Goalkeeper footwork needs some explaining

By Paul Gardner

Some rather random thoughts after watching three recent English Premier League games: Aston Villa 1, Reading 0; Sunderland 0, Queens Park Rangers 0; and Chelsea 0, Manchester City 0.

I missed the first 20 minutes of the Sunderland game, so we’re talking about something like 4 hours of soccer. Four hours -- and one goal. From a set play. That’s the most obvious observation -- one that would seem to imply a great deal of defensive play. But that was not the case. None of the six teams involved played within a defensive formation, none of them relied on a packed defense with the occasional counterattack.

That is not surprising. It is very rarely that English teams employ out-and-out defensive tactics. The fans, we are told, would not put up with it. That may be the case. There has always been a sense of impatience built into the English game, a desire to “get on with it,” to keep the action going. A commendable approach, no doubt, though its most obvious manifestation is the long-ball game, which boils down to a desire to get the ball into the opposing goalmouth as quickly as possible, and the hell with all that midfield passing, a la Barcelona, which merely delays matters.

There was plenty of long ball stuff in two of these games -- to be expected, really, as Reading, Sunderland, QPR and Aston Villa are all teams struggling to get out of the bottom reaches of the league standings.

There was much less evidence of Route 1 in the Chelsea-Manchester City game. That seems logical enough -- these are two of the most expensively assembled teams in the world, brimming with world-class talent, so we should surely expect something more sophisticated than the crudities of the long-ball game. This should have been easily the best game of the trio.

So much for logic, which never seems to work too well in soccer. The Chelsea-Man City game was the worst of the three. Or so it seemed to me. The higher the expectations the greater the disappointment when they’re not met -- yes, yes, but even allowing for that, this was a desperately poor game.

I haven’t bothered to look up the official stats for the game -- these are my impressions that I’m going with here -- but I recall only one save made by the ManCity goalkeeper Joe Hart. At the other end, Petr Cech made two crucial saves -- about which more in a moment.

I did see the stats for the Villa-Reading game, which told me that there were 8 shots on goal -- a pretty measly total, and two more than I recorded. Brad Guzan, Villa’s American keeper made two crucial saves ... more on them in a moment.

QPR’s keeper Rob Green, fondly remembered by American fans for his generous 2010 World Cup gaffe, contributed the only spectacular save. In the same game, Sunderland’s keeper Simon Mignolet made two important saves -- there’s more to say about them.

Not too much goalkeeper action then. Partly that was down to generally poor shooting. In the Villa-Reading game, the stats showed 30 shots -- of which only 8 were on target. Was it always like this? I mean, that’s a pretty poor ratio -- three shots missing the mark for every one on goal. And the ones on goal were mostly feeble efforts. Did we always yell in derision (at their guys) or simply shrug things off (our guys) when a shot sailed yards wide or over the bar? Or did we boo? I doubt we booed that much back when the players were paid peanuts. But nowadays ... is there any reason for a forgiving attitude to players who make millions? Really, they should be doing better.

And so should the goalkeepers. Even though they are, to some extent, trapped in one of the game’s more fatuous anachronisms, you would hope that some of them would seek a way out. But they don’t. They just keep on doing the same old thing that they’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. It is unquestionably the sport’s most brainless activity -- the long goal kick, or clearance, or punt. The ball whacked hard and high into the heavens, the goalkeeper not that interested in what happens when it comes back to earth.

Remember the lines in Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song about the master German rocket builder, Werner von Braun?

Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.

So here are my highly unofficial stats on what is laughably called “goalkeeper distribution” in these three games. There were 79 such “distributions”, which I can divide into three categories -- long kicks (64), short kicks (7), throws (including roll outs) (8).

The throws were always direct to a teammate. The short kicks were clearly aimed at a specific teammate. But the long kicks were always just plain dumb thumps, making sure the ball traveled as high and as far as possible. I can tell you -- and this part of my observations I swear by -- that none of those 64 “distributions” led to anything at all. Nothing constructive, that is. Most of them did lead to short episodes of ugly soccer as players fought to control the ball -- and fought is the correct word.

One observation on that: why is it that so few European goalkeepers (virtually none of them, in fact) use a side-volley instead of a punt? South Americans do use it -- a swifter, lower-trajectory ball that can be aimed at a teammate, and does have a reasonable chance of finding him. Why do the Europeans stick to a 100-year-old practice that has nothing whatever to recommend it? Why don’t soccer’s rule-makers step in? Does anyone ever actually think about the stupidity and the ugliness of what the goalkeepers are doing?

I suppose the answer must be no. I have only one goalkeeper instruction book on my shelves. It tells me that “the punt often results in a 50-50 ball.” Nonsense. The punt invariably results in a contested ball. Imagine a fullback who, every time he gets the ball, merely whacks it high and far down the field, any old where will do. Who cares where it comes down ...? How long would it be before his coach benched him? Yet goalkeepers are allowed -- expected, really, it’s part of a hallowed tradition by now -- to make these brainless plays regularly. And so they do.

Still with goalkeepers, this time something that does seem -- to me -- to be changing. I have had a feeling for several years now that goalkeepers are using their feet more. I don’t mean to play the ball, to control back passes or even dribble or make fancy plays -- they are generally quite hopeless at that, whatever they may claim. I mean to make saves. Big saves.

Those saves I mentioned earlier -- two each for Cech, Guzan and Mignolet -- were all crucial saves. And they were all made with the feet or legs. No hands involved at all. I can see a strong reason -- avoiding injury -- why it makes a lot of sense for a keeper to go for the ball feet first rather than diving in head first, or hands first.

But do they do it more often these days? Maybe one of the many goalkeeper coaching gurus (there are legions of those -- goalkeeper is the most coach-intensive position in soccer) has an opinion and some reasoning to offer on this?

19 comments about "Goalkeeper footwork needs some explaining".
  1. Gary Levitt, November 30, 2012 at 8:01 a.m.

    Paul, from a tactics standpoint the long punt from a goalkeeper usually is to:
    - relieve pressure and let your side reset
    - hit with the belief that your side wins the majority of second balls
    - is used late in the match to "take the air out of the ball"/use up time.
    - or unfortunately it is used because there is no confidence in your side playing the ball out of the back under pressure

    Most European keepers do not have the skill to play what you refer to as a "side volley" pass...and unfortunately
    the 64 long punts you witnessed end up with a change in possession. Blame it on a lack of skill, technigue or tactics but you must realize that the high pressure game played in the EPL sometimes results in what you deem "ugliness".

  2. Gareth Rogers, November 30, 2012 at 8:38 a.m.

    You picked the wrong matches to watch Paul!!! Try my Swansea City once in a while. Not much "ugliness" there.

  3. Bobby Bluntz, November 30, 2012 at 8:59 a.m.

    I have a theory on the use of the hockey style kick save. I've seen this at the competitive youth level a lot more recently and it's always from the players who were good field players converted to goal keepers. The theory on why the professionals use it is because of the increased emphasis of the keeper using his feet. It becomes a natural reaction to block with your foot almost like in the outfield, where as before that didn't happen when keepers rarely worked in the outfield in training.

  4. John Pepple, November 30, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.

    I've been complaining about bad shooting for years. It shows up in penalty kicks. It shouldn't be too hard for a player who is a professional to take a penalty kick so that the ball goes reasonably near a post, say, within 6 inches. Yet, that almost never happens. People who can't shoot well on a penalty kick, when all the conditions are in their favor, are hardly likely to shoot well during open play.

  5. Gus Keri, November 30, 2012 at 10:58 a.m.

    My theory for why the goalkeepers go with their feet first is: because of the increasing numbers of thuggish strikers who go for any ball even if they have minimal chance of getting it and subjecting the goalkeeper to head injuries. I don't blame the keepers for trying to protect themselves. And the problem is that the thuggish strikers never get punished for what they thought it was 50/50 ball and it's not.

