The ancient phrase of ‘catch the ball, boot it up’ and the evolving art of the goalkeeper in the modern game

“Goalkeepers need an element of insanity.”

These words from former goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, one of the most successful German players in recent history, have been repeated many times over the years.

As someone who has played in goal I can understand that sentiment. You’re expected to be alert every second of every game, make the important saves, constantly talk to your defenders and be prepared to throw yourself in front of anything. As Peter Cech found out in 2006, that last one can sometimes be painful.

It takes a lot for a goalkeeper to be a hero but very little to be a villain. This is the reason why many people think you have to be crazy to play in-goal. If you make a mistake, nine times out of ten the opposition will score and that could be the difference between winning, losing or drawing a match. If a striker misses a chance to score, they’ll probably get another one. Five missed chances but one goal can still make an outfield player a hero. However, five great saves and one dropped ball can forever make a keeper a villain.

Read also: Oliver Kahn, the wrath of Kahn

When I played football as a child no one ever really wanted to play in-goal. It was a mundane job for people who weren’t good enough to play outfield. (I was told I was put there because I was tall so clearly that doesn’t apply to me). Catch the ball, boot it up field, wait for it to comeback. Stay in your box and don’t try anything silly. While that advice may still be heard at Sunday League games, at elite level, more coaches and managers than ever before are advocating what has become the new style of professional goalkeeping – playing out from the back.

The types of goalkeepers we see in Europe’s top leagues now, the athletic, ball-playing sweepers not afraid of making short, sharp passes under pressure, didn’t exist in Kahn’s day. When current German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer received his Golden Glove trophy at the 2014 World Cup, he did so having completed more passes in the tournament than Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi (Neuer 244; Messi 242).

The notion of ball-playing goalkeepers has often been associated with the rise of Barcelona and the Spanish national team’s style of play throughout the 2000’s. It’s something Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has advocated throughout his managerial career and the Spaniard was quick to make clear his intentions to carry this out in English football.

Despite being England’s No.1 at the time, Joe Hart’s distribution was deemed not good enough for a Guardiola team. Brazilian goalkeeper, Ederson, is now City’s first choice and he is regarded as one of the best in this capacity.

Ederson became the team’s first keeper to assist a Premier League goal in August last year and his ability to give and receive the ball under pressure in his penalty area, as well as being able to hit a precise 75-yard pass, is what sets him apart from the likes of Hart. These are now the desired traits for the world’s best keepers.

Read also: Why full-backs are so crucial to Pep Guardiola’s style of play

However, despite arguably being the one of the best distributing goalkeepers in the world, fellow Brazilian and Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker holds the No.1 spot at international level. Like Ederson, Alisson’s distribution is a key part of his game and Jurgen Klopp’s style of football. There is little to choose between the two goalkeepers but Brazil manager Tite’s preference of Alisson over Ederson is perhaps as contentious as his favouring of Gabriel Jesus to Robert Firmino.

It’s worth mentioning that distribution is not limited to passing with feet. Some of the best counter-attacks are started when a keeper catches the ball from a corner and is able to launch an over-arm throw down the wing. Neuer is a perfect example of this and there’s several youtube videos highlighting some of his best throws – well worth a watch if you ever find yourself at a loose end. Thibaut Courtois also used this technique many times at Chelsea and it’s a skill that can give the best teams an edge over their opponents.

While goalkeepers now have to be as good with their feet as they are with their hands, another key component of the modern-day goalkeeper is athleticism. The design and make of the footballs now used in Premier League matches have changed markedly in the last decade. Their light-weight composition mean players can get maximum power, causing shots to swerve mid-air and goalkeepers have to be extremely agile if they are to make the match-winning saves. Manchester United’s David De Gea is a great example of the new, athletic keeper. De Gea’s ability to make top-corner saves as well as being able to get down low has won his team many points over the last few years. De Gea is also adept at using his feet to block shots, a tactic many keepers were discouraged from in the past.

Gianluigi Buffon spoke recently about how goalkeeping has evolved, claiming that more is now expected of modern-day goalkeepers.

“When I started playing the question you asked about goalkeepers was: How good are they with their hands? Now the question is how good are they with their feet?” Buffon told the Daily Mirror.

Having been in the game for over 20 years, he is one of the most qualified to explain the transformation of his position.

Perhaps today’s generation of goalkeepers still need that element of insanity mentioned by Kahn. The fearless attitude and willingness to put yourself on the line for your team remains a requirement. However, nowadays goalkeepers are more than just an average outfield player shoved in-between the posts. They have become the footballing version of an all-rounder and are fundamental to the success of the very best teams in the world.

By Kathryn Batte 

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