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The Art of Goalkeeping in 2021

Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak

As with tactics in football, styles of play change. The common duty and skill-sets of a fullback are different today than it was just ten years ago. This is no different for goalkeepers. In my work, I often categorize goalkeepers into three categories. These categories include Traditional Goalkeepers, Ball-Playing Goalkeepers, and Sweeper-Keepers. There is also a consideration for a fourth All-Around Goalkeeper category.

So how do we define the categories?

  • Traditional Goalkeepers: Traditional Goalkeepers excel at stopping shots but can be limited in other aspects of play.

  • Ball-Playing Goalkeepers: Ball-Playing Goalkeepers are experts in distribution and often see a high quantity of touches on the ball but might be below average shot-stoppers.

  • Sweeper-Keepers: Sweeper-Keepers are dominant in coming off the line and often perfect their timing in interceptions. These keepers best aid clubs that utilize a high defensive line that can be exposed to vertical play.

  • All-Around Goalkeeper: All-Around Goalkeepers are individuals who do not fit the build of the previous three categories. They can either be great at all categories, average at all categories, or below average at all categories. If the selected KPIs were visualized into radars, these goalkeepers would be consistent with no obvious strengths or weaknesses.

Utilizing data, we can create KPI Buckets (A combination of key performance indicators that are highlighted as key to the category) for each category of goalkeepers to quickly identify potential targets that match a club’s requirements. For example, rather than sorting through all goalkeepers and hoping to come across a good option in scouting, a club can identify their style of play suits the need to utilize a Sweeper-Keeper, so they can use the metrics available to them in the Sweeper-Keeper KPI bucket and they immediately have a shortlist of players who can be identified as Sweeper-Keepers. This can ease recruitment and allow for a quicker transition to applying video scouting.

Throughout my categorization of goalkeepers, it led me to wonder if certain regions had a habit of developing certain goalkeepers. For example, is a goalkeeper born in Central Europe more likely to be developed into what we would consider a Sweeper-Keeper than a goalkeeper from Asia? In this article, I will utilize data from several nationalities to highlight the average attributes of selected regions of goalkeepers. The regions that will be examined include:

  • The British Isles

  • Western Europe

  • Southwestern Europe

  • Central Europe

  • Southern Europe

  • Northern Europe

  • Eastern Europe

  • East Asia

  • The United States

  • Latin America

Each region will be briefly examined and categorized with the help of data from WyScout. Unless it is otherwise noted, the data will include goalkeepers in senior competitions who have played at least 2000 minutes in the most recently completed season.

The British Isles – England and Scotland

Starting off with the goalkeepers of England and Scotland, we notice a glaring issue in the goal defence side. While a player like Nick Pope highlights an elite shot-stopper in 2020-21, the fact is shot-stopping is not only a weakness in an average goalkeeper from England or Scotland, but it highlights them as some of the worst in the world. In terms of distribution, we see a top-end quantity of long passes and a minimum of short/medium passing. When it comes to sweeper-keeper activities, we see that English and Scottish goalkeepers tend to stay on the line more than most, with below-average exits, however, this region's goalkeepers excel at interceptions. At 1.75 interceptions/90, this is a key aspect in our Sweeper-Keeper category, and it happens to be the second-best in our study. Goalkeepers from the British Isles are underwhelming, as the regional average fits the mold of a struggling sweeper-keeper or a poor all-around goalkeeper.

Western Europe – France, Belgium, and the Netherlands

Looking at Western Europe, we see some more positives than our previous region. Shot-Stopping has slightly improved, as the French, Belgians, and Dutch are slightly better than their counterparts across the channel. In terms of sweeping aspects, we see slightly below average numbers in Aerial Duels/90 and Exits/90, but above average interception involvements. Where Western Europe emerges well is distribution and ball-playing. It is often rare for a goalkeeper to see above-average involvements in both short/medium and long play, but the Western European goalkeepers do it. This is perhaps highlighted best by players like Simon Mignolet who averaged 16.77 short/medium passes/90 and 12.23 long passes/90 or Sergio Padt, who averaged 19.06 short/medium passes/90 and 15.47 long passes/90. The Western European regional mold of goalkeeping is developing strong ball-playing goalkeepers.

