Coach and Athletic Director

Preparing a soccer keeper strategy for a major match

Preparing a soccer keeper strategy for a major match

Dan Gaspar

Could a Designated Keeper Coach pull a rabbit out of the hat in a Japanese professional playoff?

In preparing for the Nabisco Cup Competition in Japan’s Professional Soccer League last year, the Grampus Eight team decided to hire a special coach to prepare its keeper, Y. Ito, for the semi-finals against the league’s strongest team, the Kashima Antlers. (Grampus Eight had finished fifth in the standings.)

As the special coach for Y. Ito, we started our venture with a statistical breakdown of the J. League matches. We discovered that Grampus had played the Antlers three times and compiled some alarming statistics:

Total shots: Grampus 9, Antlers 50.

Total Corners: Grampus 9, Antlers 16.

Total Goals: Grampus 0, Antlers 10.

Question: How do you repair the overwhelmed keeper’s confidence and self-esteem?

We obviously had to construct a total team plan to help narrow the huge gap between the two teams and sell our entire team on the new strategy.

Since the Antlers had more quality players, we had to compensate with superior organization. Our overall tactical preparation had to include diagrams on each third of the field, computer assessments, and video sessions that simulated the Antlers’ offensive and defensive patterns, organization, and choreographs of backs, midfielders, and strikers. Whenever possible, we had to include the goalkeeper in aspects of team training.

The data on the previous encounters between Antlers and Grampus produced the following breakdowns:

Time of Goals

* In what time segments did Antlers appear to be more dangerous?

* Was there any pattern to their attacks on our goal?

* What team and individual plays led up to their goals or dangerous scoring situations?

* Did they have different strategies for home and away games?

Offensive Free Kicks and Penalty Kick Tendencies: In assessing the free kicks (direct, indirect, kick-off, goal kicks, throw-ins, and corner kicks), we asked:

1. How can we defend more effectively against dead-ball situations?

2. On corners, do they put player in front of the keeper? How do the players move, and what kind of ball is served?

3. Since there were no penalty kicks vs Grampus, we collected this information vs other J League teams: How did they approach the ball? What was their body language before the shot and how much time did it take? Timing is important to the rhythm of the shot. From what side did they shoot the shot and what was its point of entry into the goal?

Practice time must be spent on offensive and defensive penalty kicks. We simulated the situations as close to match conditions as possible, and even brought in satellite players to simulate the Antlers’ penalty kickers.

Based on the information we gathered, Ito was required to memorize the kickers’ style and the direction of their kick shots.

Assessment of Antlers’ Defense: We charted the weakest defenders and defensive spots to determine where we would encourage Ito to distribute the ball. We also identified the opposing players who offered immediate chase, and instructed Ito to avoid short distribution to these areas.

Editing of Ito’s Saves vs Antlers: We combined Ito’s visual actions with his favorite music (“Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams) and had him review the video alone the night before the matches. Such visualization is important on match day.

Duplicate Antlers’ scoring actions in the training sessions:

1. We discovered several scoring tendencies:

For example, seven of the 10 goals scored by the Antlers involved no more than three passes, with the first pass being delivered from the Antlers’ own half of the field. As a consequence, we had many of our practice situations start with a service from midfield.

We wanted Ito to stay focused on his positioning at all times so that he was handling long balls that forced him to make decisions on where to come for the ball or wait and direct his defenders.

2. One of the Antlers’ most dangerous scorers struck the ball hard with his left foot from a considerable distance. Since we did not have a striker with such capabilities, we invited a similar athlete from a satellite team to our special training sessions – enabling Ito to work on his timing against a left-footed striker who struck the ball in the same fashion as the Antler player.

3. Ito also had given up two goals on long, hard-driven balls to the second post on his right side. We simulated all of these situations frequently in training, as goalkeepers do not see many of these long passes and long shots in practice. It is important to create some of these unique patterns in practice.

The Handling of the “Back Pass” is another crucial aspect of the defense against shots at goal. Antlers was a high-pressure team that pressed the ball all over the pitch, searching aggressively for the ball and the player. It was an intense and intimidating attitude.

This meant that our defenders would often be put under immediate pressure when they got to the wall and would thus force Ito to handle more back passes than he normally would.

At 33 years of age, keepers have difficulty handling the back pass, and since the pass-back rule is relatively new, not many of the older keepers have the play in their repertoires. The new generation of keepers is much more likely to be able to handle the ball with their feet.

Since, however, the back pass isn’t solely the keeper’s responsibility, we incorporated it into the team sessions.


Other critical factors in preparing your team and goalkeeper for a specific match or matches:

1. Training loads and intensity of practices. We had to be very cautious about this because our players already had 48 matches in their legs. The training load was a bell curve, a low-high-low training cycle that applied to the players’ physical and psychological demands. The closer you get to the match, the more the match becomes a motivating tool.

2. Communications. During training, we made sure that the communication between Ito and his defenders was clear and effective. There cannot be doubt between keeper and defenders.

We also wanted Ito to start his communication and organization process earlier; i.e., at the second line of defense. Our emphasis was on a “no shot, no goal” attitude. We wanted our defender to play with controlled aggression and team compactness, and to understand the value of shot blocking. They had to dig in and prepare for battle.

3. We had our defensive line begin at midfield and stress coordinated movements. We had to reduce the Antlers’ space and freedom in the maximum danger zones, make sudden shifts to defense, and stress a high degree of solidarity.

It was important for the keeper to know this because it affected his positioning, particularly his relation to the space behind him and the space between him and his defenders.

4. Playing on the road. Since the first match was to be played on the Antler’s field before their fanatic fans, we had to prepare Ito for a dynamic environment.

We had several members of our club and many of our fans attend our training session and sit behind the goal and keep harassing Ito. We taught Ito to establish a mind set – accept the whistles, boos, and verbalisms as compliments. His main concern had to be the ball and the actions on the pitch.

Ito had to stand taller, lend the clear impression that he wanted to be there and had come to play. We did not want him crouching as if hiding and wanting no part of the action. His body language had to express confidence and that he was going to play with powerful movements and personality.

We trained him very positively, never negatively, and made him feel important. If things did not go as planned, he would never panic.

5. Focal points. We trained Ito to control his eyes and ears. If he could be able to control what he saw and heard before and during the game, he would have a better chance to play more productively.

We got him to listen only to things that had a calming effect on him and to pick a favorite tune to play in his head.

We arrived early at the Antlers’ field and had Ito sit in the stands and select focal points for his eyes – to relieve the pressure when things got tough. The idea was to select items that were easy to spot and which could have a special meaning or calming effect on the athlete.

For example, your focal point could remind you that you had paid your dues in training and were now ready to meet any challenge.

Although we did not get through to the finals, our performance against Antlers in the Nabisco Cup competition improved dramatically. In our two games against them, we did not score but did hold Antlers to just one goal; took 17 shots to the Antlers’ 23, and had five corners to the Antlers’ six.

True, we did not score any goals, but we did create many more opportunities. We did not break through, but we were proud of our improvement. It was a tribute to the players who were sold on our tactical strategy.

We may have sacrificed our attacking willingness in order to maintain our “no shots, no goals” attitude, but we came close to achieving a major upset.

Winning had been our ultimate objective, but we were willing to accept progress as our reward.

Dan Gaspar, Star Goalkeeper Academy, S. Glastonbury, CT

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