennis balls or ping-pong balls fired at you at a quick pace. Or practice anywhere/anytime with a reaction ball (see our training solo post).
Regarding agility, the best way to improve is to practice another sport that emphasises it. Martial arts such as Taekwondo are great to improve your speed and agility. For example, Taekwondo is a Korean martial art with a heavy emphasis on kicks, which can become very handy to deflect balls with your legs. Science confirms it: “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 still practising both sports. While he is not a goalkeeper, his acrobatic goals are proof that his martial arts background had a positive impact on 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 the best in the world if he wasn’t combining his football goalkeeping with handball goalkeeping.
Positioning requires a good understanding of the game and concentration. The 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 teammates and opposition. The only difference with other players is that their position 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 defence, intercept and kick away a deep pass to the opposition striker, etc. In summary, goalkeepers are an additional defender. They also must read the game and predict the movements of the opposition team.
Goalkeepers have to move with the last line of defence. For example, if their team is high on the attack, there is no point to stay inside the box. It will leave a big gap between the defence and the goalie. If the opposition kicks away the ball behind the defence, their striker can pick up the ball and run to the goal at ease. But if the goalkeeper is closer to the defence, they can intercept the ball and kick it away. Or at the very least make the striker job more difficult and give the defence time to recover.
The video below showcases Manuel Neuer skills with the ball at his feet, and how he plays as a defender when needed. It is all about positioning.
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 teammates 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 teammates when needed.
Good and effective communication requires confidence. Goalkeepers must be 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.
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 is crucial.
There are many ways of distributing the ball. Ideally, a goalkeeper should be equally good at passing the ball with their feet, kicking long balls or long throws with their hands. But, 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 need goalkeepers to play with their feet more often to start attacks. Other teams may prefer an airborne game. In this scenario, 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.
More attributes make for a good goalkeeper, but the above is 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.