You can not read the book on goalkeeping because the book does not exist, and that is for the better. A book might be helpful for outlining fundamentals and common techniques, but it might also be an anchor drowning effectiveness in a pool of orthodoxy, a dagger sacrificing creative problem-solving on the altar of Playing The Game The Right Way. By some apocryphal version of that book, every save that a goalkeeper makes and every cross in their vicinity should be secured with two hands at its highest possible point, preferably while remaining upright. There should be no rebounds given up and no balls tipped outside the post for a corner. Punching a cross out of danger in traffic is a transgression of the timid. Making a save with one’s legs is forbidden, the act of a hack outfield player filling in during a pick-up game, and not a proper goalkeeper. While there are plenty of people who still subscribe to various portions of this text—which again, thankfully, is not a thing—the game has always continued on, requiring more practical approaches in spite of them.
In January, Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea made eleven saves in a 1-0 win against Tottenham. Depending on your vantage point, the size of that number was due to some combination of de Gea’s showcase performance and Spurs’ lackluster finishing, but at least one thing stood out about the saves: four came from his use of his legs.
For our first 2019 installment of None Shall Pass, we’re digging into de Gea’s performance, keepers making stops with their legs, and the constricting leash of prescriptivism. But we’ll start with futsal.
Last week, Adam Bate of Sky Sports wrote a nice piece about this aspect of de Gea’s technique, and it’s worth a read. It does a good job of skewering the concept of doing things by the book and comparing the techniques that de Gea used in that game to those employed by futsal keepers. But it unfortunately also stretches too far by attributing de Gea’s tactics solely to his exposure to futsal, and by exaggerating the sea change happening around kick saves. The fact is that using legs and feet to keep the ball out of the net isn’t particularly new, and futsal keepers hardly have a monopoly on the practice.
Futsal is one of the countless miniaturized soccer variants, similar to English five-a-side or American indoor. It was developed on basketball courts in Uruguay, spread across South America, and, relevant to de Gea’s history, is now popular in far flung places like Spain.
There are good reasons why goalkeepers in futsal tend to use their legs for saves more than 11-on-11 keepers. The smaller playing field, reduced team sizes, no offside rule, and shrunken goals mean keepers face more shots from close range, with less time to react. A standard soccer goal is 8 feet tall by 24 feet wide, for 192 square feet of target; futsal’s is only two meters by three meters, with around only 64 square feet to aim at. The smaller target also means a larger percentage of shots in the area of the keeper’s limbs and less balls coming in high. (It’s also worth mentioning that while they still throw their bodies around with reckless abandon anyway, a harder surface also makes layout dives less inviting than on grass.)
While futsal isn’t going to teach you much about defending lobs over your head or extending for a top corner save on a ball 15 feet away, you can apply its techniques in plenty of traditional soccer situations. For example, close range shots near the ground just to either side of the keeper are always a danger; they fall into an area where it is difficult, especially for taller keepers, to get hands down to. Often it’s better to deal with them with a reaction kick save to get there faster than a hand could. Futsal keepers face these kinds of threats regularly, and have the tools to deal with them. The Sky piece is absolutely right that players should be willing to adopt them; more importantly, coaches should not be hesitant to impart them.
It’s one thing for a youth coach to try to instill in their keepers the muscle memory and instinct to default to the use of their hands first, but it’s another for coaches to stubbornly refuse to give players experience dealing with as many different situations and approaches as possible. Having those options can always come in handy. And de Gea, knowingly or not, did employ several common futsal techniques during the game.
In the 66th minute, he uses what is sometimes referred to as a K-block, K-shaped save, or knee-down save to stuff a charging Dele Alli.
The concept here is the same as many others in goalkeeping: Build as big a wall with as many parts of the body as possible, just close enough together that the ball doesn’t fit through any of the gaps. Legs cover the ground, and close off the space for a nutmeg, with the trailing leg cutting down the far post. Hands, arms, and chest guard the range above that. If the shooter is able to get lift on the ball in tight range, they still have to work around the shoulders and head. As little weight goes down on the planted knee as possible, with it mostly just hovering over the ground, so the keeper can immediately pop up and react. These ideas are so universal that the K-block is remarkably similar to a technique for gathering incoming rolling balls that traditional goalkeepers have been taught at least as long as I’ve been playing—though it’s gone somewhat out of style in favor of a more forward lunging version that uses the same principles.
Later in the 86th minute, when it appears that Harry Kane may have finally found some joy, de Gea does what futsal keepers call a lateral split to his right, and shoots out his leg to parry the ball. This ball is in that danger zone I referred to earlier, where a 6-foot-4 keeper like de Gea might have trouble flinging himself downward to get a right hand to it, but his long legs are up to the task.
Whether purists like it or not, this isn’t simply a futsal influence and it isn’t unique to de Gea. In the first half of this same game de Gea’s Tottenham counterpart, Hugo Lloris, made a save with his feet. Anthony Martial sliced in from a tight angle on Lloris’s right side, and with limited options, tried to blast a nutmeg through the five hole. Lloris was light on his feet—a deceptively difficult skill when your job requires you to be constantly prepared to launch your body in any direction—and slammed his legs together to close the door and give up a corner rather than a goal. Going back to Tim Howard’s illustrious 15-save performance against Belgium, which I referenced in the first column in this series, Howard had at least five saves with his legs, several of them lateral splits. Our dive into penalty kicks included Jordan Pickford using his trailing leg to kick-save a down-the-middle attempt from Luka Milivojević. These saves happen literally all the time.
Legs and feet might not be the ideal tools to make saves without spilling the ball back into play, and there might still be coaches resistant to teach their use, but that has never stopped keepers from putting them to work. Some goalies might be drawing from a futsal, five-a-side, or indoor background to make them, and futsal can certainly teach keepers how to execute them with better technique and success. But kick saves would still happen in a world where those games didn’t exist. The ultimate principle of net-minding is to keep the ball out of the goal. Every keeper is going to face unorthodox situations where their legs or their face or whatever else they happen to have available is the best tool to make that happen.
No two shots are the same and no two keepers are the same. They all have to defend an identical goal-mouth, but to expect 5-foot-6 Houston Dash and Mexico national team goalkeeper Bianca Henninger to do it the exact same way as Belgium and Real Madrid’s 6-foot-6 Thibaut Courtois is unrealistic. It’s great to have basic tenets—stay on a line between the ball and the center of the goal; try to avoid having your weight moving backwards; catch the ball with two hands and hold on to it for dear life—and it’s fine to break them based on whatever works for a keeper’s specific body or a given situation. Doing things that aren’t textbook, whether they were borrowed from futsal or made up on the fly, is infinitely better than digging the ball out of the net. The textbook isn’t real, in any case, so kick away.