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Before I start this series, I have to give credit where it is due. This suggestion for a series of articles came from Ryans left foot! on our Manchester United site, but the name was from Sepp Blogger.
“Ed001 – a request for you if you have the time. Could you do a “what to look for” series on how to evaluate a manager, and different positions across the pitch? The reason i ask is that most fans including myself have a limited understanding of the overall game and rely on possibly meaningless stats and you tube videos to form opinion of players. Also, while watching the game we are focussed on the ball and play and tend to support players based on which direction the wind is blowing. some pointers and examples on what to look for and how to evaluate players would be really handy. Thanks! – Ryans left foot!”
That was the request, though it has enabled me to pull a few other individual articles in my to do list which I will do under this title. Thank you to all who have submitted ideas and those who will do in the future, it is a great help to the sites to have all these suggestions to work on.
Part 1: Watching Goalkeepers
This is the most difficult position on the pitch to judge, not just because it is so specialised a role but because a goalkeeper can often spend long periods as a spectator. On top of that, the skillset required alters a great deal depending on the style of play the teams choose. While that can be said to a degree of most positions, the degree of difference is much larger in keepers. In a struggling team a goalkeeper will be facing many shots and can make themselves look good with reaction saves or just simply by being positioned fairly well. They have little time to lose concentration and have numerous chances to make up for any mistakes. Added to that, they can get away with conceding soft goals much more easily that keepers in a top team, as they are attributed to the team playing badly, as much as to the goalkeeper for not being good enough.
For example, a goalkeeper concedes chipped goals from distance, is that a David Seaman-esque weakness or is his starting position too high? It can be difficult to see a keeper’s starting position at times, due to TV footage often not focusing on him, but even if you can tell and can see that the issue is his starting position, you then have to figure out if it is due to orders from his manager. Many managers will order their goalkeeper to maintain a high starting position, taking the risk of them being chipped from distance due to the return of them being in place to sweep up balls over the top.
That leads me to the first thing you need to look for when scouting a goalkeeper – the team’s style of play. Not the formation, that is not really all that important in the grand scheme of things for a goalkeeper, but their style. In particular the height of the defensive line is key. Then you need to look at the keeper’s starting position compared to the height of the line. If he takes a high line but the team’s defensive line is deep, then he is in the wrong place. If the defensive line is high and his starting position is on the goal-line, then he is far too deep.
The difficulty is that judging a goalkeeper’s position via TV footage is that it is rarely shown. You have to extrapolate it from what happens on the pitch during play. If his team plays with a deep line it is much easier to tell as you can see when they are out of possession. When they use a high line you are judging by how well he copes with balls over the top. Is he quickly there to clear them, particularly those that reach the edge of the box, or is he usually caught out by them, leaving them for an opposition forward or even a defender chasing back? If those balls are regularly reaching the edge of the box without him getting there, then he is failing as a sweeper-keeper.
Goalkeepers have a number of main areas to their game that they can be judged on:
1. Shot stopping, obviously the main job of a keeper is still to keep the ball out of the net.
2. Sweeping up loose balls played over the top of the defence.
3. Dealing with high balls into the box.
4. Distribution, which also includes involvement in the play if a team plays out from the back.
5. Organising the defence, though this has become less important in recent years as defensive plays are now set by the coaches.
1. The obvious is, do they keep the ball out of the net, getting some part of themselves in the way when the ball is within reach? However you then have to consider a number of factors, such as those they fail to save, why did they do so? What you are particularly looking at is their footwork as, like in so many sports, footwork is the key. Do they get themselves set before a shot, getting their feet planted and ready to launch themselves across the goal? Or are they bouncing and caught while in the air and so lose that vital split-second before they can leap? If they are bouncing, rather than being prepared, is that because the shot has come as a surprise? If there is a player running through on goal and shooting, then there is no excuse for not being ready but if the shot has come out of the blue from the edge of the box, then it is still a mistake but it can be excused if it is a one-off as just bad luck.
