After closely observing football for a number of years and across all levels of the game – from local youth competitions to NRFL and NZ Summer league, EPL and Bundesliga and World Cups, I have found it fascinating to see just how often there is a peculiar dynamic on display when it comes to the relationship between the overall team and the goal keeping position.
In fact – I have come to the conclusion that a great many people would be much happier with the sport if there was no goal keeper involved at all! Maybe this is even more pronounced in my home country of New Zealand where team sports that do NOT have a goal keeper (e.g. rugby, rugby league and netball/ basketball) are the most popular(ised) team sports.
It is a well-established fact that humans will DISMISS, DISCOUNT and DISTORT factual information if and when reality does NOT fit with the individual’s preferences, beliefs. This also happens when such facts DO fit with someone’s deeply held fears.
This cognitive distortion phenomenon is very obviously at work when it comes to goal keeping and football.
So – what are the facts that do not fit with spectators, supporters, players and – most importantly – coaches’ beliefs and preferences about the sport of football?
After analysing hundreds (probably more than a thousand, actually) of football matches it is absolutely evident that – under certain circumstances – one single player (i.e. goal keeper) has as much power and influence over a football match’s outcome as do the other 10 players combined – sometimes even more than them!
And that is an irrefutably established fact that seems absolutely unacceptable to many – if not most -coaches and supporters alike no matter how experienced they may be!
It is probably psychologically unacceptable to many because it challenges the very ethos of a team sport (“there is no “I” in team”) where two sets of 10 field players each are working very hard to be successful. It feels unfair that one single player should have the power to potentially nullify all this effort of so many others – doesn’t it?
It is uncomfortable and inconvenient to even acknowledge that a single player out of 11 (or up to 14 including substitutions) should be so important to the outcome of matches and entire seasons. In New Zealand, we also have a cultural phenomenon that is known as “the tall poppy syndrome”. That means anyone “standing out” in their field is very likely to “be brought back down”. A curious – and somewhat hypocritical – phenomenon that is happening to “actual high achievers” given we also live in a time ruled by “celebrities” whose fame is often based on….?
Having said that, most people following football do NOT seem to have any trouble glorifying and idolising individual field players at all!
But there is one other aspect that contributes to this strange double standard. Celebrated field players are seen as a “positive force” because they realise the ultimate aim inherent to football: SCORING goals!
The very definition of goal keepers, on the other hand, is to PREVENT this from happening. Goal keeping is actually a “destructive force” within the logic of the game. And – unless a save looks spectacular or happens at a poignant moment in a match – preventing something from happening (i.e. making saves) is never nearly as noticeable – let alone memorable – as making something happening (i.e. scoring a goal) in the first place. That saliency effect is just one of many human cognitive biases at work.
Sometimes this unwillingness/inability to even see or acknowledge the relative importance of this single player in relation to all the other players leads to hilarious results. As I have pointed out two years ago, I came across a match programme (NRFL Div2) that entirely correctly described how one team (in their previous encounter) had been quite dominant and had managed to take many more shots on target. However – instead of simply acknowledging the fact that it was – in parts – a rather spectacular debut performance by a young opposition goal keeper, who managed to nullify the stronger team’s efforts by making a string of unspectacular as well as some decent saves (see here for a brief illustration) – the match report was filled with flowery euphemisms so as to avoid mentioning his contribution to this particular game even once!
see here for the original blog from 2 years ago
Semantic acrobatics that are hilarious and revealing, for sure, but also somewhat sad and disrespectful to the player, to be honest.
Ironically – this exact self-same club (Albany United) made the shrewd move to secure an absolute top goalie for their 2019 season and they consequently have enjoyed their most successful campaign in years with promotion into Div1 and reaching the quarter final of the 2019 Chatham Cup! Good on them!
I have also often wondered if the current obsession with the “football playing goal keeper” is driven in parts by this (sub?-) conscious desire to “normalise” the goalie and to “bring this particular player back into the fold” as it were.
Pretending that a goal keeper is really nothing more than the 11th field player who happens to wear gloves and happens to be allowed to touch the ball with his hands inside the penalty is a superficially elegant way to resolve the cognitive dissonance and discomfort around this player’s “specialness” and potentially disproportionate impact.
