by Jeff Benjamin
Inexperienced keepers struggle with trying to decide when to come off their line. This is certainly a difficult decision to make, since it depends on both the situation on the field – attacker’s speed and ability, positions of other players on both offense and defense – and the keeper’s ability and confidence.
Fig. 1: Keeper’s position in penalty area should match ball’s position on the field
The decision will be made a little easier if the keeper starts from a good position. In general, the position of the keeper in the penalty area should match the position of the ball on the soccer field. If the ball is in the attacking third, the keeper should be in the front third of the penalty area; ball at midfield, keeper about 6-12 yards out, ball in the defensive end, keeper close to their line. If the keeper is young and small, or the opposing team like to shoot long, high looping shots, adjust the position back towards the goals a few yards.
Position from the middle to the top of the penalty area helps the goalkeeper get to long through balls more quickly (even intercepting and clearing them outside the area if necessary), and also puts the keeper in the play for use as an outlet for a defender under pressure. Even when they are back, the keeper should stay a minimum of 1-2 yards off the goal line to maintain some angle. A goalkeeper who stays rooted on the line not only concedes the better part of the penalty area to the attacking team, but gives them the most net to shoot at when they do get close (see basic positioning).
A very common question I get asked is, “When should I come out?” I think this is the wrong question. It should be, “How should I come out?” I think that the exact timing is much less critical than coming out hard and decisively and not second-guessing. This is not just for breakaways, but applies to any attempt at the ball (handling crosses, long through balls, etc).
The goalkeeper should:
- Pick a moment when they have a clear shot at the ball, and then
- Come hard for the ball without hesitating or stopping.
- Slow down just as they reach the ball carrier, leaving a couple of arms’ lengths of space as a cushion.
The second item here is key. Many a goal has been scored because the keeper was indecisive and got caught in “no-man’s land”, neither attacking the ball or being in good shot-stopping position. Once the keeper decides they’re gong for the ball, they must go through with it; they must at least make some contact with the ball. Once the keeper gets near the ball, they must slow down and leave some space to prevent being dribbled by the attacker.
Never start a run by backing up. They should check the posts, look around at the situation, wait for the right moment, but the keeper should do all of this while on their toes and ready to move forward. (Any backpedalling should have been done previously, well before the keeper’s charge. See the Breakaway section for more details.
Young and inexperienced goalkeepers may lack the confidence to come hard on a breakaway or out for a high cross. Build confidence by first teaching them proper techniques, and slowly building into game situations – no pressure, then light pressure, then heavy traffic. A keeper who is confident in their footwork, catching ability, and other techniques will have less to worry about when the time comes to be aggressive.