The DNA of a modern Goalkeeper

THE human genome project was an ambitious, landmark scientific project to map the whole scale of our human DNA; what makes us as humans, well, humans. The project has been a success as a whole, but in our quest to look for more and more DNA sequences that makes us humans unique, we are struggling to find them.

There doesn’t seem to be as much as we thought, and in fact it’s the RNA, what transcribes the DNA for use, that seems to be a main factor for each person’s unique traits. DNA analysts are constantly peering into their microscopes, and looking at our sequenced genome to determine what combinations make my hair brown, makes me want to go to sleep early, and what makes me like pasta as my favourite dish. The DNA of a modern goalkeeper is one of the most debated topics in football nowadays. People argue one way or the other for what makes a true goalkeeper today successful. Is it his distribution qualities? Could it be his leadership and organization at the back? Maybe it’s the ability to be a “sweeper keeper” and clean up long balls forward? Or maybe it is classic pure shot stopping ability. Over the past 15 years or so, the dynamic of what makes a goalkeeper successful has had a dramatic change.

When you look at the evolution of the goalkeeper, what makes a successful goalkeeper has remained largely the same since the inception of football, but like every animal species over time, new traits are added, and emphasized for the best of the species during the time that’s present. A faster gazelle means that the chasing cheetahs need to be faster, which in turn means the gazelles get faster, which means the cheetahs get faster, and so on in an endless loop. This is how shot stopping has worked with the evolution of forwards. Adaptation is necessary.

The standout goalkeeper that paved the way for all goalkeepers after him was Lev Yashin, or the “Black Spider” as his Russian fans called him. His cat like reflexes in goal made him the best goalkeeper in the world, and was even honoured with the award for the best goalkeeper in the 20th century. The Russian was a one-club man for Dynamo Moscow, playing on 326 occasions between 1950 and 1970 while getting 78 caps for the Soviet Union. He even played in three different World Cup’s, and won Olympic Gold for Russia in 1956. Dynamo Moscow see him as a deity, and rightly so. He was the first goalkeeper to use the punching technique in the box, and he was the first to try to build out from the back. His time in ice hockey helped him perfect his reflexes for shot stopping as well, and he is the only goalkeeper to win the coveted Balon D’Or. If Pep Guardiola were a manager back in the 1960’s, he would be bidding top dollar to get him as his goalkeeper. All other top goalies after him would have to be able to control the ball to some degree, and start the attacks out of the back. We can thank the man in the cap for that.

Since then, there have been some truly great shot stoppers, from Peter Shilton to Oliver Kahn, Fabian Barthez to Gordon Banks, and all the others in between. Now though, it seems there is a revolution sweeping the top goalkeepers in the world. If you look at the goalkeepers today, you will see a range of philosophies that we haven’t seen before in the best number ones in the world.

This probably started with the rise of Manuel Neuer in Germany. The German is no doubt an incredible goalkeeper, and he has even said before that he doesn’t like watching goal highlights, as his feelings are that strong to stop goals rather than to score them. What really made Manuel Neuer famous across the globe though, and gave him his “World Class” status, was his pioneering of the ‘sweeper keeper’ role. Neuer is not afraid to jump off of his line and clean up if anyone was to try a long ball over the top, or a through ball to an onrushing attacker. Neuer was able to thwart attacks that would otherwise prove deadly to other teams; it was stunning to the Bundesliga, and even on the international stage as well. Where before wingers and strikers could lean on pace, that didn’t seem to be the case anymore. Neuer also looked to play out from the back, and use his distributive qualities to start attacks. He essentially plays two positions at the same time.

This isn’t to discredit the king shot stoppers of recent time, like Iker Casillas for example, who is one of my personal all time favourite players growing up. His calm, steady demeanour meant he was the face of Real Madrid in the 2000’s as other faces came and went. The accolades for the short-sleeved Spaniard stretch far and wide for his class, respect for the game, and robotic shot stopping ability. He seemed to jump to save the ball, even before the ball was kicked sometimes. He was almost psychic in the goal. Casillas was young when he broke into the first team that he still had to use public transport to get to training. Real Madrid was his life, and he was committed to be the Bernebeu’s guardian. His save count is the highest in this century, and he deserves all the praise he receives.  It’s almost as if as soon as he started to falter though, that the next great Spanish shot stopper took his place. David De Gea came through on the other side of Madrid, and Sir Alex Ferguson picked him up in maybe his last great buy for Manchester United. David De Gea has the same great agility that Casillas had, with an added bit of ability to pull off the impossible with his foot saves. Recently, De Gea made the most saves ever in a Premier League match against Arsenal. The performance was like a theatre performance, drawing oohs and ahhs from the Emirates faithful, both Manchester United and Arsenal fans alike. It seems like once every few weeks De Gea makes a save that makes you go, “How did he manage to do that?” Shot stopping isn’t going away as a quality as long as the position is there.

Pep Guardiola would interrupt this article right about now to throw in another goalkeeping quality that he has played a massive part in bringing into the footballing world. A look at the goalkeepers that he bought for Barcelona and now Manchester City While he might not have managed any of the Barcelona matches that Marc Andre ter Stegen has played for the Catalan Club, but his disciples played a key role in bringing him into the team. Pep had Victor Valdes, who could play the part for Barcelona, but ter Stegen has taken it to the next level. His distribution from the back shows trademark German precision, like the type of perfection you might see on a well crafted Audi or BMW. His shot stopping isn’t bad either, but ter Stegen is a perfect fit for Barcelona’s system in the same way that Ederson has been a revelation for Manchester City. Ederson has wowed the Brits with his long range passing, similar to watching Xabi Alonso launch the ball accurately to the forwards. Ederson almost seems like a cheat code when he plays a forward ball to Sterling or Sane. To be a modern goalkeeper, you have to be able to distribute well, and no one does this better than Ederson or ter Stegen, and it’s a joy to watch them play.

The most intangible attribute of a modern goalkeeper is leadership. Anyone who has stepped onto a field, especially in defence, knows that trust in the goalkeeper behind you is crucial to the success of the entire operation. If there’s a goalkeeper that’s able to lead and organize the defence, it makes the whole operation that much more seamless. No one has been the face of this attribute more than Gianluigi Buffon. One of the most likeable characters in the game throughout his career, he had the trust of every single one of his defenders in front of him, and he still does. He’s undoubtedly the face of Italian football. Buffon is an excellent all around goalkeeper; if you try to find a fault in him, you’d be extremely hard pressed to find one. His leadership at the back though is something that oozes out to all the other players on the team. Try being a defender with a goalkeeper behind you that’s low on confidence, or can’t organize. The difference is mind blowing, and it can mean the difference between a good team and a great team, which Buffon has managed to do throughout his career for Parma, Juventus, and the Italian national team. Casillas had shades of this in his demeanour, but it was nothing like Buffon’s superhero mind-set. Tim Howard is another one that comes to mind for the United States. His leadership and confidence at the back was a huge help to the national team over the past decade.

So what trait is most important in a modern goalkeeper? I think it really comes down to the manager who’s leading the team. For Manchester City, Ederson is the perfect fit, and seeing any other goalkeeper for Pep Guardiola doesn’t seem right, but that doesn’t mean Manuel Neuer is worse. It just is reactive to the system. It’s more important than you think to get a goalkeeper that fits your style. It will be interesting to see how long this new wave of goalkeepers lasts, before the next cycle inevitably starts.

By Christian Candler and artwork from Marcus Marritt and his sensational Football Gymnastics series.

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