The triangulation of space, time and whatever laws apply at that given moment have always been at the heart of football. In the mists of time when entire midlands villages contested games, a factor in space could have been a stone wall or a trench, in a match that may have lasted from sunrise to sunset. Regrettably, there is no record of any of those games, let alone any deep data. Suffice to say, in those distant days, goalkeeper distribution was not a huge part of the game.
Even after the codification of football in the mid-19th century, the goalkeeper took a long while to be specialised into his/her modern form. From the position’s creation in 1871 through to 1887 the ‘keeper could handle the ball anywhere on the pitch (if they were protecting their own goal). In 1887 that handling remit was reduced to the defensive half only but it took until 1912 until goalkeepers handling the ball was limited to the penalty area alone. Welsh ‘keeper Leigh Richmond Roose had developed a hybrid rugby/basketball system where he bounced the ball up to the halfway line while violently fending off opponents before launching attacks for his team. Aggrieved opponents & observers correctly noted that it just wasn’t football, and so the law was changed by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).
If the history of football’s rule changes can be seen as the slow reduction of the goalkeeper from a true exception to just another player, then 1992 is another key date. The back-pass rule was a direct result of incredibly negative play and time-wasting at the 1990 FIFA World Cup (2.21 goals per game remains a probably unmatchable low) and removed the get-out-jail-free card defenders had of passing the ball back to their goalkeeper who would pick it up, hold on to it and usher everyone back upfield to a grim 30-yard battleground situated around the halfway line. The outcome of the new rule in 1992 was a much more spread out, faster-paced game but it also required goalkeepers to become much more adept with their feet. Initially, this was so they could satisfactorily clear the ball when given one of the new, dreaded, back passes (1990s ‘keepers like Derby County’s Martin Taylor who could kick the ball equally well with both feet quickly became valued, removing as they did the necessity for the under-pressure defender to put it on his team-mate’s ‘good side’) but in the 2000s, as Pep Guardiola revived Johan Cruyff’s belief that the goalkeeper should be an 11th outfielder and not a specialist, a ‘keeper’s ability to receive and pass the ball became almost as important as making saves.
In numerical terms, Stats Perform data shows that in 2000/01, no regular Premier League goalkeeper had a pass completion rate of more than 62% (and that was Chelsea’s Ed De Goey, brought up in Cruyff’s Netherlands). The average rate that season for goalkeepers was bang on 50%. “I’ll hit the ball hard, heads we retain it, tails we don’t. That’s football.” No longer, though: in 2019/20, 13 goalkeepers have a higher pass completion rate than De Goey did 19 years ago, with three of them, Manchester City’s Ederson, Liverpool’s Alisson and Brighton & Hove Albion’s Mat Ryan, above 80%, a rate seen rarely even among midfielders in the early 2000s. The art and role of goalkeeping has fundamentally changed in the past two decades, and another tweak to the laws in 2019 has only accelerated it.
That adjustment was that goal kicks are now in play immediately after being taken, meaning that for the first time, ‘keepers can play short passes to a team-mate in the box (opponents still have to remain outside the penalty area until the ball goes live). In an era of ball-playing goalkeepers, selected by managers who are trying to create and control the amount of space on the pitch, the change has been enthusiastically utilised. Put simply, if a team sees the opposition restarting the game with a short kick, they’ll advance and the game will become more stretched. It’s clearly not a tactic for everyone, but by visualising what each Premier League goalkeeper has chosen to do so far in 2019/20 we can spot patterns and approach.
As mentioned above, Brighton’s Mat Ryan is one of the three goalkeepers in the Premier League this season to have a pass completion rate of more than 80% and some of that is down to his unerring commitment to the new goal kick regulation. Ryan has played 107 of them to a team-mate inside the penalty box this season, more than any other ‘keeper in the division. It’s a pretty even split between left and right in the box, but note how Ryan goes almost exclusively to the left when he hits goal kicks long. Brighton manager Graham Potter’s usage of the 6-foot-7 Dan Burn at left-back for much of the season is the main reason for that, and it’s a neat illustration of how the sport adapts and moulds around tweaks to the laws. Twenty years ago, Dan Burn would have played solely as a central defender and Mat Ryan would have been trying to knock goal kicks over even his head and trying to get as far up the pitch as possible. A thirst for territory has been replaced by a taste for planned progression.