Southwestern Europe – Spain and Portugal

Moving to the Southwest, Spanish and Portuguese goalkeepers appear to immediately excel in two categories. These goalkeepers are above average in goal prevention/90 (0.013 above study average) and Save Percentage, making them some of the best shot-stoppers in Europe. In addition to being above-average in goal defence, we also have to notice the well-rounded performances in aerial duels/90 and exits/90, but what separates the goalkeepers of the Iberian Peninsula is being the best in the study at interceptions. These qualities are highlighted by Robert Sanchez, for example, who exited his line 1.56/90 and intercepting 1.69/90. Sanchez complimented his sweeper-abilities with a 70.33% save percentage, preventing 0.015 goals/90 in the process. The Southwest European region proves to be a good development area for both traditional goalkeepers and sweeper-keepers.

Central Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland

In Central Europe, I must be honest, I expected perhaps a different build of goalkeepers to be the normal here. Goal defence is not the best, with weak performances in the goals prevented/90 and save percentage categories. The aspect that surprises me a bit is the low number of exits/90 for this region at just 1.49/90 (study average 1.55/90), which accompanies an average interceptions/90 just above 1.65. Where the goalkeepers of Central Europe emerge are their slightly improved but similar to Western Europe distribution numbers. The Central European goalkeepers utilize a study high of 13.81 Short/Medium Passes/90 (+0.7 more than Western Europe) and 8.85 Long Passes/90 (+0.07 more than Western Europe), which qualifies Central Europe as arguably the best region to develop ball-playing goalkeepers at the moment.

Southern Europe – Italy and Greece

While Italy's young but experienced goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who made his Serie A debut five years ago for AC Milan at just 16, now has 215 appearances for the club that he will soon depart and is Italy's jewel of goalkeeping, the rest of the region is struggling a bit. In terms of shot-stopping, this category seems to be a (relative) strength of the region. In Goals Prevented/90, the region sits just 0.003 above average and sits just under the save percentage average (-0.053%). Exits/90 and Interceptions/90 also show as underwhelming, while distribution sits well below averages. In terms of aerial duels, the region's goalkeepers perform the study minimum at 0.39/90. Southern Europe's goalkeepers can be considered in the all-around category, but that is largely down to the lack of performance in any category.

Northern Europe – Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland

As we get deeper into this study, it is easy to immediately categorize Northern Europe's goalkeepers. The region has emerged as a dominant home of sweeper-keepers, averaging 1.74 Interceptions/90 and 1.73 Exits/90. Aerial Duels/90 are also the best in the study, at 0.59/90. Moving to the distribution side, it isn't bad. Short/Medium Passes/90 are at 11.24/90 and Long Passes/90 are at 8.75/90. The only category that falls barely below average is goal defence. Goals Prevented/90 are at 0.04, which is -0.007 below average. Save Percentage is at 70.06%, which is -0.793% below average. Overall, Northern Europe offers a comfortable location to scout for skilled goalkeepers in any category, but a home of elite sweeper-keepers.

Eastern Europe – Russia and Ukraine

Those of you who have had conversations about goalkeepers with me have probably grown tired of hearing me praise Matvey Safonov, the 22-year-old Russian goalkeeper playing his trade at Krasnodar, or Dominik Livakovic, the 26-year-old Croatian goalkeeper playing at Dinamo Zagreb. It is because, although I appreciate the diverse skills of all goalkeepers, I enjoy the traditional shot-stopping goalkeepers and this is what Eastern Europe brings to the table. Although only Russian and Ukrainian goalkeepers were looked at in this study, 90 players qualified and they brought with them 0.11 Prevented Goals/90 (average is 0.047) and an average save percentage of 73% (above the study average of 70.853). To accompany the incredible shot-stopping, we also have top-notch sweeper abilities, with a study high of 1.76 Exits/90 and 1.72 Interceptions/90. Eastern European goalkeepers do have a shortcoming, however, in the sense of distribution. The goalkeepers here only average 9.75 short/medium passes/90 and 7.89 long passes/90. Eastern Europe can claim to be home of the best shot-stoppers in this study, as well as some elite sweeper abilities, but there are better regions to consider when it comes to distributing

East Asia – Japan, South Korea, and China

The East Asia region brings us our first region in the study outside of Europe. The 62 goalkeepers here offer an interesting set of skills. There are only two attributes that East Asian goalkeepers appear "above average" in; Save Percentage and Aerial Duels/90. The issue here is Prevented Goals/90 is below average, which can bring into question the Save Percentage performance. Save Percentages are not reflective of the difficulty of shots faced in the manner that Prevented Goals/90 is. That being said, the subpar outputs in distribution and sweeper abilities, as well as the above-average performance in Aerial Duels/90, which I see more often in traditional goalkeepers, leads me to hesitantly label East Asia as a region developing traditional goalkeepers.

