It’s not really surprising that an eccentric position played by only one-tenth of a sport’s population and operating under a completely different rule set is relatively overlooked and misunderstood. That’s not always a major problem. After all, a goalkeeper’s job boils down to “Keep the ball out of the net,” and their tools reduce to “Whatever works.” Most any casual fan can understand and enjoy that on its surface. But on any deeper level, the ease with which even basic mechanics are ignored and broad misconceptions are repeated until they become truisms, makes it harder for everyone to appreciate the game. It also means goalkeepers take a lot of unearned flak.
For this second installment of None Shall Pass, I dug through entirely too much footage from recent games, and found examples of some of the most egregious goalkeeping misconceptions. There are a lot of them, and only about a third of what I came up with made it out of the first draft, so we may revisit a similar topic in the future. It’s not that the keepers in most of these clips didn’t make mistakes or couldn’t have handled these plays better; the position has an extremely high skill ceiling and even on good saves that’s frequently the case. But these are all situations that are commonly misconstrued, and every keeper who finds themselves in them deserves less jeers and better context.
No keeper can cover every cross in the goal area
The choice for a keeper to either come off their line to intercept a cross, or hold their ground and prepare for the aftermath is always murky. There are endless variables that go into the decision, but the one axiom people seem comfortable with is that the keeper should automatically get to any cross in the goal area. This is ridiculous.
The goal area extends six yards from the goal line, and six yards from each goal post, which means that it covers 120 square yards. That’s 100 sq. meters, or 1,080 sq. feet, or what Gianluigi Buffon described as “the same as a two-room flat or a bar,” and it’s a deceptively large footprint to patrol. It feels even bigger when you consider that top level shooters force the keeper to stay honest by threatening the goal from absolutely everywhere—see Ángel Di María’s Olímpico directly off the corner kick. The six-yard mark is a fine rule of thumb, but assuming a keeper should routinely grab anything inside that is just not reasonable.
Here is Real Betis’s Aïssa Mandi crossing to Joaquín for a free back post header against Sevilla.
The pass finds Joaquín deep inside the goal area, and tradition would dictate that despite the fact that the winger completely shed his defenders, this ball is Sevilla keeper Tomáš Vaclík’s responsibility.
But because no one is guarding Mandi, and he has the time and real estate to do whatever he wants, Vaclík has to respect the shot. The keeper is standing well to the left of the goal and can’t abandon his post until the ball is struck. As Mandi hits it, Vaclík has only a split-second to determine if it’s a shot coming at him or a pass headed to the other side, and respond accordingly. While he might have reacted faster, or turned and sprinted to the back door instead of shuffling, the ball isn’t in the air for long and expecting him to beat the unmarked Joaquín to it is asking a lot. What looks like a failure to claim a ball that was crossed very close to him is in fact a demonstration of how hard it is for keepers to be constantly on alert for both crosses and shots, and how much trouble can be caused by an attacker who is given plenty of space to uncork either.
Getting beaten near post is fine
Another ubiquitous proverb is that a keeper should never give up a goal on the near post. The logic is that at an acute angle, a shot toward the closer post is the most direct line of attack—especially for a right-footed player on the keeper’s left, and vice-versa—and should be taken away. While the idea has merits, oversimplifying it to this degree is an obvious problem.
This is 1-v-1 terror Tobin Heath, styling and then blasting a near post shot past Washington’s Aubrey Bledsoe.
Even though Heath has just obliterated her defender and rifled it top-shelf from point-blank range, the commentator still feels obligated to mention “Bledsoe doesn’t have the near post covered.”
“It’s just pundit-speak, an easy way to assign blame,” goalkeeper and writer Justin Bryant told Everybody Soccer. If a keeper is so overly-committed to this concept that they never give up a near-post goal, it means they’re leaving far too much space for back-post shots. It also means that they’re in worse position than necessary to cut off passes across the face of the goal, or switch sides if they have to deal with a cross, as Vaclík did above.
The data is inconclusive, but there seems to be some evidence that keepers are buying too heavily into this dictum, and are protecting their near post at the expense of far post goals. There are likely many factors at play here, but both Statsbomb and American Soccer Analysis have tallied numbers and found that from angles, back post shots score at a much higher rate than near post shots.
A goalkeeper doesn’t see what we see on TV
The clearer vision a keeper has of a shot—and just as importantly, the moments leading up to a shot—the better chance they have to react decisively. The velocity at which players strike the ball means that any delay in picking up its flight path can spell doom. As in ice hockey, many scoring opportunities involve a screen on the goalie, intentional or otherwise. The elevated, omnipotent perspective that television provides makes it difficult to appreciate a goalkeeper’s actual line of sight, and how the bodies in front of them might obstruct their view or inhibit their reflexes.
Against Newcastle, Manchester City’s Kyle Walker took a run up and belted the long distance laser that shooters dream about. From the camera angle behind Walker, you can see Newcastle keeper Martin Dúbravka recognize the shot and coil himself for a response.
It seems true that a keeper should be able to stop a shot he saw coming from such great distance, but even a momentary lapse in vision can be deadly. Dúbravka may have lost sight of the ball in a field of his own defenders, because he hesitates ever-so-slightly in the middle of his power step. Walker absolutely crushed this and Dúbravka might never have gotten there anyway, but by the time the ball clears the traffic and he fully commits to his dive, it’s already too late.
Harrison Afful’s effort for the Columbus Crew against NYCFC was even more pronounced. When no one closes him down, Afful fires from a mile out and drills the defending Alexander Ring, who drops to the turf. The ball bounces directly back to Afful, who, still open, has another go from five yards closer.
Ring pops back up just in time to nearly be decapitated by the second shot, and ducks, as does Afful’s teammate Lalas Abubakar, right behind him. NYC keeper Sean Johnson, who you can see leaning to try to get a look around Ring and Abubakar, never even gets to move his feet. By the time Abubakar ducks and Johnson sees the ball, he has to attempt a dive from a standstill. (Incredibly, he still manages to get a fingertip on it, but not enough to keep it out.) In this longer clip, you can see Johnson making the universal signal for “I was screened and never saw that.”
And we don’t always see what a goalkeeper sees
Baseball catcher, announcer, and comedian Bob Uecker had a terrible defensive season in his final year in the major leagues in 1967, leading the league with 27 passed balls in only 76 games. At least a portion of it was spent doing his best to catch legendary knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro. Uecker is reported to have said “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.”
When someone who has spent their entire life kicking things and now gets paid to do it professionally puts their foot through a modern soccer ball, it moves. Occasionally, when they hit it very hard, very square, and such that it barely spins, it will do magic. From the point of view of a television camera, this often looks like any other shot. From the point of view of the keeper, it looks like a Phil Niekro knuckleball.
In Copa MX, against C.D. Guadalajara, Sebastián Vegas blessed us with some magic.
The Monarcas Morelia defender smashes this from every bit of 30 yards out. On initial watch from a side angle, it appears that the keeper, Miguel Jiménez, has it covered and simply misplays the ball. The angle from behind Vegas is something else.
In the 30 yards that it travels, the ball rotates a total of a quarter turn. Jiménez has his eye on it the entire time, even as it continues into the back of the net. The ball is just not there anymore when he reaches out to stop it. As is the case with many plays like this, there’s more going on than just a glaring error from a career shot stopper.
And we’ll finish with today’s save that will enrich your life, featuring Luis Robles of the Red Bulls covering an unreasonable amount of ground to deny the Impact’s wide-open Alejandro Silva. Robles’s balance and body control here are immaculate.