The goalkeeper stands alone

The goalkeeper stands alone

MANUEL NEUER MADE GOALKEEPING FASHIONABLE AGAIN. Coming third in the Ballon d’Or reaffirmed that point. The face of the ‘new’ breed of goalkeeper, the German phenomenon is currently at the pinnacle in his position and at the relatively young age, for a goalkeeper, of 29. Under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere near his peak.

With that said it’s unfair to compare all goalkeepers to Manuel Neuer. It’s fine for the goalkeepers themselves to aspire to his level in terms of reliability, brilliance and standing within in the game but something that’s often overlooked is the fact there are various goalkeeping styles. It’s not simply ‘they’re a goalkeeper, they should be like Manuel Neuer’. Believe it or not, not all clubs need a goalkeeper like Neuer, and that’s the crux of it all and that so many people seem to overlook.

Football and the game’s fans have developed dramatically in the last decade or so, with fans becoming more knowledgeable on players and their positions. There’s an understanding when it comes to viewing a player and their position. It’s this type of understanding that is still lacking when it comes to goalkeepers, however. It’s not like for like. They aren’t all the same.

Manuel Neuer gives this quixotic idea of how goalkeepers should be. Goalkeepers of similar style are becoming more predominant within the game but this super breed doesn’t mean all goalkeepers will reach that level, nor should they. It’s unrealistic to expect every left back to be on par with David Alaba and every right sided forward to be like Lionel Messi. These are exceptional talents with no equals.

There are three broad categories for goalkeepers:

  • Defensive Goalkeeper – The type of ‘keeper that stays in his six-yard area and is at his most confident there. A good shot stopper with great reflexes but not the best on the ball. You get the feelings it’s “you’re good at what you do so do it”. (Simon Mignolet)
  • Sweeper Keeper – High starting point for a goalkeeper, probably on the edge of his area and it means the team can play a high line safe in the knowledge the ‘keeper is able and confident enough to come and meet the ball outside of the area. These keepers are usually used in possession-orientated teams. (Hugo Lloris)
  • Possession Keeper – This is probably the upgrade to sweeper keeper. Teams don’t want their goalkeepers to just come out and clear the ball anymore. They want a little more composure and a ‘keeper that can pick a pass and start attacks. It’s almost like a Libero Goalkeeper, they bring the ball out from the back. (Manuel Neuer)

Football is always evolving, so it’s only natural players adapt with the times, but as a goalkeeper how much can you adapt? You’re primary role is shot stopping. You do whatever and use anything in your power to stop that ball crossing the line. In the past if you saved the most shots you were considered a good goalkeeper. Now if you make the most saves it’s because your defence is letting you down and you’re having to face more shots.

These days you’ve got to be able to pick a pass from 60 yards, be able to perform a rabona and save a penalty blind folded to get any recognition from some. Advances in the sport means everything evolves but like in Jurassic World if you tamper with something too much you end up causing havoc.

It’s not that basic, though. You also have to analyse the systems the teams play. Take Chelsea, for example:

  • They play a low defensive line so their keeper, Thibaut Courtois, won’t need a high starting point to sweep. As a result, there’s ground for the keeper to control or dominate.
  • Their defenders are first and foremost defenders, they aren’t a team that starts many attacks from the back so it’s not integral that their keeper can pass like an outfield player. Their goal kicks often go long.
  • Chelsea don’t play an expansive game, it’s all low risk, and they have one of the best defensively minded managers in world football in José Mourinho. He doesn’t set it up to leave his side exposed therefore his keepers aren’t facing a barrage of shots each game.

Let’s compare this to Liverpool:

  • They play a higher than average defensive line meaning the keeper, Mignolet, has to have a higher starting position.
  • Liverpool play a high risk game and play out from the back. This means they often take short goal kicks. This would mean the defenders sometimes have to play it back to the ‘keeper therefore he’d have to be confident with the ball at his feet and be able to pick a pass.
  • Liverpool use a high pressing tactic which sometimes means that if the opposition manage to play through the press they’ve got a run at an exposed defence and goalkeeper. Therefore the keeper theoretically has to make more saves and, importantly, more one on one saves.

