Special report: Women’s goalkeeping has long been ridiculed but not any more – this is why


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Chloe Morgan is The Athletic’s women’s football editor. She is a former professional goalkeeper who played for Tottenham in the Women’s Super League and Crystal Palace in the Women’s Championship.

Coming into this Women’s World Cup, I spent some time trying to pre-empt its emerging stories — who the standout stars might be, where the “Cupsets” might lie, how many more federations will be exposed as failing to properly provide for their players and staff.

My heart sank a little as a former goalkeeper when I thought it was inevitable that there would be some obvious and decisive goalkeeping error that would trigger all kinds of debate or, worse, abuse about how female goalkeepers were just not up to scratch. 

Then it happened. South Africa’s Kaylin Swart, facing a soft shot directed straight at her by Lineth Beerensteyn of the Netherlands, let the ball slip through her arms and dribble into the back of the net, triggering a collective gasp around the stadium. The goal was a game-changer — the difference between South Africa, who were 1-0 down with 22 minutes still to play — going from hoping for an equaliser to damage limitation as they exited the tournament.

For Swart, despite playing in a history-making game for South Africa — this being the first time they had reached the last 16 stage — it will be a match she will want to forget. 

But this was far from the main focus of the game. In fact, barely any fuss was made and Swart received no backlash. If anything, the goalkeeping story that day was the positive one of Zecira Musovic of Sweden, who made 11 saves against the U.S. as her side went on to defeat the four-time champions on penalties.

The narrative around female goalkeeping has changed for good.

Zecira Musovic in action for Sweden in their round-of-16 win against the U.S. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

I spoke to two goalkeeping legends — and former England No 1s — Karen Bardsley and Rachel Brown-Finnis to get their takes on the situation. 

“I can see why you might have wanted to protect goalkeepers, but that’s changed,” says Brown-Finnis. “No one is taking their errors as ammunition anymore when comparing the two (male and female).”

The reason being the standard is just so bloody good now.

“There’s a reason we’re seeing so many goalkeepers get player of the match this year,” adds Bardsley. “Chiamaka Nnadozie, Mary Earps, Daphne van Domselaar, Zecira Musovic, Courtney Brosnan, Becky Spencer. It says a lot about the standards.”

So why has this tournament been such a big win for goalkeepers?

Increased data 

Football’s modern era uses technology to give players and teams an extra edge. When I first started with Spurs, almost a decade ago, I would have been lucky to have seen a couple of hardback books on the art of goalkeeping, but now the information available is endless. 

During my career, all players started to wear GPS vests every training session and match. Every game was monitored by video platform Wyscout and the team’s sports scientist tracked certain metrics every game, e.g. interceptions, recovery times, accelerations and decelerations.

Most importantly for goalkeepers, there started to be access to data around how the majority of goalscoring chances arrived — through set pieces, penalties (noting players prone to going down a little too easily…) or open play.

The data became so granular that we could map teams’ attacks: whether they progressed via the left- or right-wing or centrally, who took set pieces and the areas or players they would aim for, whether the crosses would be in- or out-swinging.

I would have data on where the most likely penalty takers would aim and their success rate. So many elite goalkeepers have taken to printing this out, attaching it to their water bottles — as Musovic did against the U.S.

Despite her not saving any of the penalties (the majority of which were unsavable), she went the right way for all but two — oddly enough one being the penalty taken by U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, on whom, understandably, there was unlikely to be any data.

The downside is that too much information can feel overwhelming. A significant part of goalkeeping will always be instinctive, reacting to the live scenario. It can sometimes be difficult to reconcile data with what is happening in real-time. 

In a penalty shootout, you may know that Jane Bloggs prefers — and is most successful with — a low, driven strike in the bottom left corner. You might also notice how she opens her body up during the run-up and her foot positioning indicates she will not strike across her body, so it’s important to not rely solely on the data.

Ultimately, data is a relatively new weapon in women’s goalkeeping. Approaching a game, you want to be armed with as much information as possible as anything that gives you an advantage can be the difference between making that vital save and not — and sometimes the difference is in a split second or fingertip.

Talent pathways 

When Brown-Finnis, Bardsley and I first started playing, the mentality and perception around goalkeeping was completely different. You were put in goal if you were considered the weakest or least talented on the pitch — I can’t recall the sheer number of times I was told to get in goal because I’d cause the least damage there.

I only started to receive specific goalkeeper training in my early-to-mid twenties and, unsurprisingly, I improved massively. In my last year in the Championship at Crystal Palace, I played alongside 18-year-old goalkeeper Emily Orman, who was on loan from Chelsea.

Orman, who had signed with Chelsea aged 16 and had represented England from under-14 to under-19 level, had been training with the first team since her arrival and had been receiving world-class goalkeeper coaching — and also trained alongside some of the world’s best in Ann-Katrin Berger and Musovic.

The difference between my generation and Orman’s is huge. I had seen the position transition from shot-stopping to being inclusive with the back line — with a greater focus on distribution, starting counter-attacks and being involved in game management. These things came more naturally to Orman.

