In her final article for Redbrick, sport online editor Nancy Frostick reflects on a year of sporting retirements and looks forward to the next generation of Redbrick writersWritten by Nancy Frostick on 19th June 2017
The Problem with Goalkeeping Analysis
Print Editor, Harry Wilkinson, criticises the lack of constructive goalkeeping analysis in football punditry
Goalkeeping has always seemed to be massively misunderstood. The ‘man between the sticks’ is often portrayed as this lone wanderer, almost alien-like being that is completely separate from the other ten players on the pitch. Most people seem to understand that the GK is important, but the lack of constructive analysis by pundits gives people a limited insight as to why and how this is.
The influence of punditry and media on spectator’s opinions on football is perhaps most evident when looking at goalkeeping analysis. Regarding goalkeepers, interpretations of everything from overall ability to specific saves is provided by football media. But the descriptions always seem to be so inadequate and meaningless, especially when compared to the depth of analysis in other areas of football.
Passes, goals and assists are analysed in incredibly intricate detail, with their skill, intelligence and technique broken down systematically by pundits. Pieces of goalkeeping, however, are often vaguely described with little elaboration or reason attached to such statements. For many people watching it provokes a deep dissatisfaction and frustration, particularly for people who know goalkeeping.
Football pundits are often former players, which is good because they can provide expert accounts that are backed up by real experience. But it is perhaps worth considering that the expertise provided, particularly regarding aspects of the actual game, are limited to the specific position or clubs in which they are played. Therefore, the opinion of former-strikers on goalkeeping analysis should be given no more credibility just because they are ex-players, unless of course they were goalkeepers. The amount of times lame and uninformed observations are made by pundits on goalkeeping scenarios is pretty staggering - but what is more surprising is the seldom amount of times they are pulled up over it. Gary Neville is an exception to this rule. He makes an effort to add some extra dimension to his analysis as he actually thinks about what he is saying, and goes into the details of his interpretation, rather than making feeble and flimsy comments like many others in his profession.
“There's a difference between 'good' and 'great'. A 'great' save should be one the goalkeeper is not expected to make; if he does not make it, he should not be criticised
Clichés are tremendously common hearing in the football world, and with goalkeeping, it is hugely prevalent; the same descriptions seem to be used interchangeably between scenarios that vary massively. There is nothing more annoying in football than a goalkeeper getting under or over-credited for their performance and actions. One problem that occurs is that all too often a ‘good save’ is synonymous with a ‘great save’ , but there is a difference between 'good' and 'great'. Using intuition, a ‘great’ save should be one that the goalkeeper is not expected to make; if he does not make it, he should not be criticised. Likewise, a ‘good’ save should be one that the ‘keeper is expected to make but performs competently and sufficiently (e.g. parrying the ball away from danger instead of back into the mix). Meanwhile, a ‘fantastic’ save should be one that is truly exceptional - rare, surprising and incredibly skilled. It does not have to be the most aesthetically pleasing, but oftentimes naturally are. There is a kind of spectrum, whereby a save goes up from ‘good’ to ‘very good’ to ‘great’ to ‘fantastic’, and then up to ‘exceptional’ or ‘world class’. The trouble is pundits and commentators often go up and down the spectrum without considering the connotations attached to their description. Adjectives such as ‘good’, ‘great’ and ‘fantastic’, are used almost synonymously.
The correlation seems to be that if the save is from point-blank range, then it is automatically a ‘great’ or a ‘fantastic’ save - but this is not always the case. There are times where the ball was struck within the direct proximity of the goalkeeper, and if they didn’t make the save it would have been a mistake. Point-blank range saves sometimes (not always) that involve little skill and reaction - just the goalkeepers being at the right place at the right time. For professional goalkeepers these should be considered ‘good’ saves, not exceptional or superb as they are so often described.
Moreover, there are saves made from long to mid range that the keeper is expected to make simply because ‘he had a lot of time to see it’, which is a pretty unfair assumption to make, particularly when taking into account the ways in which the ball moves around in the air nowadays. Such saves could be compared similarly to when a striker has a lot of time to think about a finish. Intuitively it may seem fair enough to correlate distance to difficulty when it comes to saves, but it really is not that simple.
“With its vague assertions and clumsy labels, lack of knowledge and lack of insight, goalkeeping analysis is not what it should be
In addition, often the aesthetics of a save misleads the amount of skills involved, but not always. The idea of a save being “one for the cameras” has become a bit of a cliché, so much so that it is sometimes used unfairly, discrediting goalkeepers for ‘good’ or ‘great’ saves. It’s just a lazy punditry.
Another problem with goalkeeping analysis is the lack of knowledge around collecting balls from crosses. Many pundits don’t seem to understand the dynamics of whether it is right to punch, catch or stay on the line. If a goalkeeper chooses to come out and claim the ball and succeeds, little is said but “and that’s an easy take for the keeper”, or alternatively, the cross itself is criticised, meaning almost no credit is given to the goalkeeper. However, if a goalkeeper comes out to claim the ball, but does not succeed (by either dropping the ball or not getting there), they are heavily criticised for bad decision-making. This is usually accompanied by “he should have punched it”, even if prior to this the same keeper had been catching the ball and starting counter-attacks all season.
Despite goalkeeping being an obviously crucial part of the game, there are just not enough pundits willing to spend time providing it with proper analysis. With its vague assertions and clumsy labels, lack of knowledge and lack of insight, goalkeeping analysis has got a long way to go before it can even be considered satisfactory. The media owe it to not only the goalkeepers, but the spectators too.