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The Modern Sweeper-Keeper

The modern goalkeeper is scrutinised on multiple fronts.

Not only must they, as a bare minimum, stop shots, they must also exude calm and authority, and play like an outfielder.

It goes without saying that there have been evolutionary shifts to incur such change.

The reasons and traditions of this development can largely be laid at the feet of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. As most modern football paradigms are. However the debate between what the true role of a goalkeeper should be, exists beyond merely just Cruyff’s influence.

The Dutch Keeper Debate (Pt.1)

Historical tactical analyses, especially those delving into positional development, drink from two main fountains. That of Rinus Michels, and then latterly Johan Cruyff.

Both were pillars of founding Total football; the Dutch born philosophy that captured imaginations at the 1974 World Cup. the principle was one of forward led pressing in a chaotic swarming manner, but also possession based attack. Players would no longer be tactically restricted by their positions. They were expected to all contribute to the attacking phase.

This began with the goalkeeper. Without ever having a renowned world class goalkeeper, in 1974 coach Michels had a choice of players for the role. There was Jan van Beveren of PSV and Piet Schrijvers of FC Twente. Michels chose neither, and instead selected Jans Jongbloed of FC Amsterdam, twelve years after his first cap.

There were multiple factors at play. van Beveren had been injured for all but four of the qualifiers, declaring himself fit for the tournament. He would also fall out with captain Cruyff over pay disputes and the latter’s attitude and star status.

Ultimately Michels would not only drop van Beveren, but would select Jongbloed as his replacement. Where van Beveren was a traditional, stay on the goal line type of ‘keeper, Jongbloed would sweep and leave his area to allow his defenders to hold a higher line. In selecting a goalkeeper who had not played for twelve years, indicated Michels’ intentions to choose a stylised goalkeeper. One that would not only keep goals out, but benefit the offensive side to play too.

Jongbloed would also be selected for the next World Cup in Argentina, where they would again finish runners-up. The dye had been cast.

This was a huge development, and would be repeated multiple times over the following decades. To choose the reliable shot stopper? Or the quicker, proactive sweeper-keeper? Michels and Cruyff, as is to be expected, played a major role in this cultural shift.

Keepers at War

The flamboyance of South American goalkeepers was once more noted than their shot stopping ability. Rene Higuita and Rogerio Ceni spring to mind, both renowned for their exploits outside the box rather than within it.

The 1978 World Cup in Argentina marked a major time capsule within the history of goalkeepers. The hosts were blessed with two contrasting goalkeepers. Before the tournament, coach Cesar Menotti brought Hugo Gatti into the first team.

Nicknamed ‘El loco’, Gatti was a lightning quick sweeper who would rush from his goal to close down the attacker’s angles. His head, chest and feet would become as much use as his hands. Few in the position would use their body, nor leave their box as readily as Gatti.

Gatti would miss out on the home World Cup however. A knee injur incidentally rule him out. This ultimately spared Menotti the final decision. The side’s new incumbent would be Ubaldo Fillol. Fillol was a more traditional goalkeeper. Where Gatti would race towards an attacker, Fillol would fill the goal from the goal line.

In the victorious Argentina team, Fillol would win goalkeeper of the tournament. He would win fifty eight caps. Gatti would never play internationally again.

Gatti would represent Boca Juniors, cross city rivals to Fillol’s River Plate. Both would share the league record number of penalties saved. Fillol would be regarded as Argentina’s greatest ever goalkeeper, Gatti as third placed.

This rivalry between the conservative and the eccentric was symptomatic of the changing role of the ‘keeper. It was not a debate between who was better, it was a shootout between what they could offer the team.

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The Dutch Keeper Debate (Pt.2)

After moving into management, Cruyff continued his former manager’s philosophy of ball playing attack minded football.

In his influential time as Barcelona manager, Cruyff expelled veteran ‘keeper and Spanish international Andoni Zubizaretta. Many considered Zubizaretta to be among the best in the world, yet Cruyff was of a differing persuasion.

His ball playing philosophy demanded a goalkeeper who could start attacks and contribute in build up play. Zubizaretta was more of an old school class of being first and foremost a shot stopper. Cruyff got his way, and sold him in 1994. He had previously cited Dutch goalkeeper Stanley Menzo of Ajax as the best in the world. A more different style to Zubizaretta you will not find.

Carles Busquets would assume the starting mantle, and play nearly seventy times over the next two years. In his book ‘Zonal Marking’, Michael Cox describes Busquets performances as being “haphazard”. Not only was he prone to goalkeeping error, his ability on the ball was also questionable.

The two years without Zubizaretta would produce no silverware for Cruyff. This was not the sole factor of course. However it showed that philosophy and football ideology had turned a new page. Persistence with the error prone Busquets cost Barcelona in the short term, but instilling such an attitude helped breed a new generation of goalkeepers.