Taking this – obviously completely fallacious- line of thought to the extreme, there would be no need for a goal keeper to develop and maintain (through intense GK specific training) all those delicate neuro-motor pathways that connect the Primary and Secondary Motor cortices – via the central and peripheral nervous system – with the player’s limbs and hands (see here for more information on the neurophysiology of movements involved in goal keeping or any other activity!).
Making diving, flying, jumping or small movement based reflex saves – claiming or punching away high balls coming into the goal mouth area from corners, free kicks or crosses as much as killing off a fast break by stealing and then smothering the ball from underneath an attacking player – however – all involve highly specialised action sequences based on said neuronal pathways. These are goal keeper specific actions, that are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to those of all other players and that therefore HAVE TO be practised (and then practised practised….) in order to be there “on demand” if and when needed for the goal keeper to be able to PREVENT a goal from happening.
Discouraging or even preventing a goal keeper from developing and maintaining these delicate neuronal pathways – because they are “just” another player”(with gloves) – would be extremely ill advised. That is the completely obvious reason for each and any professionally run team around the world to have dedicated goal keeper coaching alongside the field-players’ training activities so that these particular players can actually perform their specialised function within the team to the best of their natural talents and general fitness levels and for the best of the TEAM.
Self-evident, really, even without any knowledge about the neuro-physiology of goal keeping and yet….
This is taking us deep into the dark side of the psychology of goal keeping in football: those in charge of a team unwittingly (one would at least hope it IS unwittingly) sabotaging their own team via irrational and costly decisions in regards to team selection and strategy. As a common consequence “soft goals” keep being conceded and scoring opportunities are “gifted” to the opposition (through an inability to control the goal mouth area – especially in regards to high balls coming into this danger zone etc). This can wreck the outcome of matches and even entire seasons as a result.
I have observed this across all levels of football over the last 10 years – sometimes from close up and sometimes from afar.
Encouraging (forcing?) the goal keeper to scream their heads off for the entire match and “making them” constantly roam their entire half of the pitch – or even beyond – and needlessly (!) “taking on” opposition players far outside their own penalty area even if and when defenders are close by anyway can be very costly. Just over the past few weeks (i.e. 2019 NRFL Premiership including Reserves) I have observed several goalies to follow this pattern and every time their team eventually paid the price in form of unnecessary goals conceded that changed the points distribution to their team’s detriment – maybe even costing them the title?
What I have NEVER observed – hand on heart – is a pseudo field-player/goal keeper doing anything that would have actually and decisively changed a particular match in his team’s favour.
Does a freely roaming keeper look exciting? Yes it does!
Does it prove that the goalie – and his coach – are “modern” and “up-to-date” with the current coaching theory/ideology/doctrine? Yes it does!
Does it make the team more dangerous and successful across the 90+ minutes of a match? …. NO it does most decidedly does NOT in about 99%+ of all matches!
What such an approach, however, does do – at least in its extreme form – is tiring out the player/keeper (physically AND mentally) who is subsequently not as sharp and focused and quick when it comes to fulfill his actual core function of PREVENTING goals from being scored!
And THAT makes a significant difference to the result.
The same goes for the factual importance of the mythical “distribution rates” for goal kicks, by the way, that I have also NEVER observed deciding a match! This is one of the many nebulous and vague “qualities”, such as “presence” ,”being strong” or “being hungry” that are being relied upon by team selectors especially when attempting to rationalise and justify selecting an objectively unsuitable player for this crucial position. The only thing that actually significantly matters in a match is the keeper’s ability to PREVENT goals (as well as scoring opportunities for the opposition team) from being scored against their team.
For sure, there are moments when it is really advantageous for a keeper to have good foot skills or to be able to make that long and precise goal kick! Yet, this is maybe 5% – in the real world away from dogma and theories – of what makes a goal keeper valuable to his team, at the very most.
The worst aspect of being in denial about the significance of goal keeping and/or the selected player’s performance levels is that a poor decision in regards to selecting this particular player can have devastating effects for the entire team! This because, anywhere else on the field other players can “take up the slack”. That is just not an option in regards to goal keeping … although … I have recently observed defenders making numerous clearances on the line in order to “mop up” their goalie’s shortcomings.
The most poignant example of this self-sabotaging phenomenon that I have observed was the German Bundesliga season 2014/15.
You may have heard about the coach and the club and the keeper involved in this scenario?
