The Four Pillars of Football – Part Four: Goalkeeper

There’s a saying out there that you have to be crazy to be a goalkeeper. Over time, we’ve seen that that holds up. Liverpool Football Club has been blessed with legendary goalkeepers throughout its history. From Ray Clemence to Bruce Grobbelaar to Jerzy Dudek, their legacies are based on individual successes and failures but also intimately woven with the team’s success. It’s is a risky position to play every game. Perhaps that’s part of the ‘crazy’; to play a position with the overwhelming responsibility possessed in their gloves. A goalkeepers’ regularly scheduled program is making the save. But eyes are on them when the ball goes over the line. There is always someone to critique the positioning, handling, or movement of the goalkeeper to make that the claim the keeper should’ve gotten there.

The four pillars of football can be applied to each position on the field. Though goalkeepers are primarily paid to use their hands to play the game we all love so dearly, all aspects of the sport still apply to them. Jurgen Klopp’s backroom staff has taken time to analyze the goalkeepers at their disposal. Primarily, during their time at the helm, they have been reliant on three main keepers; Simon Mignolet, Loris Karius, and Alisson Becker. While undoubtedly the most successful and talented of the three has been Alisson, all three deserve credit for bringing Liverpool to where they are today. Yes, even Karius.

Clearly, Alisson possesses the most ability on all four pillars of football when compared to the other two previously mentioned goalkeepers. It isn’t a coincidence that Liverpool has achieved the pinnacle of success and accolades once the burly Brazilian shot-stopper joined the ranks. He currently is joined on the squad by Adrian and Keheller. Adrian has surely played far more minutes than anyone originally anticipated when he originally signed as a free agent in 2019. As for Keheller, he is a young, naturally talented keeper just beginning his professional career and is clearly highly rated by Klopp. 

Mental

Goalkeeping remains one of the most mentally demanding positions on the pitch. It is not a position for the faint-hearted. The player must be fearless, both in the tackle and in the emphasis of each decision. The other positions have teammates who share the load of responsibility for various aspects of attacking and defending. Goalkeeping does not. The sole priority of being a goalkeeper is to stop the ball from going into your own net. Well, that is until Alisson broke the mold and became Liverpool’s greatest ever goalscorer! But besides that remarkable moment in history, a goalkeeper only focuses on saving the team from misery. When one fails to perform to perfection or simply has a lapse in concentration, the situation can turn sour fast. This is why mental toughness and focus are so imperative for the position. Whether it’s making ten saves in a half or one save within ninety minutes, the expectation is always to keep calm, direct traffic from the back, and consistently be in a position to make the stop.

Liverpool have always been expected to possess top-quality shot-stoppers. Despite differences of opinion, it’s largely accepted by most pundits and avid supporters that the ability to save a ball was never questioned when it came to Mignolet. But what Mignolet made up for his reflexes and shot-stopping he lacked in mentality, whether it was a lack of command in his own penalty area or indecisiveness on when to come out vs stay home in goal. Too often this was the difference between one point and three.

As for Karius, he too was prone to making mental errors. However, his situation is unique. The mental ability that Karius seems to lack is the strength to return to high levels following a mistake. Resiliency. To leave the past in the past is important. The next shot towards goal can come anytime.

Following the 2018 Champions League Final lead to a seemingly permanent loss of confidence. We’ll pass at looking further into that game as there isn’t much that hasn’t already been said and picked apart at length. What I will shine a light on is how Karius has not played a competitive game for the team since, while still being on the Liverpool books since that game. When given the chance to perform at Besiktas in Turkey and Union Berlin in Germany, ghosts of that infamous game in Kyiv still appear to loom over the German. Individual error litter the past few seasons regardless of loan and location. 

Alisson and Adrian have both shown that errors happen. Both have made decisions that have led to goals for the opposition. But both have also been able to show the ability to rebound from critical, high-profile errors. When asked to dust themselves off and perform, they’ve done just that.

Physical 

The most important attributes of a goalkeeper for the physical pillar of football would be their size, speed, and agility. We begin with the size of a keeper, as it is something that can’t necessarily be modified. While height is a large part of size, it is not the only contributing factor. For example, Mignolet is an inch taller than Alisson. However, the long arms, full torso, and looming presence of Alisson make him a far more intimidating spectacle to the opposition.

Speed is a vastly underrated quality for a goalkeeper. Though they don’t have to make a Salah-esque run down the wing, there is still responsibility where speed is required. Given our high line defensive system, there have been countless occasions when a ball through the backline of Liverpool’s defense requires the swift decision for Alisson to leave his post and stretch his legs. To get to a loose ball before the opponent’s attackers is a do-or-die moment. Get it wrong, and it’s a tap-in goal.

Liverpool fans witnessed Karius and Mignolet exercise the same sprint far less frequently which led to more pressure on the defenders and ultimately, more goals conceded. Time will tell how capable Keheller is at coming off his line. But if early signs are anything to go by, his physical abilities are promising.

