The Evolution of the Goalkeeper: What Makes the Perfect Modern-Day No. 1?
"Goalkeeping is just different. Everyone says we're crazy or something, but it's more a case of us working under a different pressure, thinking about the game differently." — Bournemouth's Asmir Begovic.
Few are better placed to testify to the uniqueness of the goalkeeper role than Begovic. A Premier League starter for just shy of a decade and a World Cup veteran, he's been at the forefront of the marked changes the position is experiencing.
Much like quarterbacks are passing more than ever in the NFL, or big men in the NBA are being asked to do more further away from the basket, football has seen certain positions revolutionised in recent years.
That's certainly the case for full-backs, who are being asked to contribute heavily in every single phase of the game and are required to be in peak physical condition at the top level. It's true of strikers, too, who also contribute more heavily in more areas—the days of the elite poacher who does little other than score goals are drawing to a close.
However, no role has undergone more of an evolution over the last 25 years than the goalkeeper.
The proactive, intercepting, ball-playing net-minders we praise today barely existed a decade ago. In fact, if you go back to the early 1990s, goalkeepers were actually allowed to pick up back-passes directly from defenders. All they had to do was save it and kick it long.
Nowadays, it's an all-inclusive role, crucial in both classic and modern ways. Shot-stopping and reflexes remain as important ever, but new dynamics—such as distribution, sweeping up, aggressive positioning and improved athleticism—reign supreme as well.
With the help of an elite panel, Bleacher Report has divided the role into eight attributes and dug into each one, highlighting the best in the game at each turn.
Talking us through the skills is Begovic, and nominating the best is Sam Jackson, who specialises in this area and is the lead goalkeeping analyst for football agency World In Motion, and The Modern Day GK, a collective group of social influencers consisting of a professional goalkeeping technician, a goalkeeping analyst and a strength and conditioning coach.
We begin with what Begovic and everyone else view as the bread-and-butter of the goalkeeping game: shot-stopping.
"It's the fundamental base. At the end of the day, as much as goalkeeping has progressed, it's still all about keeping the ball out of the net," he says.
As you would expect, Begovic says "an awful lot of work" goes into being an elite shot-stopper. He says goalkeepers have to constantly practice their different techniques, work to improve their power, speed and diving ability, and continually learn how to position themselves to make saves.
Begovic says goalkeepers also "have to decide whether to catch or parry when dealing with the ball—especially as these days the ball is faster and moves more than it used to."
Most in the sport believe all top-level goalkeepers should be adept at stopping shots. "It's impossible to get to the top without having good hands and the ability to make great saves," Jackson says.
But there are tiers to it, even among the best. Jackson says Manchester United's David De Gea is considered one the best shot-stoppers, despite his struggles for Spain at the World Cup. Jackson says Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak and Liverpool's Alisson Becker are the other two on De Gea's level.
Oblak is the man who the Modern Day GK group pick out as the best in this class: "If the main aim of a goalkeeper is to keep the ball out of the net, there's no one who does this better than this man," they told us. "His flawless positioning and footwork make saves look a lot easier than what they actually are."
Master of this craft: Jan Oblak
It's one thing to stop a shot, it's another to handle it. That could be parrying it or punching it clear, or perhaps catching cleanly and keeping hold of it. The last thing a goalkeeper wants to do is spill a shot back out into a dangerous area, That's when strikers pounce.
"Having great hands is huge," Begovic says. "A lot goes into it: hand size, strength, techniques, angles. How you manipulate the ball is key."
Begovic says handling is key when taking crosses. "A good pair of hands allows you to do things right more often than not. If we choose to parry it, it has to go into the right areas and go the right distance so there are no questions asked after that."
Jackson says catching the ball—rather than batting it—is the only way to guarantee an opponent's spell of pressure comes to an end: "A key skill shared by Oblak and Alisson is the holding of shots that others would bat away," Jackson says. "Holding shots is extremely important to fully neutralise opposition attacks. Such saves can often appear routine to the untrained eye, but they're not."
Alisson has helped Liverpool shore up defensively, catching and holding balls that previous incumbents (such as Loris Karius) may have punched away last season. After his horrendous errors in the Champions League final, Karius was shipped off to Besiktas in Turkey in the summer as Liverpool splashed out a reported £66.8m ($87m) to sign Alisson from Roma. It's led to a cleaner, more effective defensive unit.
Alisson competes with Manchester City's goalkeeper Ederson Moraes for the Brazilian No. 1 shirt, and the City keeper deserves a mention here, too, according to The Modern Day GK team.
