As the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is kicking off, we will be exposed to players that we may not always get to see and even more players that we have never seen before. As we, as humans, seek to do, we will look to draw opinions and conclusions, we like to categorize things... so we will form opinions on the player's performance and decide if the player is good or bad. While we often know what to look for in a striker or a wingback, there is still a dark art in talent identification - evaluating goalkeepers. As someone who has scouted for and consulted multiple clubs and federations on goalkeeping evaluations, I've learned that there is a common curiosity for the position, but the evaluation is often left to the goalkeeping staff because they know a goalkeeper best. In this short post, I want to help provide a framework of what I tend to look for in goalkeeper evaluation. This will only be the tip of the iceberg in scouting goalkeepers, as the technical nuances would require many practical sessions to truly grasp, but hopefully, I help point you in the right direction.
No matter how the goalkeeper evolves and the demands change, one aspect will always be consistent - can the player stop the ball from hitting the back of the net? Positioning, reflexes, handling, and the environment all contribute to this ability, but legendary goalkeeping mind Hans Leitert (FIFA Goalkeeping Instructor and consultant for Liverpool F.C., former Red Bull Football Head of Goalkeeping) summarized goalkeeping well with 7 key principles:
Optimal Positioning and Distance
Ready in Time
The Correct Beginning
Actively moving toward the ball
In every single shot I am watching, be it a goal, save, or one that ends up in Row Z, I am going through these 7 principles mentally as if it were a checklist. You can often find answers here.
Another thing to remember is not every goal conceded is a goalkeeper error - some shots just aren't stoppable. In turn, a buzzword you will hear often when watching a broadcast is "Shot right at the goalkeeper" with the implication that the forward did a terrible job, sometimes the shot is actually good and the goalkeeper has found optimal positioning to make it easy. So how do we grade shots? While there is technical analysis that accompanies this grading process of mine that I learned from a close friend and mentor, a general framework that you apply with the 7 key principles is:
Must Saves: If it is harder for a goalkeeper to let this shot go in than it is to stop, it is a must save - these are often shots directly at the goalkeeper
Should Saves: These shots require a bit of movement, but nothing too extreme - usually no extensions are needed to reach these. For example, a goalkeeper needs to simply "fall" to his/her right to stop this, this is a should save
Can Saves: These shots require extension dives/movements, but still can be reached more often than not. Many of these are where you can see a goalkeeper's technical abilities and execution of skills.
Top Class Saves: These shots must be executed with technical perfection if the goalkeeper is going to save this. While it is technically possible, it often is not expected - when they are not stopped, it can sometimes be hard to decipher these as "top class" or "impossible" - you just have to have experience.
Impossible to Save: Exactly as the category suggests, it is simply impossible to get to these - before you think "nothing is impossible", I give you the goalkeeper who makes an initial save at the near post that gets pushed to the far post and tapped in from less than a meter out - this second shot is impossible to save.
Considering these principles and shot-stopping grades, you will have a general grasp of how to evaluate shot-stopping for goalkeepers. Qualified goalkeeper coaches are often in short demand, so if you would like to have a deeper technical understanding, I highly encourage you to visit your local FA and consider gaining a license!
One of the greatest goalkeeper coaches in the world is Frans Hoek of the Dutch National Team - with his extensive career working at top clubs and educating top federations, it is safe (in my opinion) to call him a Godfather of Goalkeeping. Why am I starting off this section with a discussion of Frans Hoek? Because he refers to the goalkeeper as a goalplayer - with today's demands, it seems fitting that the position is earning a new name. The position is demanding more than just shot-stopping, and the top clubs now demand their number 1 contribution to the transition.
A lot of distribution here is dependent on the tactical approach being utilized, but there are certain points to remember:
When a goalkeeper is on the ball, he/she is absolutely no different than a midfielder looking to distribute. How the player is on the ball is an easy way to determine a player's comfort - if the player is scanning the pitch both before and during the time of possession, he/she is much more comfortable than the one who receives and looks one direction to boot it away. (If you are interested in learning more about scanning, Gier Jordet's work is a must-read)
Sometimes there is an opposition player who is just a monster at winning possession. Sometimes a player on the goalkeeper's side is simply not the best at receiving. A goalkeeper's distribution goes far beyond just successful or unsuccessful. Ask yourself "Was that pass receivable?" - if so, you can view it as a positive from the goalkeeper.