  6. Joseph Pratt, November 30, 2012 at 11:20 a.m.

    Paul, I think you are spot on with regard to the stupidity of the long goal kick or punt. These always result in 50:50 balls, and the advantage is to the defending team, since they can head the ball the way they're facing. But the blame rests with the coach or manager, not with the keeper. If the coach wants his team to play out of the back, then they would forbid the big punt. In fact, this is exactly what I do with my U13 boys team: the keepers are only allowed two punts per half, and this is chiefly to make our play a little less predictable. Otherwise, given unlimited substitution rules (an area of the game that deserves much more discussion), teams will play constant high pressure, which can make life miserable for my backs. But with only two punts allowed, the rest of the time the boys have to play the ball out of the back - this way they learn to be comfortable on the ball under pressure! When else would they learn this skill if not when they are kids? By the time they get to the EPL or wherever, it's too late to learn. Maybe the EPL managers realize that their teams don't have the skill to play out of the back. At the youth level, most of the teams we play are happy to have their keepers punt the ball. To me, this is more about the coach fearing an error, which means depriving the kids of an opportunity to learn. If youth coaches shift their emphasis from fear of losing/focusing on winning to developing players' skills, then in a few years maybe we won't see so much stupid punting.

  7. Sammi Sheppard, November 30, 2012 at 11:58 a.m.

    I REALLY like that idea Joseph Pratt. I'm a former college keeper and I never really got the training to be comfortable with the ball at my feet. If I got a pass sent back to me and felt any sort of pressure, I would just panic and sent it as far and as high and as wide as I could. I think the idea of coaches limiting their keeper's number of punts sounds like an awesome way to get the gk to think more about what options they have on helping their team possess the ball and build up an attack.

    When it comes to kick saves, it bugs me so much to see that. I didn't get to see those games, but most kick saves do not come from challenges where a forward might be coming in hard, like someone mentioned above. If that were the case, there's so much more room for error there because you have a little foot trying to block a big goal. If you lead with your hands and make yourself big, you're protecting more of the goal. Those were actually my favorite saves. Point blank with adrenaline rushing. Yeah you could get hurt, but you could also come up with a huge save!

    I think the kick save comes from being lazy about getting your hands to the ball quick enough. If you kick it, true it might not have gone in, but you just gave up a rebound or a corner kick. If you catch it, you have control of the ball and can figure out the best way to distribute it. (Which I do think needs to be re-looked at in how the keeper can help his/her team better possess the ball, not just boot it.)

  8. Daniel Clifton, November 30, 2012 at 3:05 p.m.

    I like Joseph Pratt's idea about coaching youth soccer goalies. I agree with PG's criticism of the long punt by the goalie. It usually leads to a turnover. I think there are more saves with the feet because it seems to me goalies these days are taught to use their length to block shots. So instead of just using the hands and arms they stretch out in such a way that they also get their legs and feet involved at the other end. I am not sure it is just an attempt to avoid injury to the head. Sometimes it is just a better use of the goalie's length to stretch out to block more shots. Many of these kick saves come when the goalie has guessed one way with his upper body and then the shot goes the other way and the goalie can still block the shot with his legs and feet.

  9. Leland Price, November 30, 2012 at 3:45 p.m.

    I saw the same games Paul Gardner did and came away with an entirely different impression. For example, I was particularly impressed with the precision of Guzan's long kicks. Both goalies for Tottenham are equally precise. And these kicks are not mindless. There's a rationale to when one goes long, what side one goes long, and whether one goes short. Paul, I know you need to fill space... but you really come off as not knowing what you're talking about.

  10. Bobby Bluntz, November 30, 2012 at 4:05 p.m.

    I kind of agree with Leland Price, although I do like the drop kick/volley better than the punt, I'm not totally convinced about the mindlessness which PG portrayed most goal keepers'punts. Fact is, most of the time the keeper gets it, there is usually nobody open for his team. How can you lose a marker when there is a break in the play? I'd rather have a 50/50 ish ball in front of the other team's goal than mine.

  11. Leonardo Perez, November 30, 2012 at 4:32 p.m.

    I agree with PG. Most of the EPL games ARE mindless long-ball football games, only good for when you have insomnia. If you want to watch the beautiful game--watch Spanish, Argentine or even German football. I do not understand why people believe the British broadcasters when they say "English football the best in the world". Maybe paywise, but not at playing football.