"It's seen as a bit of a risk catching balls now due to the ridiculous amount of movement in balls these days," they explain. "[Ederson] catches these first time when others might pat down. His timing is brilliant."
Master of this craft: Alisson Becker
To the casual fan, reflexes often are a goalkeeper's most exciting attribute. The ability to react in split-seconds, contorting your body to block shots from close range or shift your torso to get some part of your body on a goal-bound shot creates heart-stopping moments.
"Reflexes are something you can really train; it's a developed skill that you can work on," Begovic says. "Reacting to footballs from close distance is a simple way of training, but you can also work with colours, sharp movements and reaction lights. You get tennis balls, ping-pong balls, all these different things being fired at you at a quick pace. There are different machines and technology for it, too."
Begovic says De Gea and Real Madrid stopper Keylor Navas are "incredibly fast and their reflexes are some of the best in the world."
Jackson says Oblak and Becker deserve a mention as well. But he crowns De Gea "the king of reflexes—his reactions to tip close-range efforts to safety are outstanding."
It is an opinion shared by The Modern Day GK folks, who note it is not just with his hands that De Gea is so good in this area: "He uses his feet to save better than any other goalkeeper. When others keepers are a split second away from saving with their hand, David quickly decides to go with a foot and gets there."
Master of this craft: David De Gea
"Dealing with aerial balls is one of the most difficult parts of goalkeeping. So much goes into it—more than people will ever know," Begovic says.
"It's a combination of timing, technique and mindset, but decision-making is important, too; it's all about making the right decision," he says. "It's no good coming for every ball and missing half; you're better off going for half and catching each and every one. You have to be 100 per cent confident when you go for it."
Begovic says a decision has to be made by the goalkeeper soon after the ball has left the attacker's foot, "not when it's two to three yards from you."
"You have to judge the ball very quickly, judge the trajectory and go early—that's the only way to get the ball," he adds.
He also says you have to be able track the flight of the ball and know where the ball is going to land. Then you have to attack the ball at the highest point and get in front of the strikers.
"It takes time to learn," he says. "It's about making the right decision."
Jackson agrees and points to Arsenal's veteran goalkeeper Petr Cech as being adept at this skill, which he says "seems bizarrely underrated and unheralded."
Jackson says Cech's ability to read the game and diffuse attacks before a shot can be taken has created numerous counterattacking opportunities for his team.
The Modern Day GK says this is another area where Ederson excels and adds that Brighton's Australian goalkeeper Mathew Ryan also deserves a mention here despite the fact that, at just 6'0", he is relatively small for a goalkeeper: "It just shows you, speed and good athleticism beats height any day," they say.
Master of this craft: Petr Cech
Big games define careers. Succeed and enhance your reputation, fail and diminish it.
"For any professional athlete, performing in big games comes down to personality," Begovic says. "You either cherish those sorts of moments or you don't.
Begovic says Real Madrid's serial trophy winner Navas, Tottenham's Hugo Lloris and Cech are three players who thrive in such moments.
Jackson cites Navas here, too, but notes it's tough to select players for this category due to the small sample size. "It's difficult to say—you have to define games that matter, then strip out randomness and outliers—but Real Madrid have won the last three Champions League finals with Navas in goal."
Everton and England stopper Jordan Pickford gets a mention here from The Modern Day GK team: "He comes across like he doesn't care what game he's playing in, he'll play the same way. That's a perfect mentality to have as a goalkeeper."
Master of this craft: Keylor Navas
Is there a quicker way for a goalkeeper to make himself a hero than by saving a penalty? Stopping an uncontested shot from the spot is no small task—particularly given the speed and accuracy with which top-level players strike the ball. But there are No. 1s out there who excel at this craft regardless.
"There's lots to it. Lots of ways of preparing for penalties," Begovic says. "We have technology now, and all the information—more than we ever used to.
"But at the same time, you need a bit of luck. You need things to go your way," he continued. "The goalkeeper is never the favourite. Give any outfield player a ball from 12 yards with no opposition and he is favourite to score. It's our job to make it as difficult as possible."
Jackson's research into the best penalty-savers produces a result that will surprise casual fans: He puts Alex Smithies, the back-up goalkeeper for Cardiff City, at the top of his list.
"While this may initially seem a rogue choice, a good amount of research has been done by various analysts on penalty-stopping," Jackson says, and Smithies "regularly comes out among the very best."
Jackson also says Inter Milan’s Samir Handanovic and Diego Alves of Flamengo, formerly of Valencia, also deserve mention.
