Though the goalkeeping position has evolved through the years, dealing with flank crosses still remains a facet of the position that goalkeeper’s are constantly evaluated upon. Even though the game is played differently in each domestic league, functionally preparing goalkeepers to intercept crossed balls is a skill of the utmost importance. Whether the game is a youth or professional match, goalkeepers must be readily prepared to come off their goal line and deal with crosses into the penalty area. Especially during higher level matches, goalkeepers can often be scrutinized for not controlling the penalty area and flailing at balls that should have been won. The task of handling crosses has grown increasing more difficult due to the player’s ability to serve balls with more velocity, spin and accuracy. In preparation, the technical ability of the goalkeeper must be sound, but the overall effectiveness of the goalkeeper will truly lie in their tactical positioning and decision making.
Keeper or Away
Simply, goalkeepers need to recognize quickly whether they can win the ball. Without hesitation or self doubt, they need to assess the situation and communicate effectively whether they are committing themselves to winning the cross. The common terminology used throughout the United States is “keeper” or “away”. Both terms are used to clarify the goalkeeper’s intentions; the “keeper” call means the goalkeeper is committed to winning the ball, and the “away” call means they are staying in the goal. Communicating loudly and concisely alleviates any misconceptions for the defenders in their attempt to clear the ball.
Intercepting the Ball
At the SoccerPlus Goalkeeper School, we illustrate the use of the High Contour Catch to secure balls above the head. This technique is essentially used to catch balls above an opponents challenge while intercepting crosses. Elevation towards the ball is created by flexion in the knee and an arm swing to transfer momentum upward. This movement enables the goalkeeper to approach the ball with more dynamic strength and balance while attacking the ball. The elevated knee is used to protect the goalkeeper, as well as keep the opponent away from the ball.
Boxing the Ball
Not every crossed ball into the penalty area will be caught. Goalkeepers are faced with the decision to box balls when under heavy pressure from the opponent. Boxing or punching the ball usually occurs when there is extreme pressure and congestion within the penalty area that hinders the goalkeeper’s ability to elevate safely to intercept the ball. Sometimes, boxing may occur because the goalkeeper may have initially misjudged the ball and is now scrambling to catch up to it. In either event, boxing is a skill that must be trained and utilized to win crossed balls.
- Elbows and arms are comfortably close to the body.
- Contact with the ball is made by using a short driving motion (extension of the elbow joint); not a long “roundhouse” swing.
- Wrists are firm and rigid.
- Use clenched fist(s).
- Box through the low center of the ball.
- Box for height, distance, width and accuracy.
- When in doubt, box it out!
- When the goalkeeper is moving forward towards the ball, box with two hands back in the general direction of the service.
- When moving forward toward the near post, never box across the front of the goal.
- When the ball is driven toward the far post, continue the flight of the ball in the direction of the serve by boxing one-handed (use the hand closest to the ball).
- If contact with opponent is imminent, box the ball; avoid contact when possible (less risk of injury).
- Use boxing to intimidate the opposition. Players dislike having a fist brush closely by them.
- Stance: The feet are shoulder-width apart with the knees slightly bent, and the weight is on the balls of the feet. The body is relaxed in a “training bounce” (slight bounce in place) with the arms bent around chest height.
- Open Stance: the body position of the goalkeeper is slightly more open to the field of play. This position allows for more field vision and provides an easier transition to win balls struck at the far post. This stance is primarily used to handle long services.
- Closed Stance: the body position of the goalkeeper is square to the service. Primarily used for short crosses; this allows the goalkeeper to attack balls easier struck in the front half of the goal.
Take Off Footwork
One of the primary ingredients needed for goalkeepers to win crosses. When moving towards the ball, the goalkeeper should utilize small, quick steps with the last step being longer. If the ball is being served from the left side of the goal, the goalkeepers take off should be with their left leg while elevating the right knee for protection (and vice versa if the ball is served from the right). The only exception is when the goalkeeper boxes to continue the flight of the ball. Therefore, if the ball is served from the right, the goalkeeper will take off their left leg while elevating their right knee.
Drop Step/Cross-over: These two forms of footwork are commonly used to maneuver the goalkeeper in retrieving balls played across the face of the goal. The drop-step allows the goalkeeper to adjust their body shape, while the cross-over step is used to cover ground. Typically, they are used in conjunction when handling balls played to the far post.