This especially is a shortcoming in data for goalkeeping. All data requires context, but few statistics can be as misleading as a goalkeeper's distribution statistics.
Be it short or long, distributions can be positive or negative. Ask if the pass was a productive pass, or if it just created more pressure on teammates. A goalkeeper gifted in distribution will always aim to be productive, while one that is uncomfortable might just aim for the easiest option.
Bonus Point: The method of distribution is not as important as the result - Instagram, for example, has a nasty impression right now that gives the impression the only correct way to distribute is the side volley - while there are benefits to the side volley, there are also downsides and it should be one of many techniques a goalkeeper can use, not the only one.
When we think of sweeper-keepers, many of us will have Manuel Neuer come to mind hanging out in the midfield while his team dominates the attacking zone, but exits here also include a bit of aerial ability. Teams with a high line especially are seeking goalkeepers who can operate as a sweeper-keeper. In order to identify a sweeper-keeper no matter the style of play you are viewing, there are a few quick and easy aspects you can consider:
Is the goalkeeper fast? A goalkeeper who has decent acceleration and speed can get to the ball that is played in behind sooner - winning possession will always be easier than a 1 on 1.
Remember Hans Leitert's 7 Principles? Number 6 is courage, and it applies here. Especially when scouting youth players, a goalkeeper being called into action is a great way to see how courageous they are. A goalkeeper must be brave to come out knowing it is very likely that the ideal scenario is they are going to take a shot to the body/face from close range. If you see hesitations in the goalkeeper you are evaluating, they likely are not comfortable operating as a sweeper.
When exiting the line for aerial situations, something all goalkeepers learn at a young age but others might not know is simply to attack the ball at the highest point possible. The better reach and timing a goalkeeper has, the less likely it is for an attacker to win an aerial.
The technical art of a 1v1 is hard to master and hard to shortly convey, if you would like a deeper analysis of the techniques used in a 1v1 situation, I highly recommend the recently published work of my friend (and more importantly, former professional goalkeeper) Matt Pyzdrowski on the "Art of saving a one-on-one"
For newcomers to the dark arts of goalkeeper evaluation, exits can be more challenging than goal prevention, it will take a lot of time to learn and there will always be debate on the subject.
I wanted to focus on the above three elements because they are aspects of the game that can be evaluated from video, meaning they are the most common aspects you will likely explore. If you are in the stands, these additional elements are absolutely critical to be aware of:
How a player reacts after a mistake is a quick way to evaluate psychological strength and resilience. The minute after a goal goes in, see how the body language is looking. How is the communication? Is the goalkeeper still focused?
Is the goalkeeper in charge of their emotions?
How engaged is the player when the ball is on the other end? A strongly focused goalkeeper will stay engaged and know where the ball is exactly at during all times, not just the general area of play.
Communication - Did the goalkeeper communicate with his/her team and make sure the area was under control?
These psychological and emotional aspects are nearly impossible to truly judge on video, but they make a huge difference in a player's evaluation.
After years of evaluating goalkeepers, I still am constantly improving, I notice more and more nuances that help improve my evaluations and I challenge my own thinking to find ways to think differently and gain an edge. This guide helps provide a framework, but it will not give you a perfect eye for evaluating goalkeepers. Technical, Tactical, Psychological, and environmental influences are all critical in a goalkeeper's performance.
As an experienced technical analyst and goalkeeper coach with an educational background in sports administration, communication, sociology, and coaching education, I pride myself on helping others learn and hearing new thoughts. If you are an individual that would like to learn more about goalkeeping talent identification and evaluation, I am always happy to chat - you can message me on Twitter @ARDataAnalysis or by searching my name on LinkedIn. If you are a goalkeeper that would like to be evaluated, please click here to learn about my player performance services. If you are a representative of a club or company and would like to learn more about goalkeeping methodology, analysis, and recruitment factors, please click here. I always aim with my services to be accessible for all, no matter the budget or level you are working with.