The Modern Day GK team also say that it is hard to argue with the statistics in this area, and Alves was the name that they came up with.
Explaining his technique, they said: "He never commits early, a trademark feint either side tempts the striker into changing their mind right up to the very last second. When you do this, you don't need to move early. You can gamble on the striker being put off and not hit the ball as well as they should."
Master of this craft: Diego Alves
"Distribution has become a big part of the game," Begovic says. "A lot more managers are playing football from the back, and goalkeepers are tasked with playing with their feet and starting attacks, so the game has changed in that way."
But all that remains "linked to decision-making," he says. "You can play, but you have to make the right call under pressure, too."
Begovic says feet are worked on more than hands. "In teams that play out from the back, the goalkeeper has to be a part of that, to start the attacks, so the demands are higher. That's the way it is now, so we work on it."
Jackson sees an even more drastic revolution in this area, saying Manchester City's Ederson has redefined what can be expected from goalkeepers. "His ability to accurately take opponents out of the game, turning defence into attack, over both short and extremely long distances, with feet, with hands and whether heavily pressed or not, is exceptional."
Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Bayern Munich's Manuel Neuer round out his top three in this area.
The Modern Day GK team say is it a "toss-up" between Ederson and Ter Stegen in this category, but like Jackson, they go for Ederson, noting that "his wand of a left foot allows him to make 70-yard passes with the same precision as a 10-yard pass."
Master of this craft: Ederson
It's not just a goalkeeper's kicking game that can take a team's attacking play to a new level—thrown distribution is important, too. "It's always been part of the game, but perhaps it's a little more highlighted now than in the past," Begovic says.
Jackson lauds it as an "extremely undervalued tool" and makes a strong case for its importance.
"The further down the leagues you drift, the less you seem to see it," he says. "However, in terms of the goalkeeper accurately bypassing multiple opponents, throwing the ball can be one of the most efficient ways to do this."
Jackson says Arsenal's Cech "is exceptional at it; while some criticise his distribution [largely his feet], his throwing is almost always overlooked. When he gets the ball in his hands in the penalty area, he's often looking to launch counterattacks with his throws and frequently succeeds."
The Modern Day GK team look to Munich for their choice: "Neuer uses the throw more than most keepers. The technique he uses is rarely seen these days as many teams play short, but his rocket of an arm allows him to set counter-attacks up quickly."
However, Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois may be the master of this craft. He excels at thrown distribution, which he demonstrated on a number of occasions at World Cup 2018 in Russia.
"Often, it's less about the technical skill and more simply a case of reading that 'it's on,'" Jackson says.
Master of this craft: Thibaut Courtois
"Goalkeepers are now more positive with their starting positions; things have changed on that front," Begovic says.
"Again, it's a decision to make every time; you assess that risk and try to affect the team positively," Begovic says. "It's not something you can necessarily teach. It's a process, and you will have to learn from your mistakes."
"This change has led to goalkeepers becoming better overall athletes," Begovic says, "and has also attracted more and more people to playing the position. It used to be a case of 'chuck the last kid picked in goal,' but that's changing, and it's great. Long may it continue!"
Jackson identifies three goalkeepers who excel at sweeping up. "While an increasing number of goalkeepers are adding this trait to their game, only a small group control the ball more often than smashing it clear," he says.
In that select group is Martin Dubravka of Newcastle United. Jackson says he's a "front-foot" goalkeeper, always itching to come from his line or his box to affect the ball." He's joined by Manchester City's Ederson and Barcelona's Ter Stegen, who both take high starting positions and "show comfort controlling when intercepting or sweeping."
The Modern Day GK team also says Ajax's young Cameroonian goalkeeper Andre Onana deserves a mention here, citing his education at Barcelona and his spell at Ajax—arguably Europe's two most celebrated developers of talent—as a key reason behind his sweeping skills.
"He is quick, strong and powerful. A real athlete with impeccable timing," they say.
Master of this craft: Marc-Andre ter Stegen
The Ultimate Blend
So who is the ultimate modern-day goalkeeper?
In supplying nominations for the best in each category, our expert panelists mentioned Liverpool's Alisson and Manchester City's Ederson more than any other. That doesn't necessarily mean they're considered the best, but it does point to their extremely well-rounded skill sets that fit the demands of the all-purpose, modern goalkeeper.
That they're both Brazilian and are competing for the same No. 1 shirt on the international stage suggests the Selecao won't be struggling for a top quality goalkeeper any time soon.