  12. Barry Ulrich, November 30, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.

    Has anyone else observed that when Tim Howard tends goal for the USMNT, he mainly distributes the ball to his fullbacks, but when in the EPL, he does the long kick thing? Maybe it's the coach, who has the last word?

  13. Joey Tremone, November 30, 2012 at 8:19 p.m.

    If I were football czar, my rule would be: the keeper must kick the ball clear immediately, or else he cannot kick it at all. As soon as he takes a pause to control it, at that point he MUST throw (even if, worse come to worst, he must throw it long, out of bounds, for an opposition throw in).

  14. Wilson Cartagena, December 1, 2012 at 12:19 a.m.

    Hi folks, there are a lot of items in the article in which I agree with Paul.But a lot has to do with the philosophy of the coach as to what type of ball he wants to play, possession or just put the ball on the other half of the field and hope something happens with the forwards up front. The goalkeeper in transition is the initiator of the attack and if the team managers wnt to attack from the back the keeper then is going to distribute to hiws backs or if a midfielder is open he'll distribute the ball to that particular player and continue with the attack. It's true a wild punt is anybody's ball and most likely a defensive player will win it because that's his job to clear away any balls coming his way so that's not good. It just boils down to the coach's philosophy and that's what the goalkeeper is going to to is follow orders from the coach. The whole idea is to have the goalkeeper be integrated in the tactical training with the entire team and not just diving, flying all over the place and leaving out the most important thing as to what the role of the keeper is in the entire team??? the only time I recommend my keeper to rifle a ball down the field is after he has gained possession of the ball from an opponent's corner kick or from another restart such as a direct kick, so that we can catch the nother team on a counter attack using forwards that are very fast which can result in a goal in our favor. That kind of play should be practiced often in order to have success.
    Willie Cartagena
    Quito Ecuador

  15. Frank Cardone, December 1, 2012 at 9:34 a.m.

    I agree with Paul because for some time long punts have bored me. Somewhat impressive in the distance they travel(especially to brand new fans) but what happens when they finally come down? Paul says it best.."short episodes of ugly soccer". It would be interesting to see what would happen if long punts were permitted only during the last fifteen minutes of play, simply to help a team trailing by one goal to quickly place the ball near their opponant's goal. Food for thought.

  16. Jack vrankovic, December 1, 2012 at 10:25 p.m.

    I am not a fan of long punt/goal kicks but they do serve a purpose tactically.

    Additionally some teams do them successfully. Shakhtar and Everton come to mind.

    In todays Everton/City game, Tim Howard successfully found Jelavic and Fellani with long balls.

    Goalies including EPL (Joe Hart comes to mind) side punt more than Paul gives them credit for.

  17. Jogo Bonito, December 1, 2012 at 11:45 p.m.

    I agree with PG that it's mindless to punt the ball downfield. I'd much rather see a quick roll out or throw rather than this long production of sending everyone up and lumping it. As far as kick saves are concerned, my theory is that it's always best to get low and try to smother the ball and lock it into your arms rather than try the rebound-producing kick save. I really think we see more kick saves these days is because nearly every pro keeper now is a giant. Shorter, more agile, more athletic and more technical goalkeepers are cut by 14-15 to make room for the tall lanky giants that coaches like. These taller goalkeepers can't get down to hold low, hard drives so they just fall backwards and block the ball with their legs.

  18. Ramon Creager, December 4, 2012 at 1:49 p.m.

    Check out this distribution from Levante 'keeper Gustavo Munua (waddayaknow: a South American) to Obafemi Martins in the recent Levante v. Valencia derby. It is precisely as Mr. Gardner could have wished for: a side-volley delivery deep down the field intended for a specific player, Martins. Martins scored. Munua later stated that he and Martins had discussed the possibility of catching the defense napping in this way.

  19. Jack vrankovic, December 4, 2012 at 10:08 p.m.

    Real Madrid served multiple "successful" long balls to forward players against AJAX today.

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