Agility, undoubtedly, is the most important physical aspect for Liverpool’s goalkeepers. To quickly get off the goal line to intercept a cross or shot is imperative to the keeper’s ability to keep goals out. A keeper’s instincts, skill, and composure allow a keeper to know how to make the save. But the ability to change directions quickly will be the sole difference on getting to the ball or not. Klopp requires his keeper to establish dominance in their penalty area. And in that smallest area, the keeper must be the most agile and dynamic player there.

Tactical

Like the rest of the players on the pitch, the goalkeeper for Liverpool has responsibilities for the team both defensively and offensively. So let’s get the fantastical out of the way first. Before this season, not even the most optimistic of supporters would have thought a tactic for the team would be to have a goalkeeper as the goal scorer. It took 129 years of Liverpool history for a goalkeeper to score a goal in a competitive game before Alisson famously hitting the back of the net. While I don’t think it will take another 129 years again for the next one, it is not a tactic that should be relied upon by the team. Let’s hope we don’t get into situations so frequently that we need our keeper to score. That being said… if Alisson doesn’t hit 5 goals next season, consider it a disappointment.

Defensively, our keeper is tactically relied upon as the last line of defense. Before the shot is taken, the positioning within the penalty area is meticulously worked on. The keepers’ objective in positioning is to maintain as narrow of an angle as possible for the goalscorer. Furthermore, constant communication between the backline and the goalkeeper is imperative. This is one area that Adrian excels. His experience has led to a well-respected, well-appreciated addition to the locker room. This immediately transfers onto the field as he can be heard barking orders whenever he makes the starting XI.

The positioning of the goalkeeper off the ball is seen far more in the Liverpool tactics than other teams. As referenced earlier, Liverpool rely on their goalkeeper to maintain an advanced position off their penalty area when the defenders are high up the pitch. This allows the keeper to jump onto balls over the top of the defensive line. While maintaining possession, this high position also allows an outlet for a pass. By doing so, Liverpool are looking to expand the opposition’s formation towards their own net. Effectively creating passing channels and space behind.

Offensively, the goalkeeper looks to spring the team towards attacking transition. Alisson’s head can be seen constantly on a swivel once gaining possession of the ball. He is looking for outlets of all different varieties. Alisson is not shy to attempt the route one pass, on an angle for Salah and Mane to run onto. When that option is not on, there are more opportunities to push the team forward on the attack by distributing wide to the outside backs or through the middle to a progressive midfielder.

The emphasis for the keeper to play the ball quickly is central to the overall goal of Klopp’s tactics. Referred to in the early Klopp days as heavy-metal football, this now has a more calculated approach. Alisson has been integral in determining whether the long ball or the possession play is required based on the situation during that moment of the game.

Technical 

The technical pillar was traditionally never thought to be an important pillar when it comes to goalkeepers. As kids, you whispered amongst yourselves and quietly put the worst player in the net during afternoon pickup games. But my how times have changed. Liverpool put a huge amount of trust and emphasis on goalkeepers to be involved in their play. Instead of a ‘10+1’ approach, the keeper is seen just as important as the rest of their players. That means that they are also expected to be just as capable with their feet as they are with their hands.

When it comes to their technical ability with their feet, a goalkeeper under Klopp must be accurate with the pass and quick with the control. They must be capable of shifting the ball around their feet swiftly to allow the rapid flow of play. In some cases, they must even be capable of evading a tackle, as seen with Alisson time and time again.

One thing that left Liverpool fans fuming was the inability to make a successful long pass when Mignolet and Karius were relied upon. Those feelings reminisced when Adrian miss-hit a clearance against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League that led to a goal. Overall, Liverpool fans are ecstatic that more often than not, Alisson is the one in the back making the passes and touches as Mignolet, Karius, and to a degree, Adrian, has left a lot to be desired when attempting to play from the back.

As for the goalkeeper’s hands, the main characteristic we look at for the technical pillar is intent. Liverpool’s backroom staff are aware that all the keepers on the books are capable with their hands to play the game professionally. But they crave their goalkeeper to have intent on each decision to catch, punch, or parry the ball with immaculate execution. When a keeper is caught between two minds, the decision is often made too late to recover. Instead, the keeper is responsible for attacking the ball effectively, instead of reacting.

What’s Next

There are talks of Alisson imminently putting pen to paper on a new contract extension. This multi-year extension will keep Alisson in Merseyside for his prime years of playing. This means that the current best goalkeeper in the world will be Anfield’s spectacle for years to come. Adrian will likely see out his latest contract before moving onto new pastures, whether that be another team or retirement.

Keheller will likely be left as the sole number two in the team. But, that does not mean that he won’t have a point to prove. Who better for a young keeper to learn from than Alisson? But a lack of first-team action may cause concern for both player and fans alike. How long will Keheller be content with sitting on the bench till injury or cup games permit him to strap up? There will likely be some sort of business in the keeper department within 2-3 years from now. That being said, Liverpool fans can look forward to Alisson maintaining his elite level of play across all four pillars of football for years to come.

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