Article by Jack Francis, follow him on twitter here: http://twitter.com/#!/JackFrancis
The role of the goalkeeper has undoubtedly changed over the years. A look back to the 80’s makes this plain to see. A time where Neville Southall was considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and has a FWA footballer of the year award to show for it. Now if we look at Neville he wouldn’t look out of place at a Sunday league game. But even during his portly days (which happen to be numerous) Southall was still considered a great, due to his strength of shot stopping, amazing reflexes, which combined with his big frame, allowed him to pull off incredible saves. While looking back we can smile at the size of him compared to modern day goalkeepers, we can’t say that his style didn’t bring success. He helped Everton to a European Cup Winners Cup success, as well as 2 first division titles and 2 FA Cups.
His style proved to be the example by which all future goalkeepers had to be judged. David Seaman and Peter Schmeichel are two other examples of the big nasty goalkeepers that you wouldn’t want to challenge on a cross. That, and their ability to hoof the ball as far as possible down the pitch was also a key asset. Bruce Grobbelaar was a prime example of a player with this distribution trait, as Liverpool relied on his ‘spear-like’ throw to start off attacks. This is not a criticism as this is how the game was played, before a greater focus was put on tactics and ball possession, and defences were taught how to not concede so many shots during a game, rather than having a good goalkeeper employed to keep the shots out.
The 11th Outfield Player
So when did it all change? When did the goalkeeper become the 11th outfield player? Much of this is down to one of the better rule changes that FIFA have implemented in recent years; the Back-pass rule. After the 1990 world cup, a tournament which was exceedingly dull, rife with back-passing and goalkeepers holding up the ball was not seen as the greatest footballing show on earth. Goalkeepers would frequently drop the ball and dribble it around, only to pick it up again once opponents came closer to put them under pressure; with a great case being Republic of Pat Bonner kept the ball for over 6 minutes against Egypt by dribbling it around his box and picking it up again.
And with one rule change, the goalkeeping game was changed forever. The back-pass rule forced goalkeepers to focus more on their footwork, rather than rely on their hands. Undoubtedly one of the goalkeepers who had a lot of success with this rule change was former Man Utd stopper and David De Gea’s predecessor, Edwin Van der Sar, who can be seen loitering on the edge of his own box for most of the game while he was at Old Trafford, acting as a sweeper waiting to play a controlled pass into the midfield.
While searching for a goalkeeper, a manager will now undoubtedly have to look for a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet; which is now an important criteria for a world class goalkeeper. Take for example the likes of Edwin Van der Sar, and Pepe Reina for Liverpool. Are there greater shot stoppers than these two? Indeed there are, Hugo Lloris (Lyon) and Guillermo Ochoa (Club America) are considered some of the greatest shot stoppers in the game; but can anyone rival the distribution qualities that the Former Man Utd and Current Liverpool number 1’s have? No chance. Pepe Reina’s distribution is an absolute joy to watch, and quite frankly embarrasses some outfield players own ability when it comes to passing a football.
So it takes a more rounded player to become a World-Class goalkeeper. Being a top keeper is no longer simply about being a good shot stopper, that is now the minimum requirement. It is a given that with the advances made in goalkeeper training, the professional goalkeeper is taught how to make reaction saves every time he steps onto the training pitch, and every single number one in the Premier League right now can be described as a very good shot stopper.
With the modern game as well not being end-to-end, it is not often in a game where the goalkeeper is required to make a world class save. So the nuance comes from a player who can add another string to his bow, the way Pepe Reine and Van der Sar have with their distribution. But does having good distribution and a good passing technique make you halfway into becoming a world-class keeper? This is the dilemma faced by current Man Utd number 1 David de Gea. Already being touted as a future world class goalkeeper, a lot has been said in the media about his distribution and for his debut match at Old Trafford against Tottenham, we saw a throwback to the precedent ‘keeper Van der Sar with De Gea playing a lot of short pass to the Centre backs, as well as switching the play to the wing backs with Chris Smalling in particular getting a lot of joy of the Spanish Under 21’s passes.
Ability To Deal With High Balls
But to play against this good distribution, we had his previous game against West Brom to compare it too. It is fair enough to say it wasn’t his best game, and one of the most striking and perhaps humiliating scenes for me was after the game, Phil Jones, only a teenager himself, physically showing David de Gea how to come and collect crosses. While it might not have been nice for De Gea to have the basics of goalkeeping illustrated for him by Phil Jones, he simply must learn how to deal with crosses in order to become a world class goalkeeper.
The blunt point is, you will probably have to deal with more crosses than shots in a Premier League game, and so the best goalkeepers will have to be the best at claiming crosses. We can’t entirely blame De Gea for this though. He is still very young and has had it bred into him for a long time that the long ball in the air, is simply not how to play football. Petr Cech when at his best is one of the finest in this regard, commanding his box and coming for aerial balls with ease as could be seen by his display on the opening day against Stoke.
The Perfect Keeper?
So who would make a perfect goalkeeper? First of all the shot stopping would be a given. A player with lightning reflexes such as Iker Casillas or Hugo Lloris would be a good starting point. Next a ‘keeper would have to have the passing skills needed to not throw away possession too quickly with their distribution. A player in the mould of Pepe Reina, whose short game and long game are both excellent and great ammunition when it comes to a counter attack. Next comes the mental power, someone who is astute and wise enough to know when to come out for a cross, when to pass short, or long, and has a winning mentality, someone like Van der Sar easily fits into this category.
With the world at his feet (or should I say hands) there is nothing to say that David De Gea cannot mature in a player with all of these qualities, he is tall, even though he doesn’t look it, he is an imposing 6ft 5. With a bit of work at Carrington, (I’m sure balls are being hoiked into the air at him at this very moment) he will learn to deal with crosses. He definitely has the shot stopping ability, modelling his game on compatriot Casillas, although he is significantly better at distribution than the current Spain Number 1. And with a club like Manchester United guaranteed to be challenging on all four fronts this season, a winning mentality is sure to develop.