Who’d be a goalkeeper? Why it’s the toughest job in football

Who’d be a goalkeeper? Why it’s the toughest job in football
May 15, 2023, 04:00 AM ET

In extra time of the 2020 Championship playoff final, with promotion to the Premier League on the line, Fulham’s Joe Bryan took a free kick from the left wing. Everyone, including Brentford goalkeeper David Raya, was expecting a cross.

But instead, Bryan whipped a wicked shot inside the near post. A scrambling Raya couldn’t make up the ground, and the shot zipped into the net to give Fulham the lead.

“I knew I could’ve done better, it was a lack of awareness… I left one side too exposed,” Raya tells ESPN. “I couldn’t let it get me down because we were in extra time of the playoff final and it could have turned any way.”

With the clock running down, Brentford fought back, but the final whistle heralded a 2-1 loss for them and promotion for Fulham.

“After the game, it was very a tough situation to deal with; I felt like I’d let everyone down,” Raya says, reluctantly reliving the nightmare. “I’d been in the same position the whole season and prevented many goals from that type of cross, then he decided to have a shot and it went in.”

This is the injustice of life between the sticks. Every positive action is wiped from history by a costly error.

“You feel alone, and all the bad thoughts go straight to your head. If I had done better, we could have got promoted. The scale of the situation hit me hard a few days later.”

But the Bees came back. Raya came back. Brentford won promotion to the Premier League in 2021 and have quickly established themselves as a solid midtable club. Raya’s outstanding club form earned him his debut for Spain, and he was named in La Roja‘s 2022 World Cup squad.

“Sometimes, you are the hero as well,” he says with a laugh. “You can win matches with your saves. But you have to remember, at some point, you will make a mistake and everyone will be focused on you.”

And now that goalkeepers play a proactive role for many teams with their aggressive positioning high up the pitch and smart distribution, the risk of a mistake is greatly increased. Should they make an error, they’d best brace themselves for impact. Cut off from the rest of the team and standing closest to the fans, they feel the venom spewing down from the stands.

Who’d be a goalkeeper, eh? It takes a unique individual to don the gloves and work constantly on the edge of failure.


The changing game

The introduction of the back-pass law in 1992 changed everything. Saving shots and claiming crosses was no longer enough, now goalkeepers were expected to deal with passes to their feet from panicked defenders. To begin with, launching the ball up the pitch as the crowd took a collective gasp earned an encouraging round of applause from teammates.

Expectations have changed in the modern era. Progressive managers want goalkeepers to receive the ball in their six-yard box and play through lines, as a pack of onrushing attackers zero in. Goalkeepers, unlike other players, have only 180 degrees of space to play in. They can’t receive a pass, turn out and play backwards to another teammate.

Sweeper-keeper Raya can do the lot. He leads the Premier League goalkeeping charts for shots on target faced and shots saved this season and is second for crosses claimed. No goalkeeper in the division has had more touches of the ball this season than he has. During Brentford’s successful promotion campaign in 2020-21, he completed 300 more passes than any of the other goalkeepers in the Championship.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

“The goalkeeper could wear the No. 10 shirt,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said after a 3-3 draw at Brentford in September 2021. “He has sent several incredible balls, exactly what you should do when you play against us.”

Raya explains: “Obviously the main thing is to stop the ball going back in the net, but I’ve also got a lot of demands to be the last line of the defence and first line of attack. I’m also involved at set pieces and the patterns we work to play out from or even the solutions for when we go long.”

Imagine flipping this the other way and asking outfield players to start saving shots. And there’s more. Traditionally, a goalkeeper’s positioning was important only for active participation — e.g., at a set piece or facing a shot. Now it’s where they’re standing in and out of possession and how that impacts the opposition.

“From a tactical perspective, a goalkeeper’s position can prevent an attack,” says England goalkeeping coach, Anthony White. “It sounds daft, but once the goalkeeper steps over that white line, they have to put on an act.

“Their body language and positioning needs to say, ‘Put it in the box if you want, but I’m going to take it,’ even if the goalkeeper knows they’re staying put. Those little mind games involve a really high level of skill.”

Delivering on all of these responsibilities can weigh heavy. The very best thrive, embracing the pressure as a privilege. The rest, including some of the most talented goalkeepers in the game, retreat into survival mode.

“You have to remember these are human beings, and sometimes they just want to get through it,” White says. “They want to succeed, but at the same time they don’t want to disappoint.”

Prematch visualisations creep into the catastrophic, leading to an inhibited performance or their manifestation on the pitch. For instance, a goalkeeper might start in a deeper position to avoid coming for a cross, or play the ball long rather than through the press.

This is where Keval Patel, a high-performance psychologist specialising in goalkeeping, offers assistance with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

“Thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all linked to performance,” says Patel, who works with Premier League goalkeepers. “The way a goalkeeper thinks will impact how they feel and act.

“My job is to unpick those three factors and teach goalkeepers how to manipulate them so that they can perform at their best.”


The mind games

When faced with a threatening situation, like the fear of making a mistake, a part of the brain called the amygdala detects this risk and initiates a response. This is the part of the process Patel aims to intercept.

“I’ll use exercises to redirect focus away from negative thoughts and back on all the positive things they’re doing,” he says. “We’ll identify things they can control during a game — effort and actions — and shut out all things they can’t control like the reaction of the crowd.

