Tactical theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeepers - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to scottmartinmedia.com or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from the January 2022 magazine. It's called, "Tactical analysis: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeepers."

The keeper position has evolved.

No longer JUST a shot-stopper, they're now required to use their feet well and contribute to the build-out. How do the intelligent movements of GKs benefit their teams in the build-out?

Here's what I found.

The goalkeeper position is incredibly complex.

From their starting positions to split-second, explosive technical actions, it takes a keen eye to evaluate a keeper.

No single article I've written has required as much research time as this one.

Working with a former goalkeeper who was coached by former USMNT coach, Bob Bradley, has made me re-access how I evaluate the position.

It really is incredible how many details are "hidden" in plain sight.

My article, which is found exclusively on Total Football Analysis, focuses on three topics.

1) Building out of the back

2) The Sweeper-Keeper

3) Playing the Angles

For this post, we'll focus on that first topic.

Let's start with goal kicks.

Short goal kicks are widely used to start the build-out from a structured shape and draw opponents higher up the pitch. That means GKs, like Marc-André ter Stegen below, must be ready to facilitate play with limited time and space available.

Though ter Stegen has struggled with his hands in recent times, Barcelona is still at their best when he's directing their build-out. This movement is simple; taking a touch forward draws the opponent towards the ball, widening the gap between the opposition backline and midfield.

Look at the space he creates for Frenkie de Jong! The gap between the lines is massive. As de Jong drifts higher, ter Stegen picks him out with the pass. Two lines are broken and a 4v4 is achieved vs the Villarreal backline in a more threatening position.

Key points: Visual cue of forward and midfield lines sacrificing pitch control in favor of high press, composure in possession to draw opponents higher up the pitch, and locating teammates between the lines.

Moving to build-outs in open play, we're going to highlight a keeper who was once derided for his poor feet, Thibaut Courtois. The Real Madrid keeper best exemplifies the evolution of the position. Always an elite shot-stopper, he's now a reliable option with his feet.

There was a really nice sequence showcasing his role when building out of the back vs Sheriff. Courtois is at his near post signalling for a pass wide of the goal's frame. The pass into Courtois took him wider than he would have liked, but it connects him with Modrić.

Before releasing the pass, we can see both teams' overloads near the ball. Sheriff are aggressively pressing, but Real Madrid still enjoys a 5v3. No panic from Courtois as he confidently participates in the build-out. Developing this level of confidence in training is critical.

That's because the attention isn't on the vulnerability of the GK's position, but on the opportunity to break the opponent's press. Trusting Modrić's press resistance, Courtois keeps his "paint on the boots" positioning. Madrid still enjoy a 5v3, but now there's space to attack.

Courtois takes Modrić's pass to his back, preferred, left foot. His pass goes into Casemiro, triggering the defense to collapse on the Brazilian. However, Real Madrid's effective ball movement allows Casemiro to play Modrić into the highlighted space. Press broken.

“Remember, the same way a striker provides depth for their team in possession, a goalkeeper provides depth at the other end of the field. A goalkeeper’s position in possession can be key to creating space during the build-out phase of play.” Jamie Brackpool, goalkeeper coach.

Key points: angle play is very similar to field player positioning, understanding who has the ball and their level of press resistance, slight movements to offer an outlet, body orientation to keep passing options open and optimize quick releases.

Our final example of building out of the back comes when teams recycle play. Nothing appealing is available higher up the pitch, so the side hits the restart button with a pass to the keeper.

Let's look at Ederson & Manchester City vs Chelsea. As the attack breaks down, City opt to play into Ederson rather than hitting a hopeful ball into the box. They drop very deep in this sequence, inviting Chelsea to push higher. Trap set.

What's interesting is that Ederson doesn't use the space available to him. Instead, he uses the time at his disposal to draw Chelsea higher and scan for his high targets. With 4 high, 2 in the wings, and 1 covering midfield, Ederson locates his numbers.

Ederson uses his pinpoint accuracy to hit his target, creating a central 2v1. De Bruyne botched the 2v1, but, had he succeeded, City had anything from a 4v3 to a 3v3 set-up vs the Chelsea backline.

Key points: Moving into a deeper starting position to gain more time on the ball, using deep positioning to invite the press higher, looking for long options while preserving short options, and patience to allow play to develop.

Whether from a goal kick, a standard build-out, or recycling play after a field attack, goalkeepers have become an integral part of football's attacking tactics.

The better a goalkeeper is with his feet and the better he moves in tight spaces at the back, typically the more preventative his approach to the game and the greater his ability to help his team construct attacks.

That ends the build-out example...but here's the BONUS...Gianluigi Donnarumma's angle play on set pieces.

Of all the goalkeepers I studied, Donnarumma and Neuer were my favorites. Check out his positioning in these 2 sequences. Madness to some, just another day for Donnarumma.

I turned to our head coach at Pfeiffer University, Tony Faticoni, for his analysis: “Donnaruma takes up some of the most aggressive starting positions I have ever seen. The rule of thumb is goalkeepers are responsible for 2/3rds of the space behind the backline. Due to his starting point, he can easily cover that space and then some...There is a huge benefit to his team, as he will handle many of the services and this in itself will become a big deterrent for teams delivering balls in the box.”

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who will find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on scottmartinmedia.com or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper