The Modern Day Goalkeeper

The Modern Day Goalkeeper

‘No matter how many saves you make, people will always judge you based on that one mistake.’

It is a quote that will ring true for anyone who has put on those set of gloves and stood between the posts. The goalkeeper – the first name on the team sheet, protector of the goal and yet a position that is often overlooked in terms of contributions to a victory, but one that is heavily scrutinized in defeat. It is little wonder that goalkeepers have traditionally confined themselves to the limits of their penalty box, shying away from any other action other than fulfilling their primary duties of denying opposition goal scorers. However, in today’s beautiful game, we see that top teams play with a goalkeeper that is not afraid to come out of the box and intercept the opposition’s final pass and is adept at using their feet (Manchester City’s Ederson, Liverpool’s Alisson and Bayern Munich’s Neuer). Just how did these sweeper keepers become increasingly common? 

A sweeper keeper is a goalkeeper who controls the space behind his defensive line, often pushing up and staying as close to his defensive line as possible in order to ‘sweep’ up through balls or final passes that have breached the defensive line, being proactive in defense. In other words, he is an extra defender.  

Although sweeper keepers are becoming a commodity nowadays, it is not a new concept and has its roots as far back as 1895, back when association football first started out. Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Richmond Roose can be regarded as a founder, as the former Stoke City and Sunderland goalkeeper was famed for his daring style, often rushing out of his penalty area to fill gaps left by errant full backs, at a time when all goalkeepers rarely strayed more than a few yards from their goals. He also created his team’s attacks by capitalizing on the rules then, which allowed goalkeepers to handle balls in their own half, by bouncing the ball up till the halfway line and launching deep kicks into the opposition half. It was reportedly his extensive influence on the flow of games that the English Football Association eventually changed the rules to ban goalkeepers from handling outside the penalty box, one that sits till today. 

Image by AS Roma

Alisson in action

Lev Yashin, the legendary Soviet keeper who remains the only goalkeeper to have won football’s most prestigious individual award – the Ballon d’Or, and Hungarian keeper Gyula Grosics can be said to be the two founders of the modern sweeper keeper, as they were noted for their abilities to leave the penalty area and challenging opposition attackers, whilst the former was also known for starting counter attacks with his long throws. The advent of ‘total football’ philosophy championed by Johan Cruyff revolved around how ‘the goalkeeper is the first attacker and the striker, the first defender’, which laid the foundations for the continuous development of sweeper keepers up till today, starting with Cruyff’s World Cup winning teammate Jan Jongbloed in the 1970s. Sweeper Keepers under the ‘total football’ philosophy were not just an extra defender but were expected to be playmakers who kick start counter attacks by being equally adept at using their feet as they are with their hands. 

Credit: BBC | The late Lev Yashin

Today’s possession-based teams have added an additional dimension to the role of the sweeper keeper. Other than sweeping and launching quick breaks, a sweeper keeper is also expected to retain possession in the modern game, often acting as the eleventh outfield player to recycle possession and an outlet to relieve pressure, especially when facing a team that loves to high press. That is why goalkeepers with their ball at their feet, sometimes at the halfway line even, is not a rare occurrence anymore. (Think Manuel Neuer in the recent World Cup). Sweeper keepers such as Manuel Neuer, Ederson, Alisson and Hugo Lloris in the modern game all have fantastic close control and dribbling ability. 

With today’s football game being increasingly fast-paced and with more teams employing the more attractive passing style, sweeper keepers will continue to be in hot demand. Able to launch attacks with their accurate distributions and serve as an additional outfield player in recycling possession on top of their proactive defensive approach, evolving sweeper keepers who are starting to possess the technical abilities of outfield players are the latest product of the football’s evolution.

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