“Why isn’t he using his feet?”

In my teams, striker is first defender and goalie is the first attacker. —Johan Cruyff

If I were to say I’m going to miss seeing that head guard, you’d be right to think I’m not talking about football. But of course, you would also be very wrong. Petr Cech today announced that he will be hanging up his gloves come the end of the season. The 6ft5 giant is the Premier League clean sheets record holder with 202, a comfortable 33 ahead of second place. (A record he can further improve this season).

A Premier League legend in every right, he has been through the evolution the league has seen in the last decade and a half. Winning every domestic trophy there is. The Premier League he joined in July 2004 is very different to the Premier League of today. I’m here to look at how the goalkeeper’s role has changed and to do that we need numbers.

In 2018 it was of no surprise that only Ederson (93.03) and Kepa (91.54) had a passing accuracy greater than 90% per 90 minutes in the Premier League. What makes these two stand out, even more, is that they also ranked the lowest in the average length of their forward passes. They were making passes to those close to them, ‘building up play’, and not hoofing it into row Z. This is partly explainable by looking at the two unique coaches of both, Pep and Sarri. But again and again we have seen goalkeepers criticized this season for playing with their feet and getting it wrong?

What Cech has is an undeniable quality to keep a ball from going behind the net. Interestingly since 2009/10, the accuracy of goalkeepers distribution when outside the box has consistently declined. This may come as a surprise. Nevertheless, this is because goalkeepers who are incompetent to perform the trendy ‘sweeper keeper’ role are being asked to do so by managers. The question I think then should be, what will be the goalkeeper’s role in the future? Certainly, in the past, a goalkeepers main role was to keep the net empty. But now we are certainly seeing the emphasis on their footwork change.

Does this make De Gea an anomaly then? Arguably the best goalkeeper in the world right now. His accuracy was eye-watering, and not for the right reasons in 2018, close to 80%. However, I would point the finger at Mourinho’s system for this. But does this matter? De Gea has never been blessed with great passing abilities, what he lacks here he certainly makes up for in unbelievable saves. It would be naive to compare goalkeepers just based on passing attributes, there are so many other factors that the numbers just can’t pick up.

I think what I am trying to get at here is that the game can be played in various ways, suiting individuals uniquely. Each position has unique roles, and this couldn’t be more true for goalkeepers. Yes, we are seeing a growing number of goalkeepers join in with the fun but this is dependent on the team, individual and managers’s philosophy of how they want to play. Just as a sweeper keeper can play an instrumental role in a possession style of play, a no-nonsense goalkeeper can be of the same importance in a different system. Sweeper keeping doesn’t suit everyone, but I think what people forget is, it wasn’t designed to. Petr Cech will not be remembered as a ball playing goalkeeper, but he doesn’t need to be, because he was a world-class goalkeeper in every other way.

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