Saturday, October 20, 2007

When Did Goalkeepers Get Any Good?

Some of you will probably already be aware of the fact that I spend far, far, far too much time watching DVDs of old football matches. I'm no great football analyst (you'd noticed?), but the one thing that I've noticed is that the goalkeepers were terrible. This is something that has bugged me for quite a while - when did goalkeepers develop the ability to actually do what they're paid to do? Because, for a considerable period of time, they didn't.

I was reminded of this whilst watching a video of a Manchester derby match from about 1972. With United leading narrowly and time running out, City got a corner which swung into the six yard area. It should have been a routine catch for Alex Stepney - he was under no pressure, and the angle of the ball meant that it wasn't even above head height, but he still managed to spill the ball straight in the direction of Francis Lee, who lashed the ball into the roof of the goal. I don't wish to turn this post into a slagging off session about Alex Stepney (well I could, but that's not really the point that I'm trying to make) - it's a pretty common occurrence on any football video from before about 1985.

The fact of the matter is that goalkeepers used to not be very good, and it's worth remembering this when we look at the argument about England and their goalkeepers. Paul Robinson is having a wretched time of it at the moment (even incurring the wrath of Steven Gerrard in a post-match interview on Wednesday night - though, curiously, he omitted to mention the own goal that he missed himself with the score at 1-0), but the cover isn't up to much, either. David James can be best described as "accident prone", whilst the very mention of the names Robert Green and Scott Carson makes me wince. They're probably better than many of the goalkeepers of the past, though. Gordon Banks' save against Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, for example, was a magnificent piece of goalkeeping - an extraordinary feat of agility - but I seriously think that its brilliance was magnified by the fact that most goalkeeping at the time was so dreadful. You see five or six saves that good every season in the Premier League now.

Robinson, Green and Carson are probably inferior to, say, England's 1982 World Cup goalkeeping trio of Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence and Joe Corrigan, and this is a real problem for England. Clemence was accident-prone, and Shilton always seemed to have a problem getting down to low shots because of his build. The rest of the world has moved on. Balls are lighter, shots are more fierce and, at the other end of the pitch, the goalkeepers are better - no longer the strangely flapping beasts of yore with an aversion to catching the ball. In this respect (as with many others), England has stood still.

Ballhype: hype it up!


Anonymous said...

'You see five or six saves that good every week in the Premier League'

hehe. twaddle

ursus arctos said...

Indeed, 200, I think you went a bit overboard on the hyperbole there.

There has been a general improvement in standard, but that is also true with regard to outfield players. I look forward to your "players used to be slow" post.

The single largest factor in the change in standard has been the now near universal practice of individual coaching and intensive physical training programmes for keepers. That is the only thing that has allowed them to keep up with the at-times ridiculous evolution of the ball into something more appropriate for video games.

200percent said...

I had only just got up when I wrote it, UA, and have amended it accordingly. I agree with you about the coaching - no team that I ever played for had any specialised goalkeeper training (and I played to a reasonable amateur standard), and I don't think that any clubs at all did until relatively recently. Balls slowly turning into beach balls doesn't help, either (they'll be pumping them with helium, next).

I do, however, think that, whereas the improvements in fitness and technique have been across the board in most countries, in England goalkeepers have, well, stood still somewhat.

ursus arctos said...

Well, I used to be a keeper in the Paleozoic Era, and never had specialist training.

I also agree with you on the relative lack of progress in England. Historically, English keepers had an advantage because they were used to defending against crosses and against physical challenges from barging forwards, and it took decades for their continental counterparts to catch up. Once they did, however, the continentals continued to progress, whereas it seems as if the English have tended to stand still (or in fact regress). It may be one area in which the "revolution" in training led by managers like Wenger has not fully taken root.

The change in the backpass rule has also played an undeniable role. Now that keepers have to be comfortable playing the ball with their feet, they need to be more complete and technical players than they used to be, and that has always been an area in which England have been relatively weak.

The rise of the Brazilian keeper (particularly in Italy) is another indicia of the importance of being comfortable on the ball. It wasn't that long ago that Brazilian keepers were the Scots of the Western Hemisphere.

200percent said...

This is true about Brazilian goalkeepers - until Taffarel (the same time as the backpass rule came in), Brazil only seemed to play a goalkeeper because they had to. What was that guy's name in 1982? Waldir Peres? He looked as if they'd picked him at random from a Sunday League match on the way there.

I'm picking the tipping point date as 1981, which is, I reckon, the year that more goalkeepers started to wear gloves than not. Are there any goalkeepers anywhere in the world that play without gloves now? I wouldn't have thought that there are, but I'd be delighted if there were.

ursus arctos said...

The words "Waldir Perez" (or Valdir Peres to use the proper spelling) are still used in Italy as a synonym for "dodgy keeper".

There must be someone who still plays without gloves, but I haven't seen anyone for years. The MichelinMan-iaation of keeper gloves is another development. When I was playing, they were rather like what scuba divers sometimes wear; now they look a cartoon policeman directing traffic or a bratwurst fest.

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