It begs the question: how much is a goalkeeper’s success is down to the system they’re a part of? If you were to swap these ‘keepers around and had Mignolet at Chelsea and Courtois at Liverpool in exactly the same set ups that the clubs use now, who would be number one for Belgium? It’s an interesting thought because both keepers excel at reflex saves and both are good one on one.

Teams want to dominate the ball; it’s not a new philosophy – as much as media will make it out to be – but there’s certainly more pressure on all 11 players being able to play ‘proper football’.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers likes to play possession-based, high-risk football. With this in mind you’ve got to consider what sort of scouting went into the Simon Mignolet deal, and this is my next point. Are goalkeepers signed for their shot stopping ability or other facets of their game?

I spoke to Phil Casey, a semi professional goalkeeper in Ireland who had this to say: “I played for all types of teams. I went from relegation threatened teams who never really had much possession and wanted the ball as far away from my goal as possible to teams challenging for the title. The change in style was noticeable and I had to adapt my game 50-60% just to fit in. Everything changed.

“My positioning was tweaked so I was between the penalty spot and the edge of the ‘D’ so I was able to receive a pass from the defenders and sweep if the opposition tried to play a ball over the top. To get me used to playing short they banned me from kicking long in training. Then they banned me from kicking full stop when I had the ball in my hands. This leads to speeding up target identification and technique. With correct coaching and focus, a change in style can be achieved relatively quickly”.

Do teams sign goalkeepers who are strong in the traditional goalkeeping sense and hope to mould them to fit their style? This is arguably what Liverpool tried to do when they sold Pepe Reina and signed Simon Mignolet. Towards the end of Reina’s last season there was a match against Man City in which he rushed to the outside of his area in the hope of beating Sergio Agüero to the ball; he failed and the Argentine scored from an acute angle. The Spanish International was lauded for how quick he was off the line throughout his career but at that moment fans and media alike both said he had no right to do that and a ‘keeper should stay on their line. Nine times out of 10, however, he’d have cleared that ball.

Fast forward two seasons and it’s once again Liverpool versus Man City, and Sergio Agüero comes out on top. Brendan Rodgers had said he’d been working with Mignolet on his positioning with Liverpool using a higher defensive line.

Sergio Agüero has the beating of the retreating Dejan Lovren and is one on one with the Belgian number two. It’s worth noting here that he’d been outside of his area originally, before retreating and then advancing to square up to Agüero. However he’s got his angles all wrong and the Manchester City hit man is able to literally pass the ball past Mignolet. For me that’s the perils of trying to adapt a goalkeeper’s game in such a competitive league. There’s no evidence to suggest he’d have saved it had he not been implementing a new starting position, but as a goalkeeper you get used to looking at certain parts of the pitch to help set your position. If you’re starting from a different position you’re going to be a little uncertain where you are and how your angles are – and this seems to be what happened, and still happens, with Mignolet.

You’ve taken a fantastic ‘defensively minded’ goalkeeper and changed him into a sweeper keeper; the risk is that his overall game falters and you have a keeper with no confidence all because of a position tweak. Are the pressures of Premier League football too much for managers to try and retrain their ‘keepers? Is it not best to find a ‘keeper suited to your style when scouting? We’ve all heard of players not fitting the system, but can the same be said for goalkeepers?

What’s next for these specialist players? Will we reach a point in football were clubs have two keepers with different strengths and they’re rotated depending on how the team intend to play? You can’t expect all goalkeepers to fall into the three categories mentioned earlier. There’s no such thing as a versatile goalkeeper.

Add to this the fact that there’s more pressure on ‘keepers to be two footed than there is for outfield players these days and many young goalkeepers may start to reconsider their position. The unfair expectations may overcomplicate an already complicated position. Judge these players as individuals instead of a collective.

Football works in cycles; trends appear and disappear within a matter of seasons. What people want ‘keepers to be now could be different by the time 2017-18 season begins. At the end of it all, it’s the saves that go down in history. After all, we remember that Gordon Banks save against Brazil and that David Seaman save against Sheffield United, not their starting position.

By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90

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