Better Positioning and Priorities for your Goalkeeper

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Chris Bauer is a goalkeeping director who played at some of the highest levels of the game in the U.S.. He was on the Washington State ODP team with Kasey Keller, progressing to the regional and national pools. Chris played four years at Santa Clara University, winning an NCAA National Championship in 1989 and returning to the final in 1991 where they lost on penalties to Claudio Reyna’s University of Virginia. Chris started coaching back in Seattle, working with clubs and players, before moving to Colorado to become the goalkeeping director at FC Boulder.

If you watch footage of Gordon Banks he is constantly adjusting his position by what is happening in the game – even when it is at the opposite end of the field. How important is goalkeeper positioning and how do you teach it?

Positioning is everything for a goalkeeper. If you are in the right position you have the best chance of saving the ball. You can show players where to stand, based on where the ball is, but a lot of it you get from feel for the game. The only way to get that is to actually play in games. My job is to watch the kids, see where they are standing in relation to the ball, and give them feedback. Some moments we can mimic in training – particularly set pieces. We also work on angle play in training – giving players positions and more concrete rules for where to stand depending on the angle and distance of the ball from the goal. The more balls you face, the better you become at anticipating and knowing where the best place to stand is.

During games or scrimmages I will sometimes stand behind or off to the side of the goal to give them positioning feedback. I was at a game last week trying to help the ‘keeper play more in the sweeper keeper role, but he was hanging back on his goal line, even when the ball was way up the field. From coaching on the sideline I was able to help him play higher up the field. Later in the game our defender had the ball under pressure and was able to play it back to the better-positioned goalkeeper, who could start the attack again. My role is not to bother them too much during the game though so I pick certain moments and limit my information when talking to them.

Goalkeepers seem to get the most credit for making dramatic diving saves. In many cases better positioning would have made it look easy. How do you break the desire to make highlight reel saves?

I don’t care about flashy goalkeeping. Some out there will dive even when the ball is hit right at them – I just want the basics done really well. Players who focus on proper footwork, good hand form, excellent positioning and who learn to read the game will see everything else fall into place. With the younger kids who are trying to do something heroic I encourage them to just catch the ball, which is something we are having issues with right now. It is important to stress to them that they can be a hero if they do the basics well, without the need for making big saves out of nothing. If you can keep on your feet it makes more sense anyway. I’m almost 45 years old and I still play, so when I go down for the ball now it is hard for me to get back up, so I better be sure I can get it if I do!

How should goalkeepers move from one side of the goal to the other? What should their footwork look like?

Almost every drill I do incorporates some form of footwork. That might be short choppy steps – looking to be ready for the shot with our feet shoulder width apart. By using cones and hurdles we can help stress the importance of form as players move around the goal. For those moments where you have to cover the goal from end to end it is definitely situational, but generally that is not a time for short steps. I believe in getting from A to B as quickly as you can, so we teach players to run to get there….when it makes sense.

In the Europa League semi-final in the 52nd minute a goalkeeper gave up the near post and collapsed towards the far post before the shot was even taken, making it very easy to score. How do you prioritize what to protect in those situations?

In that situation you have to protect the near post. Obviously there will be times when we make mistakes, but as a general rule, the near post is an easier and closer target for the field player so we have to prioritize protecting that. In that moment your job is to get low, stay big [on your feet]and make the attacker play it around you. At the end of the day, goals are going to happen but make the attacker beat you by you being in a good position. When you see goalkeepers try to anticipate by falling to one side early, they tend to kill themselves because now they have are much harder job of trying to make a save. If the ball is coming from the side, as in that video then I am not cheating to one side or the other. I’m off my line closing down the angle and I am trying to react to the ball. If a player is in a 1v1 dribbling situation with me from the side, I sometimes will cheat a bit to give them a bigger target on the far post side, almost baiting them to hit it there. That way they become more predictable and have to take on the harder shot.

When the ball is played wide, what are the priorities for the goalkeeper? Where should they stand and how should they angle themselves?

Before they get to those issues, the goalkeeper has to consider how their defense is organized. Are the other teams attacking players covered correctly? A lot of time the goalkeeper focuses on where the ball is, and misses the guy hanging out on the far side who is totally unmarked. So you give a quick look over the shoulder and then you give specific information to your players on what to do. Saying mark up doesn’t help them – it needs to be John, take number 5, Sean take number 7. By doing that you are giving them reminders in a stressful moment.

Next I want to try to push the ball as far down the sideline as I can. If it ends up out of bounds – fantastic! I will be barking out orders to my player who is pressuring him. There are a few commands that I will use –stand them up (don’t dive in, keep him right where he is), or if he has an opportunity to win the ball get in or go get it.

As far as where I position myself: it depends on where the ball is. Most goalkeepers start too close to the ball though, so when the ball gets served to the back post they are nowhere near it. In training we will work on getting younger keepers to start further back – maybe a foot or two back from the middle of the goal. My goal is for them to delay slightly so that they can read the ball first. It is then just a split second for our brain to click in and know where the ball is going. Generally we can then use our judgment to decide whether we can get it or not. Knowing what kind of cross it will be will also help determine my position – will it swing in our out? If it is swinging out they are unlikely to score, so I can cheat off my line a little bit.