It’s no surprise to learn then, that Brighton have seen the biggest jump in proportion of short goal kicks from last season to this season. Using the definition of any goal kick that ends within 40m of a team’s goal, the south coast side have gone from around 6% last season to 68% in 2019/20. The arrival of a manager with a more progressive philosophy than his predecessor helps but even so, it’s still a big increase, and puts them in amongst clubs with much bigger reputations, including champions-elect Liverpool and reigning champions Man City.
One thing Mat Ryan has not done during his 18-yard box odyssey this season is play short goal kicks centrally, which still looks and feels like the riskiest manoeuvre available. (It takes a certain amount of time before a human brain accepts or rejects a new/outlawed part of the game: go and watch a match from the 1980s, specifically a moment when a goalkeeper picks up a back pass to experience the feeling in real-time). The obvious issue with centrally taken short goal kicks is that if the defender miscontrols or takes too long, the opposition are likely to get a highly valuable chance right in front of goal. There is clear offensive benefit to the short goal kick as we’ll see later, but the risk is a high-profile mistake that will enrage and bemuse traditionalists. Possibly the most memorable so far in 2019/20 was initiated by Arsenal’s Bernd Leno at Watford in September. As the map below shows, only Mat Ryan has played more goal kicks in his own penalty area than Leno, with the Arsenal man also willing to take that risk and go centrally on occasion.
The Watford mistake came after Leno passed the ball from the centre of his goal to Sokratis, the defender standing not only in his goalkeeper’s six-yard box but also on his own goal-line. There are few snapshots that can immediately date a football match but this is quite clearly a game from 2019 or later, as before that point you would simply never have seen this set up. Even now, it still looks either bizarre or refreshing, depending on your preference.
Back to the match and by the time Sokratis has control of the ball he is being closed down by Gerard Deulofeu. He could at this point literally mirror an old fashioned goal kick and hit it downfield, but this is September 2019 and things don’t work like that anymore. Instead, the defender persists with the planned delivery, which is to Matteo Guendouzi on the edge of the penalty area.
But as we see in the third image, Deulofeu intercepts and deflects the ball to Tom Cleverley, who scores past Leno to pull Watford back into a game they were losing 2-0 at this point. Leno taking the goal kick to Cleverley’s goal is about 4.7 seconds; the derision directed at Leno, Arsenal and Unai Emery lasted much longer. Leno might even have thought of Leigh Roose’s words from long ago, “He must be an instinctive lover of the game, otherwise goalkeeping will take it out of a man if he is not devoted to it.”
So if the risk of doing a Leno is hard-wired into any short goal kick, why has it been embraced so widely by most Premier League teams? The answer is that in terms of progressing the ball, short goal kicks are simply more effective than long ones. As the map below shows, every single club has progressed the ball further when they go short. There is variance between clubs (ironically, given Mat Ryan’s predilections, Brighton have the smallest difference) but this is largely based on styles of play and size of players. Even clubs like Burnley and Sheffield United, who have so far almost ignored the new in-box law, just about adhere.
So in the space of one paragraph, you may gone from seething rage at Bernd Leno’s mistake at Vicarage Road, to quiet conviction that, no, actually the way forward for football teams is to play out constructively from the back. Johan, Josep, they were right. As always, though, the answer is somewhere in the middle. You’ll get better attacking output when your sequences start with short goal kicks but you’ll also see the opposition create higher-quality chances. It’s also dependent on the players at your disposal. There have been admirable attempts at short goal kick play construction in the lower leagues this season, but there have also been numerous mistakes of the Leno/Sokratis type too, and these hurt even more when you don’t have Premier League-level attacking players to try and make amends. Even Manchester City will go long with a goal kick if they’re leading by one goal and there’s minutes to go, or they have Kyle Walker in goal.
In other words, football’s eternal balance between space, time and the laws is unshakable.