Joao Moutinho slipped the ball to Eder. The Portuguese striker dribbled and fired a seemingly harmless strike from twenty-five yards out. French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, one of the world’s best, normally saves nine out of 10 shots from that distance. Yet, two crucial, unlikely occurrences happened at the same time. First, and most crucially, Lloris was leaning to his left. Secondly, Eder struck a beautiful shot to Lloris’s lower right. Lloris shifted his weight and dove, but the ball was already by him and nestling in the net. Eder’s goal would be the only goal of the 2016 European Championship final.
Such is the life of Lloris and any other goalkeeper; one slight mistake can outweigh the rest of the game. In that one moment, Lloris failed at the keeper’s only task: keep the ball out of the net. While one can describe the goalie’s job with those seven words, one could write books about the position, covering different players, techniques, and parts of the job. In a break from the usual English league analysis, this week I am writing a primer on the goalkeeping position.
The first key element of goalkeeping is the significance of mistakes. “Being a goalkeeper is like being the guy in the military who makes the bombs- one mistake and everyone gets blown up,” Bournemouth keeper Artur Boruc said. In a game like soccer where one goal means so much, a goalkeeping mistake changes the game. Plus, there is a range of possible mistakes, from giving up easy rebounds, to the ball slipping out of the keeper’s hands, to deflecting a shot into the net. The first person to be blamed for a conceded goal is usually the keeper. Often, just a few mistakes can cause the team’s own fans to be upset with the goalie, and no player is closer to the crowd than the keeper. The American goalie Brad Friedel sums it up, “For a goalkeeper, there is no hiding place.”
If a goalkeeper avoids these major mistakes, they can become locked in as the team’s starting goalie. This leads to the next key challenge for goalies: the preference for one starter. Often, clubs like to have three goalies, in the case of an injury to one or even two of them. While the third keeper is usually a youth team member, the second keeper sits on the bench for most matches, usually only playing in cup matches. These can be few and far between during the course of a season, which leads to backup goalies being out of match practice and unhappy. The classic conflict is the manager’s preference for a quality backup in case of injury, but a lack of quality keepers who are willing to be a backup for an entire season. This can have a surprisingly large effect; look at Newcastle United last season for an example. The Premier League club’s normal goalie Tim Krul suffered a season-long injury, and the poor play of past-his-prime second-stringer Rob Elliott and the unproven youngster Karl Darlow contributed to the team’s relegation season. Because one goalie starts most of a team’s games, backups struggle when given a chance and are unhappy when they sit on the bench all season.
Going back to the Euro final, Hugo Lloris faced a total of three shots on net over two hours of soccer. The rest of the time, Lloris watched the action, as France or Portugal passed the ball, occasionally getting involved in the passing himself or executing a goal kick. Sometimes, he prepared for a shot, but Portugal fired wide or their chance fizzled out. Only three times during the game, when Portugal put a shot on target, was Lloris called into action. One of these times, he was caught leaning the wrong way and Eder’s shot flew past him. The key moments of the game for goalkeepers are few and far between, so goalkeepers often have to make their most impressive saves after 10 minutes of standing there. The Lloris example shows how difficult it can be for a goalie to be on top of their game after long periods of little action.
Goalkeepers are a special breed. One minor mistake can lead to a goal and change the game. Backups lack match fitness and are unhappy at the lack of matches. During games, they don’t touch the ball for long stretches and have to make stunning saves. Legendary goalie Oliver Kahn was right when he said “goalkeepers need an element of insanity.”