Last Defender Or First Attacker? The Evolution Of The Modern Goalkeeper
Much of the talk going around goalkeepers the past decade is their evolution from lone shot-stopping duties into a more well-rounded player on the pitch. The popularity of a possession-based football style meant teams wanted as much time on the ball as possible and of course, the best way to do this is, more or less, is to start from the goalkeeper.
The likes of Manuel Neuer, Hugo Lloris, and Marc-Andre ter Stegen perfectly exemplify the ball-playing keepers of the game and their importance to their team’s style of play cannot be overstated enough. But as these “modern” keepers rise in prominence, it is interesting to ask, “are there any places left for traditional goalkeepers in the current state of the game”? Will the traditional skill set of keepers such as Gianluigi Buffon and Jan Oblak still be home in any of the teams right now? That’s what we’re going to find out.
First, we’ll talk about the ball-playing keepers who are a very popular choice right now. Ball-playing keepers are goalkeepers who possess technical ability with the ball on their feet in addition to their shot-stopping capabilities. Having a keeper who is comfortable with the ball allows a team to have the bulk of possession, which, in theory, they use to attack. Attack-minded teams like Tottenham, Barcelona, Manchester City and Bayern Munich prefer having as much of the ball as possible hence their preference for ball-playing keepers.
Let’s take a look at Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris, for example. Due to Lloris’ ball-playing qualities, Tottenham can easily play from the back. Against the opponent press, Lloris can play short or medium-range passes accurately in order to facilitate the progression of his team’s build-up into the next phase. If Tottenham plays with a keeper who lacks ball-playing skills that Lloris have, then that keeper would just punt a low-percentage long ball. This way, the propensity for Tottenham keeping the ball is significantly lessened.
With Lloris, however, Tottenham would be able to keep the ball better. The French keeper can play a high-percentage short pass to any of his teammates in the backline, allowing Spurs to build-up from the back. This allows smooth progression into advanced areas of the pitch, which is their preferred style of play under Mauricio Pochettino.
On the other hand, traditional keepers are goalkeepers with strong shot-stopping fundamentals. The ultimate responsibility of a goalkeeper is to prevent the ball from getting into the back of the net and this kind of keepers do it the best. The existence of such shot-stoppers greatly complement teams who put a premium on defensive solidity. The likes of Petr Cech (at Chelsea), Buffon and Oblak gave their respective teams an added sense of security in goal apart from their organized defensive blocks.
Now, we’ll take a look at Oblak and his team, Atletico Madrid. Since Diego Simeone took over the club, Atletico has become one of the best defensive sides in Europe, with their deep-block defense second to none. While Atletico generally nullifies the threat of offensive-minded teams in the final third by not allowing strikes on goal, when they do, these are usually low-percentage strikes from distance.
But as Atletico prefers to defend in the deep-block, this means Simeone’s team would yield possession to their opponents most of the time. Having less of the ball means that their goalkeeper, too, would have less time with the ball on his feet, unlike sides who want to play from the back. This allows Oblak to concentrate on the primary job he has to do, which is to save shots, and his superb shot-stopping abilities definitely make Atletico a more solid side in defense.
So, would you like to have a ball-playing keeper or a traditional one? Why not a little bit of both. Manuel Neuer may well be the most well-rounded keeper in the game today. Besides his shot-stopping ability, the German keeper has developed his ball-playing skills to a very high level when Pep Guardiola was at Bayern Munich. Or David de Gea. The Spaniard has the strongest set of skills for a traditional keeper right now, in addition to his ball-playing skills, which aren’t too shabby as well.
However, premium goalkeepers like the two mentioned are rare and if you have to choose between a ball-playing keeper or a traditional one, it all depends on how you would like your side to play. If you want to build from the back, then a ball-playing keeper would be beneficial as this would give you more control of possession in the first phase of build-up, the most crucial phase of the attack. On the other hand, if you prefer to set your team up more defensively, then a traditional keeper would be a huge advantage. You let the opponents usually have the ball, which, overall, puts less offensive responsibility for your keeper, letting him focus on doing his principal job of preventing goals.