This was Cruyff’s mantra. Developing how football is played beyond the game in front of him. The DNA he helped to establish at Barcelona was evidence of this ball playing vision, and once again Cruyff helped move the tactical landscape forward.

The Dutch Keeper Debate (Pt.3)

Cruyff spent his latter years at Barcelona seeking for an elite sweeper keeper. However his former club Ajax happened to stumble across one several years earlier.

Edwin van der Sar was only twenty when he was offered to Ajax by his coach at VV Noordwijk. Ajax’s assistant manager Louis van Gaal was the receiver of this offer over a game of cards. van Gaal’s subsequent tenure as Ajax coach would yield three league titles and a Champions League trophy. All with van der Sar as his number one.

Ajax was as much infatuated with the idea of pure attacking football as Barcelona. Menzo had been the first choice for the best part of a decade before van der Sar succeeded him permanently in 1994.

van der Sar was not only impressive on the ball however. His six-foot-six frame made him an outstanding goalkeeper as well, something that Cruyff was craving in Catalonia. It was van Gaal, Cruyff’s great rival, however that reaped the benefits of such a talent.

Cruyff admired Menzo and believed he could play outfield. van der Sar went one better, and was an outfield player in his youth. van der Sar was the archetypal Cruyff goalkeeper, yet would never pay for his compatriot.

He was developed to receive the ball under pressure and play upfield. Those of an older age (Menzo aside) were having to learn and adapt to this side of the game, yet van der Sar was being developed within it.

Winning two Champions Leagues with Ajax and Manchester United across twenty years, van der Sar was an enduring giant both with the gloves and with ball at feet.

The Final Stage of Change

By the Summer of 2016 the all action goalkeeper, quick off their line and comfortable in possession, was commonplace.

van der Sar had been replaced five years earlier by David de Gea and Petr Cech too had been phased out of the Chelsea team by the younger Thibaut Courtois.

Arriving at Manchester City, Pep Guardiola made clear his intentions to translate his Cruyff inspired style in England. He had played as the deepest central midfielder in Cruyff’s Barcelona, and owed much of his great Barcelona side of the 2008-2012 to this education.

City’s goalkeeper was Joe Hart, four time Golden Glove winner and two time Premier League champion. Hart was synonymous with the club’s golden period.

Hart had never demonstrated strong passing abilities, something Guardiola was desperate to implement to aid in beating aggressive English pressing.

The English international was abruptly cast aside, and loaned out for two successive years. He would never play for City again. Guardiola looked back to Catalonia for his replacement, Claudio Bravo.

Bravo, like Busquets twenty years earlier, was prone to calamity both with ball at feet and in racing off his line. Hart’s replacement by Bravo was slandered as City finished fourth that season.

Yet as Cruyff had encouraged Menzo to make mistakes if it meant playing in his image, Guardiola stuck to his principles.

The New Breed of Keeper

For his ideology to transfer to success, Guardiola needed an upgrade on Bravo That came in the form of Ederson Moraes, signed in 2017 for £35 million from Benfica.

The young Brazilian had only played two seasons with Benifca. Yet his skillset and spotting by City is testament to superb modern scouting. In the three full seasons since, City have won two league titles. No player in Premier League history has more wins from their first 100 appearances than Ederson’s seventy nine.

An exceptional passer, both short and long, he brought a new dimension to Guardiola’s play. For all the intricate quick passing in the middle and final thirds, the use of Ederson’s incredible long passing accuracy allowed Cuty to invite pressure deep. Ederson would then launch booming passes for Leroy Sane to chase, an invariably score.

He would be joined a year later in the league by another Brazilian, Alisson Becker. A huge presence on his goal line, the Liverpool ‘keeper’s closing of angles in moving towards the attacker also make him one of the best in Europe.

The Premier League alone demonstrates the changed nature of the position. Ederson, Alisson, de Gea, Bernd Leno and Hugo Lloris are all fine exponents of the sweeper and proactive goalkeeper manual. Had they existed twenty years previous, each would be rarities.

The Post-Modern ‘Keeper

The modern goalkeeper is arguably what Cruyff had envisaged. An outfielder in and out of possession, playmaker and fourth/fifth defender. What once required faith and persistence to establish has now becomue the norm. The likes of Busquets, Bravo and Gatti were once deemed inferior goalkeepers for their abnormal passing and rushing.

Choosing a goalkeeper once meant choosing between stylistic poles. van Beveren or Jongbloed? Fillol or Hart? Zubizaretta or Busquets? Hart or Bravo? The new generation of goalkeeper has evolved to encompass all these aspects.

It is uncertain where this evolution will carry the sport next. The cycle may even carry round again should teams be beset by goalkeeper error. To chart this development wherever it carries on however will continue to place goalkeepers as the game’s most fascinating characters.

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