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Seeking Goalkeeping's Holy Grail

(Image: Nelson Almeida/AFP via Getty Images)

As we look through history, we know that the most essential aspect of goalkeeping is simply preventing goals. Over time, the requirements of the game have changed. We have coaches who want their goalkeepers to be excellent in distribution and others who want their goalkeepers to offer incredible sweeping abilities.

If you are familiar with my previous work, you would know that I categorize goalkeepers in a few specific roles based on their abilities. These categories have been identified through my years of scouting as well as habits I have noticed in data. To quickly summarize:

  • Traditional Goalkeepers: The traditional goalkeeper is a dying breed of goalkeeper – these players are purely shot-stoppers and do not offer much in distribution abilities or come off their lines as sweepers.

  • Line Goalkeepers: Similar to a traditional goalkeeper, the line goalkeeper is a little more popular. Line goalkeepers are often quite comfortable in claiming aerials as well as longer distributions while maintaining excellence in shot-stopping.

  • Ball-Playing Goalkeepers: A ball-playing goalkeeper is a goalkeeper that is elite in distribution, often offering pinpoint accuracy in both short and long passes. These goalkeepers tend to fit better into sides that are frequently strong in possession and serve as a playmaker.

  • Sweeper-Keepers: Depending on your generation, you might first think of Manuel Neuer, Oliver Kahn, or even Gyula Grosics (the Hungarian goalkeeper of the 1950s who historians often credit as football’s first sweeper-keeper) – whoever you think of, they all have the same thing in common. These goalkeepers are extremely comfortable coming off their line to win possessions or disrupt attacks.

  • Complete Goalkeepers: Much like the name suggests, ‘Complete Goalkeepers’ are goalkeepers who excel in shot-stopping, distribution, and sweeping without clear weaknesses.

Now, you might find yourself asking “why wouldn’t clubs want complete goalkeepers?” and the simple truth is they do, but not enough exist to even fill one league. This means clubs must settle on identifying the aspects that work best with their model. A club that prioritizes a high line of engagement will likely benefit from a sweeper, while a club that absorbs pressure will likely prefer a line goalkeeper. If you are lucky, you might find a goalkeeper who is strong in two of the categories, but only a select few can claim to be a complete goalkeeper.

As a scout, when I think of Complete Goalkeepers, the only names that truly come to mind are a Brazilian duo we all know and love… Alisson and Ederson. The purpose of this article is to combine data and context with what makes these two goalkeepers so unique compared to other goalkeepers around the world, and why there are thousands of children throughout the world currently modeling their play on the Brazilian duo.

As we start our analysis, let’s first explain the key performance indicators (or KPIs) that we will be looking at. All of the data here is sourced from WyScout and ranking the calendar year performances of goalkeepers in the top five leagues that have played at least 500 minutes. This translates to a percentage ranking of 144 goalkeepers.

  • Goals Prevented/90 – Goals Prevented/90 is a goal defence metric that takes what a goalkeeper was expected to concede/90 minutes of play and subtracts what they have actually conceded/90 minutes. The bigger the number, the better the goalkeeper is performing.

  • Exits/90 – Exits/90 is a base metric that demands additional context. The base metric simply is a number of how many times the goalkeeper has stepped off the line to retrieve a cross or attempt an interception.

  • Possession-Adjusted Interceptions/90 – As the name suggests, this is the number of interceptions a goalkeeper makes per 90 adjusted to the team’s possession. This added context with Exits/90 will be relevant later.

  • Aerial Duels/90 – Aerial Duels/90 is another base metric that needs some context, as it does not necessarily correlate to success but rather raw attempts. It is worth remembering, due to the methods of data collection, goalkeepers tend to have very high aerial duel success rates because mistakes are not often collected.

  • Passes/90 and Average Pass Length (m) – These metrics are self-explanatory in the fact that it is simply the number of passes attempted/90 and the average distance of the pass in metres.

Now to the main portion of the article – identifying what makes a complete goalkeeper. First, we will start with Alisson.

As we can see in the visual above, Alisson (noted in blue) is in the top tier of goal prevention. He also is incredibly active in coming off his line, be it for aerial challenges or interceptions (where he is one of the absolute best in Europe) as well as heavy involvement in short distributions. This fits the pursuit of a complete modern goalkeeper as the game seeks active involvement in exits, elite shot-stopping, and of course passing that fits a short passing game. As football, in general, tries to move away from long passing games, the modern goalkeeper is focused in shorter passing. Alisson can be identified as someone filling three roles – an elite shot-stopper [line goalkeeper skill], a sweeper-keeper, and a ball-playing goalkeeper. When you excel at three, that makes you a complete goalkeeper.

Moving onto Alisson’s rival not only in the Premier League but also in the National Team setup, Ederson has slight differences in his play – meaning we have two examples of how complete goalkeepers have similar strengths but data that is different. This is where context becomes absolutely key.

As we see in the visual above, Ederson (noted in red) is still an above-average shot-stopper. When comparing his aerial duels engagement with Alisson, the numbers are similar. This is where we get to our first difference… exits/90. Alisson finds himself just above average in exits, but Ederson finds himself significantly below average. Why is this, you ask? Manchester City is typically in complete control of possession, averaging 68.3% in the 2021-2022 season [FBRef/Statsbomb]. This means that there are not many opportunities for Ederson to be coming off his line compared to others. Even Alisson has more opportunities thanks to Liverpool having an average possession of 63.3%, which is still great for what it’s worth. Thanks to the context we can provide, we find that Ederson emerges as one of Europe’s best in interceptions when we adjust for possession. Finally, when we get to passing, Ederson is above average in quantity and keeps the game short in passing length. It is safe to say Pep Guardiola has a complete goalkeeper on his hands at Manchester City.

Now that we have an idea of what data will look like for a complete goalkeeper, let’s look at goalkeepers who fit other categories – WARNING: some may surprise you.

In the visual above, we have the excellent shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois. Courtois, from a scouting perspective, is a line goalkeeper mixed with some characteristics of ball-playing for me. When looking at the data, this appears to be true. Courtois has an above average amount of passes/90 that are at a shorter distance while maintaining excellent shot-stopping. I’d like to compare Courtois to another veteran goalkeeper who has completely changed his game over the course of his career as a way to prolong his career despite some serious injuries – Manuel Neuer.

While we all immediately think of Neuer as a sweeper-keeper, we can see looking at the data how his game has changed. He still is disrupting opposition attacks at a strong rate, but he really isn’t getting involved in aerial actions. Where he has truly thrived as of late is involvement in passing. This is where we can see Neuer as more of a hybrid between a sweeper-keeper and a ball-playing goalkeeper compared to Thibaut Courtois, who is a hybrid of a line-keeper and a ball-playing goalkeeper.

Now that we have looked at goalkeepers with two of the three tools, it is time to look at the single-tool goalkeepers. Perhaps the best example of a single-tool goalkeeper is Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy, who excels as a line goalkeeper but does not truly bring any other major strength in his profile, as seen below.

To conclude, there are clubs out there who will target one aspect of their play as a must-have skill for goalkeepers. Some will get lucky and find a hybrid goalkeeper who can offer elite skills in two categories. All clubs are seeking goalkeeping’s Holy Grail, the complete goalkeeper, but few can have it.


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