“There has been a significant transformation in the position and we’re now seeing top athletes in goal,” Brown-Finnis explains. “We’re seeing goalkeepers who have started off life really young — perhaps as outfield players first — who are developing neuro-muscular pathways early. They’re learning to strike the ball, change movement and are also being given the opportunity to play in different positions to better understand the roles on the pitch.

“Mary Earps is brilliant at starting attacks, Merle Frohms is fantastic at playing out from the back. It boils down to better goalkeeper coaching at a younger age. There’s this saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. These girls coming through now have been getting those hours in much earlier.”

Equally, the Championship (the level below England’s WSL) is now being used for budding goalkeepers to gain match experience — to iron out the kinks and learn to bounce back from mistakes in a less pressurised environment, mainly due to the Championship having less exposure and generally lower attendances, although the competitiveness is still significant.

Relationship with the back line

Alongside the improvement of goalkeeper-specific training, there is now a focus on working with the back line. “The goalkeeping position has developed and it is now viewed as part of the back four/five unit,” Brown-Finnis says. “They do hours of training together, in and out of possession. It’s drilled into the (defenders and goalkeepers) that they are integral to each other.”

On top of this, squads are now starting to bring in unit specialists. We’ve seen this at Arsenal, where finishing and set-piece specialists (also Kelly Smith) are working with the front line and new addition Alessia Russo. 

“Defensive specialists have been brought in to improve output as a unit,” says Brown-Finnis. “We’re seeing goalkeepers being more engaged in games, working on communicating with clarity and tailoring their communication depending on which players they are speaking to. But also goalkeepers are having a chance to work on how they communicate with the outfield players in their respective leagues.”

Earps will be familiar with the playing styles of a significant majority of her team-mates having played alongside Lauren James, Ella Toone, Alessia Russo and Katie Zelem at various points in Manchester United’s previous four seasons. She will also be familiar with her other Lionesses team-mates having played against them in the WSL.

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Mary Earps has made some vital saves for England at the World Cup (David Rogers/Getty Images)

A prime example of when this defensive cohesion has not been immediately present was when Switzerland took on Spain in the round of 16. Spanish goalkeeper Cata Coll made her international debut, being picked over Real Madrid’s Misa (who had started all of the group games). In the 11th minute, defender Laia Codina blindly launched a strong back pass to an unexpectant Coll, who watched the ball roll into her own net.

It was Codina’s error, but that initial cohesion between the back line and keeper was missing — understandably given this was the first time the unit had worked together in a competitive game.

Bardsley notes that Nigeria’s Nnadozie has stood out as someone who has a good relationship with her back line: “She’s a very good shot-stopper, but she links up really well with her centre-backs and full-backs. She’s happy to clip into the full-backs and she can do so using both feet — that’s the standard now.”

Increased focus on goalkeeper-specific training

As a goalkeeper, you face a host of scenarios in a game: one-v-ones, two-v-ones, high crosses, a packed box for a corner, penalties, long-range shots, bouncing shots, cutbacks. The list goes on. 

The goalkeepers at the Women’s World Cup will have had hundreds, if not thousands of hours with their coaches working on how best to deal with each scenario. Each drill is aimed at optimising their ability to react as the game unfolds.

But the outfield drills are just half the work. Training at elite level now includes position-specific, individualised strength and conditioning, with goalkeeper plans being unique. 

Bardsley notes that focus on plans had been “hyper-accelerated to where we are now”.

“I remember, around 2011, we were starting to question why goalkeepers were doing box-to-box runs and outfield workouts when goalkeepers had completely different output and in-game demands. Even with nutrition, it made little sense for us to eat loads of sweet potatoes (as per the outfield nutrition plan) when we wouldn’t be expending the same levels of energy. To me, it made more sense to look at the types of carbs which would help us with concentrating and focusing in key moments.”

My own plan with Spurs included plyometric box jumps — different types of jumps with resistance bands and a focus on core work to improve stability when being crowded in the box. To the delight of the other players, particularly Lucy Quinn, who would rip me to shreds most gym days, I also had wrist-strengthening exercises, such as holding a plate over the edge of a box or wrist curls. To be fair, it did look odd.

Brown-Finnis feels the specific plans had a huge impact on goalkeepers and, more specifically, were important to female goalkeepers given the unique challenges they face. “Goalkeepers have very different needs to outfield players as female goalkeepers are shorter (compared to male goalkeepers),” she says.

This definitely rings true: the average height of male keepers at the 2022 Qatar World Cup was 6ft 2in (188cm) compared to 5ft 8in (173cm) for the women. The goals are the same size and yet the group stage at this World Cup only saw a handful more goals let in compared to last year’s group stage in Qatar for the men.

“What we’re seeing in gym plans now is a focus on plyometrics — short, sharp bursts of work,” Brown-Finnis adds. “Goalkeepers are concentrating on footwork and improving their reaction time, making sure they’re in the right position earlier to make the save.

