This story first appeared in the February 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
“I said many times that it is maybe the most underrated position in football and goalkeepers are more important than everybody thinks.”
Those were Arsène Wenger’s words after he watched Petr Cech break the all-time Premier League record for clean sheets with shutout number 170 in the 2-0 home win over Bournemouth.
Cech, of course, was the manager’s only summer signing, and the former Chelsea man has regularly proved his value with a series of match-saving performances during his first six months at the club.
But why are goalkeepers so underrated within the sport? How does this affect their character and approach to the game? The Arsenal Magazine spoke exclusively to the Gunners boss about the importance of goalkeepers, and discussed just what makes these most specialised of footballers tick.
Arsene, what do you mean when you say that the goalkeeper is the most underrated position on the pitch?
What I meant is that on the results and success of a football team, they have the biggest influence in terms of efficiency. You always remember the goal the striker scored when it is 0-0 and you forget that the keeper kept you in the game.
When you win 1-0 in a final, for example, for decades people remember the guy who scored the goal, but nobody speaks about the goalkeeper who has maybe kept his team in the game with three vital saves.
So he has done three times more than the guy that has scored the goal but is not rated. That is what I mean when I say underrated. Also, because it is a less glamorous position, in the transfer market the same level striker will cost three times more than the goalkeeper.
Again that is a consequence of it being an underrated position. On top of that, when I say underrated I also mean the difficulty of being successful in this position is much harder than being successful as an outfield player.
Why? Because you have a guy like Petr Cech, for example, who is 33, and the guy who is behind him has to wait for 14 years to get his chance because Petr played at 20 and he will play until 37 or 38, so you remember that generations of goalkeepers behind him had to wait there, work hard everyday to hope that one day they will get a chance which they may never get.
A keeper can only play in one position and sometimes he has no luck because there is a guy in front of him who doesn’t give him a chance. I believe that you lose generations of goalkeepers because there are not enough positions for them.
Those factors must have an affect on their character, so how would you sum up a goalkeeper’s personality?
I would sum it up by saying usually their position demands maturity and responsibility. I can’t see one keeper in the world who is not taking charge of his own training and his own behaviour. Always, since I have been a manager, the goalkeeper is a guy who is responsible, dedicated, focused and has a desire to train. The difference is that the most easy going, talented and creative players are usually the strikers.
A goalkeeper, talented or not, is a guy who is focused every day and you cannot give him enough training because he knows he pays for every mistake he makes. He knows that the mistakes of central defenders or full backs, he has to repair. He has to be committed to the cause and that makes them very mature people early on, with very strong personalities.
They basically turn it into an individual sport on the preparation side, as they have to be 100 per cent ready because if they aren’t they know they have no chance. After that it is a job where, psychologically, you need to have an unbelievable strength.
You are singled 90 per cent of the time when it is negative. You ask should the goalkeeper have saved that? You are shown on television usually when you make a mistake. That is why you need to be very solid mentally as well.
As a manager, how do you keep goalkeepers included within the group when it is such an individual position?
It is important that he has good connections with his centre backs and his full backs especially – you try to get him close to his defenders. Therefore, it is important they have a good relationship as well as good communication. You try to develop that. You ask for his opinion on a defensive front sometimes too because a goalkeeper is basically in the position of a coach.
"I had George Weah at Monaco and he was a fantastic goalkeeper in training. Maybe a guy who has played basketball in his youth would be good, he would be used to using his hands"
He is the second best position if not the first best to be the coach of the defenders because all the other players on the pitch have a big disadvantage – they have to move. When they move they do not always see what is going on. The goalkeeper is in the position of a camera. He knows straight away that if the midfield or the striker is in a bad position then the danger can come. So he is usually a good coach. It’s important that a goalkeeper has a good connection with the coaches.
And how do you ensure they work well with their fellow keepers at the club? You have two kinds of goalkeepers. One that makes war with the other keepers to discourage them from feeling one day they will have a chance. Or the ones that say, “Look, we are in the same boat. At the moment I’m in front of you but I will try to help you.” Maybe they have suffered at some stage in their own career.
Petr Cech, for example, didn’t play much last year and it is important to know what goes through the head of a guy who doesn’t play. I think this makes it easier to create that sort of connection.
We are lucky. I personally believe David Ospina did not get enough credit for what he delivered last year, which for me was absolutely exceptional. I want to say that I would not have changed the goalkeeper had an opportunity like Petr Cech not come up. That was basically an undiscussable case when he became available. I was very happy with David Ospina – I think he is a world-class goalkeeper. There is a good connection between them as well and that is a gift for the manager and the coaches.
Given their limited opportunities to play, are loan deals even more important for goalkeepers?
Yes, for the goalkeepers it is an eternal frustration because you never change them unless there is an accident or an injury. For young goalkeepers I think there is even more of a frustration. If you take the 20 teams in the Premier League, each has two first-team goalkeepers who are top class. Behind that, in every academy, you have at least six goalkeepers who wait one day to get a job.