If you can have your defense so well organized that they can’t put a ball in, so they have to play it back and try to beat you through the center of the field, you have changed the way they attack you, which is a beautiful thing for a goalkeeper.

For corners, how do you like to defend? Does it vary by team and goalkeeper strengths?

It varies. As a general rule I look at the likely flight of the ball to determine where I will stand – whether I can cheat off the line or not. A lot of teams today don’t put players on the near post anymore, so that they have extra defenders dealing with attackers. I still like to have them there though so I’m old school in that way. From there it depends on whether you are marking man to man or playing zone. If they have a big forward and you have a big center back there is probably a battle going on there.

It’s easy in training for me to come out and get to every cross, but once you start to put in more and more players it becomes more difficult to be sure that you can get out and catch it. If you can’t catch it we try to punch it away and will teach that too. It is a nerve racking part of the game though that we don’t give them enough credit for dealing with.

Keep in mind that there is contact in those moments too, and intimidation. I can teach them the technical form, but at the end of the day they have to be brave. I would rather have them come off the line and miss it completely, than the one who stays on the line and does nothing. It’s important to enjoy that contact, slightly.

Many teams will stick someone on the goalkeeper on corners, in order to impede their movement at coming out to collect the cross. How do you deal with that?

I hate it. You often see the ‘keeper put their arms in the air as if to say to the referee that they are being impeded. If I am in the goal and you are going to be in my way, you don’t want to do that because I am going to get it. That’s where the bravery comes in as a goalkeeper – you might have to go through a player to get the ball. And it only takes one time doing that. I wouldn’t get too caught up in it though. Often they will drop off right when the ball is struck, so don’t focus too much on it and let it distract you from your priorities. A halfway competent referee will see it and protect you.

Graham Joyce described Peter Schmeichel as being “like a fishwife berating a wayward husband at the door of the alehouse.” Often youth goalkeepers are very quiet though. How do you encourage them to increase their vocal presence on the field?

Goalkeepers get a lot of training on the technical side of the position, often at the expense of the tactical side of the game. Where do I stand? How do I set that wall? What do I say? I’ve had players turn around and tell me that they just don’t know what to say. In those moments I will step in and have them watch what I do and say. The key little words I use with the team have a big impact, but knowing when to use them comes from reading the game. I don’t just organize the defense, I’ll get in to the midfield – talking about dangers they are not aware of. So you teach them by showing it, then have them step back in, and keep reminding them until it becomes a habit. It can be uncomfortable yelling at their teammates because outside of the game they are school friends. I help them understand that between the lines of the field it is call good and they will appreciate what you are telling them.

In an ideal world, how high would you like the goalkeeper to be moving up the field, and how do you teach that when you may not have access to a back line to work with?

I remember when defenders could play it back to me and I could pick it up! When the rule changed you switched to needing goalkeepers who could play with their feet as outfield players. It is tough to teach the distance when I have 14 goalkeepers at a session but no team to work with. I go out to their games and try to work with the one player when they are with the rest of their team. I’ll talk to them there about where to stand in relation to their teammates when the ball is in different places. Once they understand it conceptually then it starts to make sense. It is scary for them at first leaving the penalty area though! As we help them out of that mindset they gain confidence and become an option for teammates to use to relieve pressure, as well as being able to break up attacks without having to make a save.

Tony Dicicco once said that goalkeeping was 90% mental and 10% physical. How do you work on the mental side of the game?

I don’t know that I agree with the percentages, but I agree with the premise. I was at a session last week working on simple catching from volleys, with 13 year old goalkeepers. They were struggling, so I step in and catch ten in a row. As I stop I ask them why I was able to do that, and one of them raised their hand and said it’s because you’re confident. That’s exactly right. As much as I try to technically and tactically train them what I am really doing is trying to build them up so that they realize how good they are. I want that hard, disciplined, take no prisoners approach to goalkeeping. Look at Hope Solo – she has that aura about her as she stands on the field. Do you want to go up against her on a cross? No! She’s going to take your head off! That’s the approach and the attitude of a confident goalkeeper who is comfortable with the physical side of the game.

Do you relive specific moments of success or failure as a goalkeeper and wish you could have done them differently? How do you not let that affect you in the present day?

I had a bittersweet experience at Santa Clara which meant that I didn’t play as much as I would have liked to. Part of that was my fault – maybe my maturity and not understanding things. I look back and try to learn from it now to help my kids. That way you can pass on the wisdom you can take from some of your failures, rather than dwelling on them. There were also some great moments where I played very well though. I often go back to the feeling I had in that moment and try to bring that to the players I coach now. Goalkeeper is such a confidence-driven position so being able to channel those memories can help you when you need to turn the page after a bad run.

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