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Good football (soccer) goalkeepers: Attributes and characteristics

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Spectacular save from goalkeeping great Edwin van der Sar

Spectacular save from goalkeeping great Edwin van der Sar

Good can be the enemy of great, but a great goalkeeper must be good first. Goalkeeping is a specialist position in association football. More often than not, goalkeepers are goats than heroes – an important player who is vilified more often than praised.

To handle the pressure and game situations, competent goalkeepers require an amalgam of mental, physical and technical attributes that, when perfected, will make them greats of the game.

Basic football skills

Goalkeepers are generally allowed to use their hands within their own penalty area. However, there are times when they need to play outside that area or when they may otherwise be unable to handle the ball in game situations. A good goalkeeper does not need to dribble like Lionel Messi. Instead, good ball control, passing, heading and punting the ball are skills that every self-respecting goalkeeper should possess – especially when teammates make back passes under pressure.

Ball handling

This skill is the most obvious criterion for identifying a good goalkeeper. Former England number 1 David James was sometimes called Dracula because he feared crosses. Good ball handling gives goalkeepers the ability and confidence to literally handle anything that their opponents send their way. Ball handling skills include catching, throwing, parrying and receiving. In addition, catching technique is very important. Goalkeeper must instinctively know which catching technique to use based on the speed, trajectory and height of balls into the penalty area.


The best goalkeepers, like Edwin van der Sar, rarely need to make a spectacular flying save. Why? Well, it’s because good goalkeepers are usually in the right place at the right time. Poorer exponents are regularly caught in positions where it is impossible – or at least very difficult – to make a save. Those are the ones who have to make desperate sprawling dives that make the inevitable goal look even more spectacular. A goalkeeper looks even sillier when he is beaten at his near post.

Quick reflexes

No one can deny that a split second can separate a great save from a certain goal. While goalkeepers require great awareness, agility and positioning, the ability to spring a fine reaction save is like a magician’s trick that denies the opponents a chance to tally. Such saves help to cover defensive lapses and are particularly useful for follow-up saves off of rebounds.

Physical presence

Often, goalkeepers are among the tallest players on the soccer field; several glove-men are well over six feet tall. However, physical presence implies much more than height. The best shot-stoppers know how to make themselves “big,” i.e. provide large targets for attackers. Maintaining that physical presence also involves staying on the feet for as long as possible and reducing the shooting lanes of advancing opponents. When facing a penalty kick or in facing kicks from the penalty mark, a ‘keeper who can use his physical presence to impose himself on the mind of the striker has a decisive advantage.

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Anticipation and Awareness

Goalkeepers are the first point of attack and the last line of defense. Good anticipation is an attribute that helps with distribution, but it is even more important as far as good defense. A good goalkeeper must also have spatial awareness, since knowing the positions of attackers and their lines of attack can reinforce anticipation. In facing penalty kicks, anticipation is even more important – allowing the shot-stoppers to predict the striker’s move without moving prematurely.

Other attributes


Being agile and quick can help goalkeepers recover in time to make triple saves if necessary


Timing challenges and judging when to come off the line is critical to glove-men.

Command of the penalty area

Goalkeepers are virtual captains of the defensive unit, helping the team to keep its shape and communicating with defenders to establish lines of responsibility

Commitment and composure

A good goalkeeper never gives up, even when his team is down. A committed goalkeeper might even bravely (and skillfully) contest a ball in a physically dangerous situation.

Good glove-men master the basics of goalkeeping, but they also possess additional attributes, skills and mental fortitude. The flamboyance and even recklessness of Chilavert, Higuita or Barthez is not required to be outstanding even. However, the aforementioned attributes are mandatory.

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