You multiply those 20 academies by six, and you have 120 goalkeepers. Where can they play? Without two good goalkeepers you cannot have a good training session and that is one of the basic problems of the academies. So it’s good if they get out and get experience.
At the moment, apart from the keepers here who are behind Petr Cech and David Ospina, we also have two goalkeepers out on loan – Emi Martinez, who is top class, and Wojciech Szczesny, who is a regular player at Roma, which is not a small club! We are well equipped with four top-class goalkeepers who already have experience, as well as the two youth goalkeepers behind them.
What would you say is the peak age for a goalkeeper?
The peak age is 28 to 36 or 37. That is where you can absorb the bullets – you have the experience and you still have the physical quality to perform. For a footballer it is always important to have that balance between experience and physical potential. Unfortunately we need our body to express what we know. Our body allows us to perform more in a goalkeeper’s position compared to a striker’s.
Would you say experience is the single most important quality for a goalkeeper? Yes, I would. At the start, it’s the same for everyone – you need talent, intelligence and motivation. But because they are intelligent and because they are motivated they learn from every single mistake they make. Then the experience comes out because of that. For me it’s their most important quality. The problem is that to get the experience, you need the quality – it’s a vicious circle! You need to play.
People always ask me why I didn’t buy a world-class goalkeeper a few years ago. It’s because I think Wojciech is world-class, but I also know every season he plays will make him stronger. If you don’t think like that, you would never produce any goalkeeper. You cannot master the speed of their development. Petr Cech played when he was very young, and Buffon too was playing at 17. They had the luck to get into the first team, to gather the experience and be good enough to stay there.
Goalkeepers are often affected by rule changes. They have to adaptable, don’t they?
Yes, they have to move with evolution and it’s true that all the evolution through the game has always been taking something away from keepers. It’s funny when you look at the old pictures. Recently I watched some old Liverpool footage and you see Bruce Grobbelaar getting the ball from a backpass, picking it up and running in the box.
The backpass rule was an adaptation of that and the consequence was basically that goalkeepers had to become more of an outfield player than ever before. Today we integrate them more in training whenever we can as an outfield player too. They need to know how to get out of a tight situation when a guy closes them down. They need to know how to do it with one touch rather than two. That’s very important and those who couldn’t adapt were out of the game.
Would you like to see further changes to stop time-wasting?
What drives me mad sometimes is when they do it at the start of the game, when it’s 0-0. You think, “Come on my friend, these guys have paid a lot of money to watch football, not to see you waste time.” I sometimes think referees don’t take enough action early enough in the game.
If a guy starts to waste time after five minutes, but you give him a yellow card after 85, he’s happy with that. He can live with that booking. But if the ref books him after five minutes it will be different because he knows if he gets another one, he’s out. That’s what makes you nervous sometimes.
Would you like to see any other changes on that front?
I don’t think we can make many more changes now, otherwise you get to a point where you are saying goalkeepers can’t use their hands anymore! I believe we have done enough there. What is the next evolution? I don’t know, but it looks to me as though any changes would be minor. Goalkeepers are not a problem in the game any more – in fact they have become a weapon.
They are better football players now and the teams build up from the back. They only evolution I could say might come now is that you cannot multiply your backpasses to the goalkeeper. By that I mean you limit it to one or two back passes before you have to cross the halfway line. They have to play forward after going to the goalkeeper.
Why do you think not many goalkeepers go into management?
There are two reasons for that. Firstly maybe they have suffered enough in their careers already! They play later in their careers than other players, so usually when they stop they are 40 or 41 and they want to see something else in their life. The second reason is I think they are psychologically different. I believe they are more conscious of the difficulty of the game throughout their career.
It’s true that they are deeply psychologically different to outfield players. They have experienced that feeling of being responsible for their whole life, more so than the outfield players. That could make them feel, “I don’t want to deal with this anymore – I’ve had enough!”
Do you think goalkeepers are basically frustrated outfield goalkeepers?
No, I don’t think so. That’s not the feeling I have. I feel they are happy and proud of their position. They are special people in our sport – they have a different job from everyone else. I have said it many times: a striker is a guy who loves to win while a goalkeeper is a guy who hates to lose. They have a different profile.
Have you coached many outfield players who you though would make goalkeepers?
Yeah, and many times it’s the strikers.
Who would go in goal if Arsenal got a goalkeeper sent off?
That would give me a big problem, because I haven’t thought about it. Usually it’s the central defenders or the strikers. I had George Weah at Monaco and he was a fantastic goalkeeper in training. Maybe a guy who has played basketball in his youth would be good, he would be used to using his hands.
In our team I don’t know what I would do, it was more of a problem before when you didn’t have a substitute goalkeeper. It can still happen late in a game though. I would have to make an instinctive decision – maybe it would be Olivier Giroud.
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