The most common complaint from team coaches seems to be on distribution. Most keepers are good shot stoppers, but their ability to relieve pressure and transition or switch play is often less than perfect. In this short post we describe a few drills a coach can utilize to improve the keeper’s ability with their feet, and more importantly, their decision making.

Footwork pays dividends

Every coach expects their keeper to perform basic “defensive duties” with their feet. For example, when a ball is played back to the keeper by a defender, relieving pressure and allowing a safe option to switch play from one side of the field to the other, the keeper is performing a valuable duty.

Similarly, when a defense is being “high pressed” by an opponent, the goalkeeper offers an important option. But they too can expect to be pressed quickly, and the keeper will be called upon to make a quick decision on how to distribute the ball safely. This is where having a good idea of who’s available, and who’s not, is critical.

Know the Chessboard

If you’ve ever played chess, you’ll know that it’s all about moving pieces, one piece at a time. Simple.

However, in competition chess, there is a clock. And as soon as a player has moved they hit the clock, which ticks down for their opponent. Each player only has a set amount of time to make all their moves, and sitting, pondering which piece to move can be very costly.
That’s why they know the whole board at all times. They have a mental representation of where every piece is, in their mind. When it’s their turn, the only thing that’s changed is the last piece the opponent moved. This allows them to quickly assess the right move and make it – and hit the opponents clock!

Soccer is like a chessboard, players dotted all over it, able to move around.

The major difference is they can move themselves, and can move all at the same time. But they’re still limited in how far and fast they can move.

If, as a goalkeeper, you have a good picture of where your teammates are, and the opposing players, then this can make playing out from the back  a lot easier.

The trouble with options.

Imagine your back-four defenders are positioned smartly across the field, and the ball is played back to you by a teammate. You can’t pick it up, so instead you have to play it with your feet.

Your first touch is good and you feel confident you can hit a pass to any of the four defenders, or alternatively ping the ball “over the top”, past the defense and the opponent’s attackers, to relieve pressure or begin a transition to attack. You have options.

The layout might look something like this, where the four defenders are labeled A,B,D, and E, while the ball over he top is labeled C.

Make a choice – but quick!

Which option would you choose, based upon the layout of the attackers, in yellow?

The attackers are motioning forward, in the direction of the red lines, threatening your access to the defenders. Eventually they will be pressing the keeper.

If you chose A, you should expect the ball to come back to you – the attacker will press them pretty quickly. Same goes for E.

D is already closely marked, with another attacker moving towards them.

B looks a sound option, but will be quickly closed down by the midfielder.

C, the option of punting it over the opponents and starting a transition to attack, will depend upon how good your kick is, and how good your midfield are at capturing the ball.

The option E looks soundest. Even if the attacker decides to press E rather than D, as long as D is awake, this could start a build out from the back.

But what if the keeper dwells upon the ball?…

In this example the striker marking D decides to press the goalkeeper, while the other opponents press towards A, B and E.

This now leaves D unmarked, but he needs to move slightly to make himself open, lest the attacker pressing the keeper make an interception.

A better movement would look like this below. A and E both drop deeper, becoming easier outlets for the keeper. as the attackers press, one of the defenders will become truly free and open. In this case it’s D who moves wide.

The keeper can either use E as the first outlet, en route to D, or just pass straight to D.

Make a mental note

How should a keeper be best prepared for a backpass? Well they should already have a good idea where everyone is and where players are motioning towards, before the pass. Is this unreasonable to expect?

Well if you’ve played chess, then you know the answer is no. As you saw above, chess players can make these decisions lightening fast. When they make a move they already have a good idea where pieces are, and the latest new information is the last move by the opponent.

A good keeper views their “defensive arena” as a chess board, with each piece already noted. They should already have a good idea of the best move – who to pass to and how – before the ball is passed to them.

Great players call it “a picture in your head” – an image of where everything is around you at any one time. In this documentary, at 7:25 Ryan Giggs talks of this great skill in the England legend Paul Scholes,  his team mate in the treble-winning Manchester United team. It’s expected in great midfielders, but why not in goalkeepers?

Communication is key

As well as making a note as things change, players move, try to use communication to help, others (and yourself) stay on top of things. By telling E above that he’s free now, he knows you’re likely to pass to him. Then make it clear that D has become free, and tell E to “play up the wing to D”.

But also, look for your teammates to keep you up to date as things happen out of your peripheral vision. They will tell you they don’t want the ball. You need to tell them the same – using “away!!”.


Whether you’re a chess player or not, you can see how important it is to keep a mental map of the players and the field. This will come in very handy when you’re surprised by back passes. Obviously if the ball rebounds off, or is shot by an opponent, you can pick it up, and assess the situation calmly (within the 6 seconds you’re allowed).

Know the chessboard at all times, even when the ball isn’t threatening, and use your “comms” to help others know where the dangers lie.

Tips for coaches – Confidence – Cohesion – Technique

This post demonstrates the importance of confidence, cohesion and technique. Your keeper must have the confidence to evaluate situations like the one faced in the examples above, and deal with them the best they can.

Decisions need to be made in a split second, and while everyone on the sideline can see exactly what to do, the keeper is the one that has to do it. Encourage the keeper to read the game and at all times, have a good mental map of the chessboard.

Technique, especially comfort with their feet and hands in tight, difficult situations, needs to be constantly practiced. Finally, the keeper needs help, and need to know his defenders will track back as fast as they can and try to help protect the goal.