“And while I’d encourage positive visualisation, goalkeepers should plan for a mistake because if you don’t, and that mistake comes along, it’s going to hit you like a ton of bricks.”

The post-mortem of a goalkeeping error can be traumatic because it tends to lead to a goal, invoking a powerful emotional response. This “suffering” is part of being a goalkeeper, White says, because their mistakes “cost something.” Especially in the lower divisions, where players are playing for “a win bonus or a new contract” to pay their mortgage, and that’s the “brutal reality.”

But making a mistake is a necessary evil, an opportunity to learn, survive and come back stronger. That’s exactly what Raya did after defeat at Wembley in 2020.

“Nobody wants to see something they’ve done wrong, but if I didn’t watch it back, I wouldn’t have learned from it,” he says. “I now know I have to be more aware and not leave that side of the goal exposed.”

There’s no time for analysis midgame right after a mistake. Goalkeepers have to shake it off and refocus, which is easier said than done when you’re isolated and within spitting distance of a baying crowd.

“I try not to listen to what the fans are saying, which is easier when the ball is in play, but when there’s a stoppage, you hear a little bit more.,” Raya says. “You have to shut it out and focus on the next action; you can’t change the mistake you’ve made. Focus on the beliefs you have about yourself, and what the gaffer and teammates think about you.”


The ‘union’

Uniquely for goalkeepers, your closest teammate is also your closest rival. When you make a mistake, they’re best placed to provide support and understanding because they’ve been there too. Like you, they’re a certified member of the goalkeepers’ union. But they’re also best placed to benefit, as it could present them with an opportunity to occupy the only starting position.

“If another goalkeeper played, I wanted them to get pumped — it’s my position,” former United States, Manchester United and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard told Ben Foster on “Fozcast.” “If I was on the bench and the camera flashed to me, I’d clap, but I couldn’t care less; I wanted the team to get beat because it was the only way I could get my position back.”

White agrees that there’s very little room for sentiment at the elite level: “Tim is absolutely correct. There are very few goalkeepers that sit on the bench thinking, ‘I want everything to go right for the goalkeeper that’s playing.’

“It’s only human to want to be in their position. At the same time, when that goalkeeper does well, there’s camaraderie. The No. 2 is thinking, ‘He’s played well, I’m not going to have another chance now for another couple of weeks, but I need to be a part of this experience.'”

And this experience will be intimate as goalkeepers train together as a small group, away from the team for parts of the session, honing position-specific skills. This is where rivalries and friendships collide, challenging the unity of the union.

“You can’t have an out-and-out No. 1 who doesn’t feel pressure; you need somebody coming through and helping them, but who can also step in at any moment,” White says. “This can make things difficult when you’ve got really hungry goalkeepers coming through and they all see themselves as a No. 1.

“Then it’s up to the coaching staff to see how they can keep the environment competitive but healthy, so you might send someone out on loan.”


play

1:46

Aaron Ramsdale takes on ESPN FC’s Nothing But Net challenge

Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale faces off with ESPN FC’s amateur challenger Ralph Karumazondo in a game of Nothing But Net.

The stereotypes

The nuance of a goalkeeper’s personality profile is another part of the discussion, along with the dynamics of the union, that’s reduced to a generalisation: they’re all eccentrics. It’s deeper than that.

“I’m not sure they’re all eccentric; they just have unique psychological traits,” says White, who worked with Aaron Ramsdale during the Arsenal and England goalkeeper’s time at Bournemouth, where he made his Premier League debut in 2019. “Somebody like Ramsdale is a prime example. He’s a sociable character, emotionally intelligent and outstanding at taking on tactical information.

“Combine those together and it really helps when he’s having one-to-one conversations with his defenders.”

Patel can see why goalkeepers are labelled as eccentric. “They prevent the one thing that everybody goes to football matches to see — goals,” he says. “And they throw themselves in front of a football that’s being kicked up to 80 mph.” Fair point. Being a killjoy with a penchant for pain attracts a certain type of individual.

“You have to love pressure, and, like Ted Lasso says, you need the memory of a goldfish,” Patel adds. “When negative things happen, you have to be able to forget very quickly. All of this requires a willingness to sacrifice your performance so that others can thrive. Be the unseen part of a machine.”

Goalkeepers are all different characters, unified by one trait: resilience. The resilience to endure tough times, to be accountable. Yes, a club wins and loses as a team, but if the goalkeeper makes a mistake, it’s they who lost the game. The trade-off: the save is theirs. There’s no assist, no build-up play, just one great moment of defiance — a word you might use to encapsulate the position. A position that many players get thrown into because they’re tall or no one else volunteers, yet it’s the position everyone thinks they could play themselves.

“The lads think, ‘You just catch it and kick it,’ and that’s it,” Raya says. “They think the training is easy, but it’s one of the toughest. We get battered every day. Sometimes they ask for the gloves in training and we take shots at them.”

Any decent shot-stoppers in there? “Rico Henry isn’t very good! But I think Vita [Vitaly Janelt] is all right. It’s not as easy as it looks on TV.”

On top of saving shots and collecting crosses, modern goalkeepers are now central to the tactical philosophy of many managers, who ask them to play a high line, sweep up and ping passes with fade and curve to start attacks. Is it the toughest job in football?

“You can play without one of the other players,” White says. “But you can never play without the goalkeeper.”

Video Goalkeeper | The Loneliest Job in Football | Documentary

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