The United States

Want something opposite of a goalkeeper from The British Isles? Look no further than goalkeepers from the United States. With a radar almost the exact opposite but still perhaps underwhelming, American goalkeepers tend to offer average outputs in shot-stopping, with Prevented Goals/90 slightly above study average and Save Percentage slightly below study average. Goalkeepers here also bring above-average levels of Short/Medium Passes/90, but minimum Long Passes/90. On the sweeper side of things... goalkeepers don't really leave the line in the United States, as both categories are at the minimum. To summarize The United States' Goalkeeping, the region offers average shot-stoppers with strong short distribution, meaning we have a slightly more ball-playing traditional goalkeeper as the normal build.

Latin America – Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay

As we go to Latin America for our final region of the study, we can start by looking at goal defence. Latin American goalkeepers are above-average in both Prevented Goals/90 and Save Percentage. For Aerial Duels/90, Exits/90, and Interceptions/90, all fall below average. When we look onto distribution, an area that I subconsciously expected to be very high thanks to the distribution success of Brazilian duo Alisson and Ederson, but Latin America happens to be the second-lowest in Long Passes/90 at 7.07 and below average in Short/Medium Passes/90 at 10.81. While some of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in the world happen to be from Latin America, this analysis finds that Latin America's goalkeepers tend to be strong in developing traditional goalkeepers.

What This Data Means

Throughout this research, I examined and categorized the data of 984 goalkeepers from 28 nations. There are certain expectations around the world. It is reasonable to expect your goalkeeper to prevent 0.04 goals/90 and save roughly 71% of the shots they face. When it comes to aerial duels, goalkeepers should expect to deal with 0.47/90. In distribution, goalkeepers tend to play 10.95 short/medium passes/90 and 8.19 long passes/90. When they are called to sweep things up, a goalkeeper should expect to exit his line 1.55 times/90 and intercept the ball 1.63 times/90.

As the game changes, goalkeepers are asked to perform different expectations and roles. Some nations develop ball-playing goalkeepers, while others choose to develop sweeper-keepers. Curriculums may change at any given moment and a nation can refocus its development, meaning the future of goalkeeping development remains dynamic. For now, this is the art of goalkeeping.

Term Glossary

  • Prevented Goals/90 - Prevented Goals/90 is a metric that looks at the total expected goals conceded and subtracts the actual goals conceded on an average per 90 minutes of play. For example, a goalkeeper that is expected to concede 1.02 goals/90 minutes and actually concedes 0.97 goals/90 minutes has +0.05 Prevented Goals/90

  • Save Percentage - Save Percentage is a simple metric that looks at Saves divided by Shots Face. If your goalkeeper saves 7 but faces 10 shots, he or she has a save percentage of 70%.

  • Aerial Duels/90 - Aerial Duels are when players from opposite teams go into the air to challenge for the ball. This often happens for goalkeepers during corners and crossing. This stat is normalized per 90 minutes of play.

  • Short/Medium Passes/90 - Passes that are less than 40 meters normalized per 90 minutes of play.

  • Long Passes/90 - A long pass is greater than 40 meters in length or greater than 25 meters in height. This stat is normalized per 90 minutes of play.

  • Exits/90 - This is when the goalkeeper leaves his line to collect a cross. This stat is normalized per 90 minutes.

  • Interceptions/90 - When a player changes his movement in anticipation of an opponent's pass. This stat is normalized per 90 minutes of play.

Final Notes

  • Data Source: WyScout (Collected on June 7th, 2021)

  • Data Note: All regions in this study use the most recent season available with a minimum of 2000 minutes played, except for the following which uses the previous season available:

    • Northern Europe

    • East Asia

    • United States


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