The club was Borussia Dortmund. The coach was no one other than Juergen Klopp and the keeper in question was Roman Weidenfeller.
Roman Weidenfeller was Germany’s National Team RGK (first back-up in line behind the legendary Manuel Neuer) and as such he had just returned from Brazil as a freshly crowned World Champion. At this stage he was also a very experienced and accomplished club player (in Bundesliga since 2000) with lots of successful seasons behind him (winning Championships, DFB Cup…) most of them with Dortmund.
What could possibly go wrong?!
I need to tell you here that Klopp – years later – stated that he had not been interested in systematic match and player analysis before coming to FC Liverpool!
see here a recent blog with an attached article on FC Liverpool’s analytic department
What happened was that Roman Weidenfeller – despite all his experience and undeniable previous successes – delivered the Bundesliga’s absolutely weakest GK performance of all 18 teams during that particular season!
The best GK performance – in case you are wondering – came from Loris Karius/ Mainz in that season. (and 2015/16 again) Something that the professional analysts in Liverpool agreed with me on and subsequently arranged his transfer to England! (not that they would have actually consulted me – maybe they did read FNB, though?)
Weidenfeller’s performance (behind an initially sub-par defence, too) was so weak that it cost his team many points – match after match after match. This carried on to the point of Dortmund being a relegation candidate before picking up later in the season (as a team) and making it to safety. The nearly disastrous outcome for Dortmund cost Klopp his job at the club.
Something he would not worry about these days, of course.
Anyhow – short of assuming that Klopp suffered from literal blindness or injury/stroke related cognitive deficits (both not true, of course) I can only assume that it was the phenomenon of DISMISSING, DISCOUNTING and DISTORTING the reality of his experienced and accomplished goal keeper’s on going poor performances that was dragging the entire team into the relegation zone.
How crazy is that?
One of the most internationally successful coaches in recent times was not able to see what the objective analysis clearly demonstrated! Presumably, the notion that his highly decorated and previously very successful keeper was having a never ending nightmare of a season was simply UNTHINKABLE and did not fit Klopp’s preferences and beliefs. And so it was dismissed, distorted and discounted.
Recently I have – again – seen an almost identical scenario play out!
Such is the power of human cognitive biases and mental short cuts that it can lead even the most experienced and accomplished coaches down a path of denial (or willful ignorance as it may be) that leads to poor team selection decisions and consequently leads to failure for the entire team – BECAUSE a goal keeper – especially within an overall struggling team – can be responsible for 50% or more of the match results!
In both observed cases, the respective sets of 10 field players were ultimately strong enough across the season to save their team from relegation but so much more would have been possible…
Of course, there are also many (more) matches when the goal keeper does NOT play any significant role for the final match result! These are more or less very one-sided matches or matches where the goal keepers are completely identical in their performance levels.
Generally speaking, in about one or two out of ten matches the goal keepers WILL – however- change and even completely turn a match on its head! If this keeps happening to your team (i.e. losing points despite being the better overall “team”) especially if it keeps happening more often than those one or two times across 10 matches, THEN you obviously have a serious goal keeping problem on your hands!
All of this has been explained and demonstrated and documented many times over in this blog (and elsewhere) and it is as real and true and significant a fact as it was when I started it.
The empirical evidence collected and presented here over the past few years (and elsewhere) is nothing short of being conclusive.
Unless the rules of football are being changed to exclude goal keeping altogether, everyone in a position of influence and power – and responsibility – MUST make peace with the fact that goal keepers ARE extremely significantly different from field-players AND that they CAN have a completely disproportionate impact on match results – one way or the other.
If this cold, hard fact about football is dismissed, discounted or distorted (sub-consciously or deliberately you can deny it and you can ignore it) your entire team WILL pay the price!
Therefore, appropriately supporting this – at times – crucial player’s function via regular dedicated training sessions as well as making sure to select and support the objectively best performing keeper available in the first place are a MUST for any TEAM that is 100% serious about performing as best as they can!
But that should just be common sense and good team management, anyway.
And with this nugget of wisdom it is once again time to shut the Footballnumbersblog gates for the time being.
Maybe (!) I will cover the 2020 NRFL Premiership season as a completely independent and unattached observer and if I do I will probably stick to matches close to home:
Bay-O-Watch 2020 ?
We will see…