Another thing to think of is their sightlines, could they see the ball from the moment it is hit with a clear view? If their view is blocked by other players and they are having to try and peer round a crowd scene, then that will reduce their time to react.
One thing to watch out for, something I have noticed a few times in recent years with Simon Mignolet and this season with Jordan Pickford, is that a ball can be hit straight at their feet but they have both jumped out of the way to get their hand down to the ball. Now that is lauded by commentators and pundits live on the coverage as a good save, but they should be questioning why the keeper took the risk of getting their feet out of the way to put their hand there. If the ball is low down and very close to them, why take the risk? The only reason to do so is if they catch it, otherwise it is a genuine goalkeeping error. They are not just risking the ball getting through before they can get to it, but they are also then left having to scramble back up to their feet after the save, rather than being already on their feet and only having to set themselves again for any follow up shot. In my opinion anyway, part of the art of goalkeeping is being ready for the next shot as quickly as humanly possible. That means not looking for spectacular diving saves when you can simply block the ball with your feet and be immediately ready for any follow up.
2. It is not just if they get to them and how quickly they get to them that you have to consider. You are also looking at what they do with the ball when they get to it. Taking the safe option and putting the ball into touch is fine, it allows the team to get back and sort themselves out. But did they have a safe pass option instead and just punt it out anyway? The worry is when they try and be clever, you have to judge whether they choose the right option. Do they play a good ball or would they have been better just clearing their lines and resetting?
3. When a ball is crossed into the box, there are a number of things you have to look at. The obvious one is whether they come out and catch a ball when it is possible. That is just one aspect to consider. One of the more important, in my opinion, is a goalkeeper’s decisiveness as defenders need to know what their keeper is going to do when the ball comes in. A goalkeeper that stays on his line, leaving the ball for the defenders to try and head away, is much easier to work with than one who dithers on his line and they never know if he is going to come for the ball or not.
When a goalkeeper does decide to come for the ball, is he strong with his team, does he make it clear to them so that they can get out of his way and attempt to clear him room to get to the ball. If it is not possible to catch it, does he make a good strong punch on the ball, even if the opposition put bodies in his way?
4. This aspect of a goalkeeper’s game has become more and more important in recent years, though it was a very useful tool as far back as I can remember. In the past it was more about them being able to launch quick counter attacks with a throw out or kick to a player breaking. That is still a key part of their game, but now it is just a part of it as they are involved in the play during the build up as well.
In the old days keepers used to just pick up a back pass and so had no need to be good with their feet, so great goalkeepers where not necessarily good footballers. Now it is not just about being involved in keep ball sessions around the backline, it is also about their ability to deal with a ball played back to them when a defender is under pressure and needs to use them as an out ball. A keeper’s first touch and striking technique is important, as well as composure on the ball. What you are looking for is someone who can sort their feet out quickly and move the ball on before a forward closes him down, at the very least. That might mean just punting it downfield or out of play, there are times to play a pass and times to clear the lines. That decision making is a key part of the game.
5. With the set up of the defensive system now highly rigid and implented by the coaching staff, it is difficult to judge a keeper on their organisation of the defence. That is mostly out of their hands, but you can still tell which ones are good at that aspect by seeing if the defence in front of them keeps losing track of opponents. The goalkeeper should be seeing the whole picture and getting the players in front of him to pick up all the opponents, or at least to be aware of them. He should be directing his players and calling the shots on set-plays. It is very difficult to judge whether at the ground or on TV, though the empty stadiums do make it possible now to hear the players’ shout at each other, which makes it easier.
They are in position to direct operations, rather than just leaving players to follow the coach’s tactical instructions. In the midst of a game, it is very easy for players to forget the instructions they were given, those sheets of set-play positioning are not exactly riveting reads! So a goalkeeper has to point, push, pull and generally order them into the position they need to be in, countermanding the instructions they were given before the game if necessary.
As you can see, all of this is very subjective stuff rather than objective. You are making judgement calls on positioning and distribution, making your own decision on where a keeper should be and what he should be doing.
Written by Tris Burke October 12 2020 11:32:50