How the keeper became a sweeper


The changes in regulation and tactical model imposed by Spain have led to a new way of understanding the role of the goalkeeper.

On July 30, 2014, the Twitter account of Manuel Neuer went from having 600,000 followers to more than one million in just a couple of hours. We were in the Brazilian World Cup and that day a match between Germany and Algeria would go down in history for the Bayern Munchen goalkeeper’s performance. Neuer’s part in the match was somewhat a peculiar exhibition of suprises. The German goalkeeper didn’t exactly stand out for his performance under the goalposts, what captivated everyone’s attention were his constant interventions outside the area. Neuer stunned millions of fans with his footwork. The goalkeeper of the future had arrived, the goalkeeper-libero.

“The position of the goalkeeper is the one that has come the furthest in the history of football in terms of progress,” explains Germán Vargas, former goalkeeping coach of the Deportivo Saprissa youth academy. “The World Cups usually mark the moment in which a new paradigm is established, both by the appearance of new rules and by the evolution of tactical models.” In this sense, there are two elements that in recent years have led to a change in the way of understanding the role of the goalkeeper. On the one hand, the rule that, established in the early 90s, prevents goalkeepers from picking up the ball with their hands if given to them by a teammate. On the other, the tendency to play with high pressure and advanced defence.

According to Vargas, “Spain was a pioneer in this change of model” and, in the World Cup in South Africa, Vicente del Bosque‘s team “marked a new trend”. It is a way of playing focused on ball possession, always developing the play from the back and starting off with short passes. The goalkeeper thus becomes a key player, because he participates actively in the foundations of each play. Even when the ball is close to the rival area, the goalkeeper doesn’t stop working. “He has to give his defence orders and communicate with his teammates,” Vargas says. “The modern goalkeeper must have a clear vision and understanding of the game. Intelligence is the aspect that defines the player as if he or she were a coach on the field.”


That is precisely what Neuer showed in his time on the pitch against Algeria, a match in which he played 37% of his passes from outside the area. In total, 21 times. “He played almost like a central defender,” recalls Vargas. “On many occasions he anticipated the opposing strikers’ actions, leaving his comfort zone and this wasn’t exclusive to that specific match either, but something Neuer would do for the entirety of the World Cup in Brazil. For that, he came to be considered the number one keeper in the world.

In professional football, the trend has been set. Coaches like Josep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli have made it clear that they only rely on goalkeepers who are competent with their feet, without getting nervous before their rivals’ pressure. Joe Hart had to leave Manchester City because the coach of Santpedor did not consider him sufficiently prepared in this facet of the game. But is this new paradigm only applicable to first-rate championships or has it also reached grassroots football?

Josep Guardiola habla con el portero Joe Hart durante un entrenamiento del Manchester City.
Josep Guardiola speaks with goalkeeper Joe Hart during a Manchester City training.

“Maybe the change is even more obvious in the lower categories,” explains Alberto Diez Calle, goalkeeper coach at the Rayo Vallecano youth academy: “When it comes to signing young goalkeepers, their ability to play with their feet is always highly appreciated. Every day we’re seeing more grassroots teams trying to actively make the most of their goalkeeper. That’s good because it requires us to work more with the other players and their ability to communicate, and not isolate training exclusively to goalkeepers.”

The new model has also shown progress in its teaching; goalkeepers are becoming increasingly more integrated into the training of their teammates. “It has changed the way goalkeepers are educated, especially because of the increasing quality of said training,” said Rayo. “Exercises as simple as bombarding a goalkeeper with one shot after another are no longer relevant. Now we try to create specific tasks so that the goalkeeper learns to think and to face situations similar to those that can be found whilst competing. ”


Of course, the evolution of the goalkeeper has not occurred in all parts of the world in the same way. Vargas believes that in America or in Eastern Europe there are still coaches who prioritize physical training. “They’re stuck in the 70s. They only train physical qualities, such as power or reaction time and they only work on tactical situations like free kicks or corners. They forget everything else, they do not understand that the goalkeeper has a much more complex role today. Today’s football requires intelligence and a lot of preparation. Unfortunately, many football professionals like to be on the pitch, but they don’t like to study. ”

Studying also means adapting training to next Sunday’s rival. According to Diez, “you cannot do without taking into account specific situations or difficulties that a certain team has to face week after week. Footwork is important, but it will never be the most important thing. The main role of the goalkeeper is defensive. Fundamentally, the goalkeeper stops the ball… or to avoids having to stop it.” Exactly what Neuer did in that historic Germany vs Algeria four years ago.

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