“It can be argued that (female goalkeeper) reactions need to be quicker than men’s/taller goalkeepers so they can push off earlier to give them a better chance of the save. Making a save is a mathematical equation — you need to see the ball, recognise the flight, react with every ounce of plyometric power, have quick feet to initiate the movement and then also decide to go with your top hand for optimal reach.”

Bardsley also feels that the focus has now shifted to work on movements that better replicate game scenarios. From her time in the U.S., she recalls coaches using American football pads pushed against players to mimic opponents applying pressure.

Making saves against world-class strikers requires athleticism. One of the best saves in the tournament so far was Musovic’s against the U.S., helping to earn her the player of the match award. Lindsey Horan shot from the edge of the box — its speed was recorded at 92km/h — and the strike went through a sea of bodies, meaning Musovic was late to see it. 

But what happens before is key — and this is where the gym work is critical. Her quick footwork gets her across goal, her explosive leg power allows her to dive, and her wrist/finger strength takes the impact of the shot as she tips it around the post for a critical, match-winning save.

For another example of goalkeeping athleticism, look no further than Japan’s Ayaka Yamashita — and another contender for the save of the tournament — in their last-16 game against Norway. It was a huge leap; Yamashita (who is 5ft 7) reaches to claw a header away at the back post from Karina Saevik at point-blank range. The save denied Norway a chance at mounting a comeback, sending Japan through to the quarter-finals.

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Ayaka Yamashita is in great form for Japan (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Mental resilience

The mental stress of goalkeeping is intense. One lapse of concentration or judgment could mean fatal error — and a loss. No other position has quite the same level of pressure, especially with 40,000-plus fans watching — with millions more at home — in a stadium on the other side of the world and in the most important international tournament on the planet. But what we’ve seen this year in bundles from goalkeepers is resilience, focus and presence. 

In terms of making the difference, Brown-Finnis feels there had been increasing focus on “the mental side (of the game); mental preparation and mental rehearsal”.

“There is a greater capacity to stay present, to be unwaveringly unemotional on the pitch,” she continues. “Goalkeepers want to reach an optimal emotional level of excitability to enhance their ability to concentrate and be ready to perform.”

At the elite level, goalkeepers are being given greater access to sports psychologists to help with mental performance. Being prepared is key. “I do a lot of visualising mental training, brain training,” Musovic said recently. “So a lot of hours of extra work that I think you don’t realise if you’re not in this body.”

“The support around goalkeepers is a lot different and more holistic now,” Bardsley says. “The staff are not just goalkeeper coaches — they try to understand the person and the player and also create an environment around the goalkeeper to allow them to be themselves.”

Within the England camp, that support is very much shared across all the goalkeepers, not just the current No 1 and starting XI. “Everybody is clear on what their role is,” says Bardsley. “It can be an awkward dynamic between ’keepers when you know you need to train and prepare the same way for a game, but there may be some insecurity because you won’t be starting.

“The England goalkeeper’s union, while obviously not all being able to make the starting XI, appreciated that if Mary had a good tournament then that would be a success for the whole team. Sarina would have had these conversations early — before the tournament started — so everyone knew the situation and could then be supported by staff, the goalkeeper coach and the players.”

In terms of the goalkeeper-specific support that can be provided, Brown-Finnis says: “There are certain tools goalkeepers will develop (with the help of psychologists), such as visualisation as well as reset buttons for when bad moments happen. I used to wipe my hand over my head and that was my rest to detract from a bad moment, to reset and get back to my optimal state. It took practice.”

I had my lucky (or sometimes unlucky) towel that my mum had bought me as a housewarming present. It became my glove towel and if I ever had a bad moment or felt I was at fault, I would go to it, wipe my gloves and start again mentally. You only ever have limited time on the pitch to make a difference so can’t dwell on a mistake and possibly perpetuate the cycle and make another. After the game — likely the following day — it’s appropriate to reflect on the events with your coach.

On mental resilience, Bardsley feels having access to mental support had the “biggest impact” on her career, specifically in helping to increase her self-awareness and understanding of how she liked to work.

“The (support) helped me to become more efficient in my training and preparation. What we see now is that goalkeepers have access to performance and lifestyle coaches and that support is more qualified and skilled. Before, it would often be someone who might have been a bit newer to the profession or with less experience.”

Returning to Swart’s error, the quality of her positioning, movement and footwork in the lead-up to the relatively soft strike from Beerensteyn is not in dispute. Her handling let her down — the ball went through her arms and trickled into the back of the net. 

What’s noticeable is that Swart did not appear to dwell on her error, coming off her line to sweep up a ball heading for the path of Beerensteyn again. It also did not detract from her magnificent save in the 8th minute, when she expertly tipped a high cross over the bar to keep the game level. 

And, while Swart was responsible for the error, her team also had multiple chances on goal (Thembi Kgatlana in the first half and Linda Motlhalo in the second) to secure a draw and didn’t. Attacking errors should also be considered as such and noted as missed game-changing moments. Swart’s error should not be taken in isolation.

This year, and perhaps because of a more understanding fanbase, one-off mistakes can be taken for what they are: isolated, human and bound to happen in moments of relentless high pressure. 

(Top photo: Naomi Baker – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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