In establishing an effective starting position to cope with flank play, goalkeepers must consider how far they can play off their goal line, yet still protect the goal. Finding the appropriate starting position emerges through experimentation during training sessions. By seeing a number of crosses from different distances and angles, goalkeepers gain tactical awareness and knowledge that usually transcends into the game. Considering there are various crossing situations, the starting position of the goalkeeper will fluctuate depending on the position of the player with the ball. However, there are other factors that may influence the goalkeepers starting position.
The physical attributes or limitations of the goalkeeper; height, jumping ability, quickness, speed…etc.
Distance of the cross. The farther the ball is away from the goal, the goalkeeper can position themselves vertically higher off the goal line and laterally toward the middle or back third of the goal; the closer the ball is to the goal, the goalkeeper’s vertical position is nearer to the goal line and laterally toward the near post.
Depth of the cross. When the opposing player is positioned to serve the ball from the end line, the goalkeeper can adjust their vertical position further away from the goal line. Due to the reduced shooting angle, the probability of the shot is limited; therefore, the goalkeeper can look to extend their starting position. However, the goalkeeper must be cognizant of the misplayed ball that veers towards the goal.
In-swinging or out-swinging crosses. Pending on switch foot or side the ball is being served from, the goalkeeper needs to adjust their starting position accordingly. In-swinging (closer to the goal line) / Out-swinging (farther off the goal line).
Reading the angle of approach of the opposing player. Here are some tactical cues that may influence the starting position of the goalkeeper:
- If the preparation touch is diagonally towards the goal, their body position allows them to shoot, serve balls along the ground or flight balls to the far post.
- If the preparation touch is straight in front of them, they will be forced to kick across their body which hinders the power and accuracy of the cross. These crosses usually fall short or may be lofted.
- If the preparation touch is towards the sideline, the probability of this ball being served well is less; usually, this ball falls short of the near post.
Most youth goalkeepers are accustomed to handling the ordinary cross or corner-kick. These crossing situations are the most prevalent and recognizable tactical features in the youth game. At the SoccerPlus Goalkeeper School, we assist the tactical development of students by illustrating the 2-goal and 3-goal situations that occur during matches. Through demonstrations and diagrams, we provide a frame of reference to the students by making these situations more identifiable. Enhancing the tactical knowledge of the goalkeeper through training match related situations is a necessity. The goalkeeper’s ability to read the situation, position themselves correctly and make the right decision is parallel to success.
2-Goal Situation – Attacking Implications
- Short length cross; just outside the width/length of the penalty area.
- Low driven bending ball; can be an out-swinging or in-swinging serve.
- Usually, the ball is sent in early behind the defense.
- Highly congested penalty area; defenders tracking runners into the box. Primary runs are made to near and far post areas.
- Own goals often occur; defenders trying to redirect the ball away from the goal.
Guidelines to Handling the 2-Goal Situation
- Closed stance.
- Starting position is off the goal line in the front or middle part of goal.
- Take a direct path to the ball; be aggressive and brave in your approach.
- Look to win the ball in front half of the goal; intercepting or boxing.
- If holding the position, anticipate first time shots, flicks and deflections.
3-Goal Situation – Attacking Implications
- Opposing player penetrates the penalty area on the flank.
- Opposing player has an acute shooting angle; has options to cross.
- Timing runs are being made into the penalty area; near, middle and far post.
- Balls can be played hard to the near post, pulled back to the trail runner, or flighted to the far post.
- Usually, a one-touch finish is used by the striker.
Guidelines to Handling the 3-Goal Situation
- Closed set stance.
- Starting position of the goalkeeper is one step in front of the near post.
- Priority is the “first goal” (the actual goal); must protect the goal from being scored upon at the near post.
- Next priority is the “second goal” (near post to the top of the goal box). If a ball is served, can the goalkeeper intercept or deflect the pass. If the ball is unreachable, the goalkeeper must foot-work across the goal and plays the point blank shot.
- Final priority is the “third goal” (the space behind the goalkeeper). If the chipped/ flighted ball can not be intercepted or tipped out of danger, the goalkeeper must use the fastest method of foot-work to get across the goal to save the shot.
The bottom line is the game demands the goalkeeper be capable of handling crosses. Handling crosses needs to be an integral part of the goalkeepers training regimen. There is no shortcut; confidence and consistency in the goalkeeper is groomed on the training pitch.
Western Connecticut State University, Men’s Head Soccer Coach
Founder & Director, GK Soccer Training
National Director, SoccerPlus Goalkeeper School