Do goalkeepers hold the key to beating the high press?
Beginning with the exploits of Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich, the past few years have featured plenty of froth about "sweeper keepers" who came out of their areas to play as an eleventh outfield defender. But what about GKs' attacking adventures? Plenty of GKs can launch hopeful long balls upfield, but a more disciplined approach may hold the key to beating a high press – and represent the next step of tactical evolution.
Recently David Preece, the former Darlington and Silkeborg stalwart who is now the goalkeeping coach at Ostersunds, posted a video on social media of Aly Keita completing long, low passes into midfield, breaking the lines of the high-pressing opposition in several matches. Keita was making the sorts of passes an AM or CM might make from positions much further up the pitch, trying to release forwards with through balls or slashing diagonals. He was acting more like a ball-playing CB, and breaking the first line of the press in the process.
Having the GK take over the ball-playing CB's role allows the back line to move further up the pitch in attack. Not only is the high press broken with a fast move up the pitch; the opposition is also more likely to be hemmed in if they recover the ball. But this doesn't mean that clubs looking to break the press should just find a GK who likes to pass forward – he has to be good at keeping possession, too.
To find GKs who fit these attributes, we used a smartersearch across Europe's top five leagues and the Champions League for players with good attacking output, high ball retention, and a strong tendency to pass towards the opposing goal. When we saw the results, one thing stuck out right away – three of the GKs had played for Roma:
In fact, Alisson – the Liverpool GK who came from Roma – appeared a bit further down the list as well. So what was going on here?
The 2016-17 season was Wojciech Szczesny's last at Roma before he moved to Juventus. That was also the season when Robin Olsen came top of our list for his performances in the Champions League at Copenhagen. And it was Olsen who came to Roma as Alisson's understudy after Szczesny departed! Here's how their stats in 2016-17 compared, both at a Serie A standard:
Sweden's No. 1 is an average shotstopper relative to Szczesny, but his overall attacking, defending, and ball retention in 2016-17 were a match for his Polish opposite number. And like Szczesny, Olsen was a prolific passer towards goal. In retrospect, it seems like an obvious transfer.
Alisson wouldn't stay at Roma long, though. After just one season as the club's No. 1, he left for Liverpool. Yet in that same 2017-18 season, Antonio Mirante ranked third on our list when he started for Bologna. And so whom did Roma bring in to cover Olsen when the big Brazilian went to England? You guessed it, Mirante. Here's a comparison with Alisson:
Again, Mirante's numbers in 2017-18 were a good match for Alisson's. (And it's also fun to note that the soon-to-be 37-year-old is currently on a shotstopping tear, with seven clean sheets and only 11 goals against in his last 15 matches for Roma!) Clearly, Roma was ahead of the curve when it came to attack-minded GKs who were also safe in possession, and Jurgen Klopp was looking for the same characteristics at Liverpool.
The fascinating part, however, is that Alisson's aggressive passing largely disappeared after he arrived at Anfield. He was still involved in the club's fast attacks, but it was the CBs who often made the long passes. And in that way, that makes him rather similar to Keita, for whom those long passes are actually quite rare, as they are for Ederson, another GK known for dropping dimes from half a field away... just not as often as we might think. Here's a side-by-side look at a Premier League standard:
Both Alisson and Ederson have recorded a couple of assists in league play during the past few seasons, but they're usually going for something less ambitious. So what's the key to the GK who beats the high press? It seems to be a judicious use of the long pass – a lot of link-up play, and then, when it's on... launch that rocket!