Modern Goalkeepers: More Flaps Than...
When I was a kid, I liked to play in goal. Being the goalie was great because it meant you didn't get kicked much, didn't have to run around, could just aimlessly hoof the ball up the pitch (a talent all England keepers seem reluctant to give up on), could talk to the girls behind the goal when the play was up-field and yet could still impress everyone by making extravagant dives. If you were agile, people thought you were good.
I quickly learned that there was glory between the sticks if you dived around a lot. Coming out for crosses and generally positioning yourself well went unnoticed, but leaping athletically to tip one over the bar made other kids think you were great. Even at a young age, like all keepers, I developed the art of making simple saves look spectacular. Like sex, it mostly involves kicking your legs in the air, arching your back and pulling faces.
However, this policy only worked for so long. Eventually a lack of basic technique, concentration and positioning showed I was actually rubbish (this applied to the sex as well). Really great keepers can often cut out problems before they start by commanding their box and bossing defenders around. That wasn't for me and by then I had discovered UFO, drink and girls, and a life of muddy knees and over-sized gloves lost all its attractions.
The principle of good goalkeeping used to be based around the fact that because you have the huge advantage of being able to handle the ball the defenders should defer to you at all times. It also dictated that you would try and grab hold of the ball as much as possible, rather than punch it or wait for a defender to clear it.
Thus keepers were legendary personalities. From the old spaghetti legs to the scorpion kick to dislocating your jaw shouting at defenders, the goalie was master of his domain and an often crazy mofo.
Until recently, those who were in the elite of goalkeeping could do it all; they were superb shot-stoppers, commanded the box on crosses and could distribute the ball by hoying it half the length of the pitch with accuracy. Peter Schmeichel was the archetype. An awesome, dominant presence with no obvious weaknesses.
At the moment the Premier League is full of some of the best shot-stoppers we've ever seen; men with fantastic quick reactions and cat-like agility. Watching Joe Hart, David de Gea, Michel Vorm and many more, they are very undoubtedly impressive. Hart's performance against Borussia Dortmund was an exemplary display of modern goalkeeping in that it was relentlessly brilliant shot-stopping.
Hart is often declared by commentators to be world class, or even the best in the world. But the oft ignored fact is that Hart, like so many modern keepers is a committed and long-term practitioner of The Flap. Being a flapper used to automatically disqualify you from greatness. He regularly doesn't command crosses, he gets caught in no-man's land, he stays anchored to his line all too often when he should be ploughing through defenders to get the ball.
Because of this Hart, like all his contemporaries, has a major rick in him most games. He won't be found wanting at a ball hit at pace into the top corner; instead his howler will almost always occur from a good corner or a whipped cross, at which point he will look at the ball as though it is an alien concept and flap at it like an over-sized owl.
Hart is far from unique in this. Just look at De Gea. Super-fast reactions, makes brilliant saves every game, but has less presence than a fart in a space suit. De Gea couldn't command a poodle let alone a defence. Admittedly the fact that he looks 10 stone wet through doesn't help and his silly Something-About-Mary hair just undermines any authority he might be able to inspire. He won't be dislocating his jaw shouting at defenders for sure. Not that he seems bothered. Like most modern keepers he has no interest in much else other than shot-stopping. The modern keepers appear to have been trained this way.
The regular flapping seems to have been discounted in Hart's case. The narrative arc is that he's world class and anything which suggests otherwise is largely ignored. But the fact remains that in the next two England games, Hart will likely at some point come out waving his arms, get nowhere near the ball and have to be bailed out by his defenders on at least one occasion. And the commentator, seemingly suffering from amnesia will say how 'out of character' it is. It's not. This is the modern keeper all over.
Obviously, Hart is young and he should get better with age. Call me old-fashioned if you will but I'd like to see a goalkeeper have more comprehensive talents before being declared brilliant.
So how and why has the art of goalkeeping changed? Is it just a fashion? Is it a failure of coaching? Has zonal marking outlawed the need for keepers to stray off their line? Is the dominance of short-arsed midfield fanny merchants making the need to be good in the air and on crosses irrelevant because football played on the ground is the current obsession? I have no idea but there must be some reason for it.
One thing is for sure, being able to judge a cross - when to come for it and when to stay on your line - is still an important skill.
When your side is under pressure and the ball is launched into the box, there is no finer sight in football than seeing your keeper ploughing through an army of players like a cruise missile to pluck the ball out of the air and clutch it to his chest. In the '60s and '70s keepers who hated crosses were always called Dracula, today it looks like we've got a whole league of vampires.