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Soccer Goalkeeping – Penalty Kicks

As Euro 2016 is progressing through the knockout stage, games are being decided by penalty kicks. A very interesting shootout occurred between Germany and Italy. It took nine rounds to decide a winner, each team going deep into their line-up to find shooters. The reasons it went that far weren’t that many goals were scored or that many good saves were made by the keepers, but rather some incredibly poor kicks. Both teams only converted two penalties out of the first five.

But that’s not the story from a soccer skill perspective. What was very noticeable was that the two goalkeepers looked very different. Buffon dove to the correct corner, the corner the ball was shot in, almost every single time. Neuer on the other hand dove to the wrong side almost every time. The result was that Buffon got close to more saves while Neuer saved all he could. What happened? Was Buffon better at guessing which the shooter would choose?

I don’t think so. I think we saw a demonstration of the two approaches soccer goalies can take when facing penalty kicks – anticipating the shot or reacting to it.

In soccer we teach goalkeepers to react to the shot, or reaction speed:

  • keep eyes on the ball and foot
  • read the direction of the ball at the moment the ball leaves the foot
  • react to the direction and pace of the shot
  • get in position for the save or make a reflex save

We teach out players the speeds of soccer, one of which is anticipation. This essentially means moving before the ball is played, taking in information about space and movements and deciding where you should be to receive the ball.

Many coaches and keepers believe that there isn’t enough time to react from the moment the ball leaves the penalty kicker’s foot until it reaches the goal. It is only 11 meters from the penalty spot to the center of the goal, 11.6 m to a bottom corner and ~ 12.0 m to the top corners) and balls can travel at over 110 km/hr or 31 m/sec. This leaves 0.35 – 0.40 seconds to react to the shot and move to stop it. This is at the professional level. At the amateur, youth, or child level the speed is less and the time to react is longer. What does it mean? A penalty kick to a corner, regardless of the height of the shot, will be unstoppable by reaction if it is kicked at maximum speed. There isn’t enough time for the body to move, extend, and the hands to reach the ball. There is enough time to react and move to a lower paced and less accurate kick.

The only way to stop a top speed shot to a corner is by anticipating the shot and diving before the ball is struck. This anticipation can be based on knowledge of the shooter, reading their body movements, their body language, or their eye movement. Of course the shooters know that this is what goalkeepers do, so they try to deceive the keeper. For example their body language points right, but they shoot left.

What is the better way? It depends.

I favour teaching young goalkeepers the reaction method because it is consistent with goalkeeping philosophy. It is also consistent with training reflexes and goalkeeping techniques. If keepers can develop fast enough reflexes then they will have success. Should they make it to the professional level they have this skill in their tool box, they can always add the anticipation method and then decide on their preference. And that preference could be different for each player they face. If you teach keepers anticipation it is far more difficult to learn reflexes at a later stage.

In the end, it comes down to what method suits a particular goalkeeper best.

As an aside, I always felt it looked better to dive in the right corner and be scored on than guessing and be nowhere near the ball.

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