Goalkeepers. An exotic breed, common across the world, lesser spotted in TV studios across the United Kingdom.
Though these creatures are easily recognisable, usually by their distinct jerseys and padded hands, we know little about them.
We have studied, analysed, obsessed over every position on a football pitch. Social media is the latest revolutionary advancement towards delving deeper than ever before to explore the footballing world.
Every smirk, interaction, muscle twitch and screenshot poured over like a scientist engrossed in their laboratory.
The world is teeming with explorers, some with a penchant for stats, their machines and gizmos able to calculate how many goals should have been scored in a parallel universe where football obeys the script.
Others are in it for the showbiz, the gossip, the soap storylines, the ‘what colour is Paul Pogba’s hair now?’ jaw-droppers, the ‘REVEALED: This player unfollowed this player on Instagram which DEFINITELY means THIS THING’ bombshells.
We even have BT Sport holding Peter Walton in captivity to give us the referee’s perspective on proceedings during all their games.
Football analysis is 24-7 – it is relentless – yet for all the strides forward we appear to have made, the humble goalkeeper remains a species largely untapped by the masses. They’re an eleventh of the teams we know and love, but their work remains hidden in plain sight.
Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea is having a hard time of late, numerous blatant errors having led to numerous unnecessary goals against his side.
The Spanish superstar dropped two further clangers at the at the weekend, during an FA Cup semi final tie with Chelsea, and his errors were ultimately the cause of United’s exit from the tournament.
The thing is, I know he made the mistakes – what I want to know is, why is he making these mistakes? What about his technique has changed so radically that a one-time greatest goalkeeper in the world contender is now the prime joke figure among the Twitter #lads?
The BBC viewing platform for the game was populated by striker Gary Lineker, striker Alan Shearer, defender Ashley Cole, midfielder Phil Neville all worthy scholars in their fields, none educated in the art of goalkeeping, therefore, to put it bluntly, none able to comment on the biggest moments of a game watched by 7.3m people across the nation.
Modern TV football punditry is the equivalent to asking a biologist to provide a exposition of complex chemical compounds, a physicist to find the COVID-19 vaccine. Each an intelligent, credible source of research and thought in their own field, each able to pass vague comment on overlapping principles, but they are not experts.
The striker knows how to defeat the goalkeeper, not how the goalkeeper intends to defeat him.
This is not a tear-down of all pundits, they can only answer the questions they are asked, though unfortunately that usually leads us down the narrative path as opposed to a learning exercise.
De Gea’s mistakes don’t lead to an assessment of what went wrong or how he can improve his game, they lead to ‘who can replace him? Oh, Dean Henderson is arbitrarily playing well at Sheffield United on loan from Manchester United, maybe he’ll do the job.’
I want to know what has caused De Gea, formerly the world’s finest, to lose all sense of what it feels like to possess arms. I want to know the mechanics behind De Gea’s movements, his thought processes as Mason Mount bears down on goal, gun cocked, hammer drawing back, trigger ready to be pulled. I want to know the positions, the angles, the techniques De Gea must improve on, not another tedious ‘it’s a bad mistake, get in the bin’ assessment.
The same goes for Jordan Pickford. Many have entirely written off the Everton keeper, the man who had a nation dancing on tables and launching brewery-loads to the heavens, based on his errors this season.
He has made them, we’ve all seen them, but I want to know what, precisely, he is doing wrong, because the truth is, I don’t. Very few of us do.
And yet, countless social media banter merchants and members of the media hunting for angles have already turned to Nick Pope, the previously-mentioned Henderson, even 34-year-old long-term injury absentee Tom Heaton to all replace Pickford as England’s Number 1 goalkeeper.
That’s a bold conclusion to reach without being able to pinpoint specific attributes that go for or against each skilled, talented professional athlete. Essentially, we need the data to back up our rash conclusions, otherwise punditry will be further distilled down to controversial and/or prophetic statements as opposed to genuine analysis.
Goalkeeping is currently boiled down to a simple ‘good save’ or ‘bad mistake’ binary call based on whether the ball is placed toward the stopper’s near or far post. Score at the goalkeeper’s near post, it’s declared a mistake regardless of other variables that former outfield pundits simply can’t – and shouldn’t be expected to – observe.
Without Sky Sports, BT Sport, BBC and every other broadcaster investigating the potential for greater awareness of goalkeepers, their habits, their skills, their work, we’re never going to learn more about them. Goalkeepers will remain a mysterious breed so long as we don’t call in the experts to observe them.