Selsport 2013/14

Monday, August 31, 2015

Don't Judge Keepers Based on the World Cup

World Cups have traditionally been the favored venue for slating goalkeepers. South Africa 2010 saw the usually bevy of 'Goalkeeper Calamity' headlines, with Robert Green taking center stage, and the much-maligned adidas Jabulani ball baffling more than a few other keepers along the way. Goalkeeping catastrophes are great for clickbait and column inches, so it was slightly surprising when goalkeepers turned out to be among the most feted players of Brazil 2014. Keylor Navas of Costa Rica, Tim Howard of the USA, Rais M'Bolhi of Algeria, Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico, Claudio Bravo of Chile, and Vincent Enyeama of Nigeria all turned in Man of the Match performances, and that's before we even get to proven quantities such as Manuel Neuer and Thibault Courtois.

But playing well in a World Cup is not the same as consistently playing well at club level. There are a few reasons for this, but the most salient is that the World Cup is merely a handful of games, and a handful games is often not enough to expose a keeper's weaknesses, be they technical or mental. By the same token, the small number of games can mean that one mistake takes on disproportionate weight. If you judge Rob Green on that one error against the USA, you're ignoring the years of solid duty he's given his clubs.

If a keeper is weak on crosses, say, or poor with his feet, he may just be fortunate enough not to be tested too much in these areas in three, four, or up to seven games. Rest assured, though, over the course of a ten-month league campaign, he will. In fact, once a keeper struggles in an area of his game, opponents will go out of their way to target it. There is no hiding a weakness in the modern game.

The World Cup also tends to be played in a style that many keepers find comfortable: a slower pace (because of heat?) and less physical (fear of suspension from yellow card accumulation?). There are also games at World Cups where neither side is particularly worried about winning, such as when the top two teams in a group meet, with both already assured of advancing, or the flip side, with two teams already eliminated.

In the US, Tim Howard enjoyed breakthrough, mainstream popularity after his 16-save performance against Belgium, but his performances for Everton the following season were below the standards he had set for himself. Memo Ochoa and Keylor Navas, meanwhile, barely played a league game between them, although Navas will now get his chance with Manchester United, while Rais M'Bolhi signing with Philadelphia of MLS is now seen as one of the bigger disasters in the club's short history. It is easy to see how a club can be dazzled by a strong game or two in a World Cup, but apparently nobody in Philadelphia took notice that M'Bolhi, by age 28, had been at nearly a dozen clubs and had made as many as thirty appearances for none of them.

Neuer and Courtois, on the other hand, have only furthered their reputations since Brazil, and Enyeama continues to be a strong if under-appreciated performer, but their reputations are based on a large body of work across multiple competitions, in every type of weather imaginable, with titles and trophies and relegation battles on the line. League and Champions League play are where goalkeepers make their living, and they're the best place to judge them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Revolution of One

My piece over at The Set Pieces, in which I argue Manuel Neuer is not really revolutionizing goalkeeping....he's too good for that.

Read it here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

How David De Gea Does What He Does

We've all seen the saves David De Gea can make. I took a look at some video to see what - apart from blinding reflexes and natural agility - makes him so special.

The video tool I use is called Coach's Eye. I recommend it.

Start with a recent save, in the FA Cup loss to Arsenal:

And from last season, the save from Luis Suarez:

Any questions or comments, let me know here or on twitter. Thanks for watching!

Monday, August 18, 2014

What You Eat Matters

At our goalkeeper camp at NC State this summer, our team nutritionist gave a 45-minute presentation on the benefits of a healthy diet for top-level athletes. While sports nutrition is a dynamic and evolving science, the basics have been known for some time: eat a balanced diet of proteins, carbs, and fats; try to limit sugar and processed foods; vegetables are your friend, etc.

I noticed that the more serious and dedicated goalkeepers in attendance - also the more talented ones - asked questions and took notes. Others treated the classroom session with barely concealed impatience. Among them, the common refrain was, "I know I should eat better, but does it really matter? I'm young."

Yes. Young or old, it matters.

Granted, you can get away with a lot more dietary indiscretions when you're young. But that doesn't mean you won't still pay a price for a poor diet. I have always maintained that goalkeepers' energy needs for a match are just as critical as outfield players, despite the fact that we obviously do far less running. In our case, we have to concentrate a great deal more, and concentration is impossible without energy. When I was playing ten p.m. games in New York in recent years, I sometimes found myself hungry in the second half. That's not good. In addition to the loss of energy and explosiveness that comes with low blood sugar, it's never good for your concentration to be thinking about food as the game rages around you. To solve this problem, I adjusted my schedule, ate a later dinner, often had a banana or bagel right before kickoff, and supplemented this with energy gels or chews at halftime. It did not guarantee better performances, but since there are many things out of our control in goalkeeping, it only makes sense to take care of things that we can control.

These days, as a fulltime coach, my energy levels are even more critical. My goalkeepers and players depend on me to be engaged, dynamic, and active in my coaching. In some goalkeeper sessions, I might serve hundreds of balls, demonstrate a new or complex drill, or act as an attacking player in a match-related training activity. I'm on my feet for hours at a time, in sweltering summer heat and humidity or bone-cracking winter cold. This takes good fuel, especially at my age.

Not really a performance food

Until last year, my diet was pretty poor. I was lean and in good shape because I don't have a huge appetite and I love the gym, but I was putting junk into my body every day, in the form of sodas, fried foods, and processed, sugary treats. I've always had a sweet tooth, and assumed it would be brutally hard to change my diet, but it really wasn't. Once I finally made the decision - more about that it a moment - it was simply a matter of replacing bad things with healthy things I liked. Luckily, it turned out I like spinach and kale, so I began replacing my pizza and burger lunches with grilled chicken salads. I switched from sodas to green tea sweetened with honey - still a little sugary, but exponentially better than soda - and replaced my late-night ice cream snacks with a Kashi Organic Cinnamon cereal. My pre-training, quick energy snack is an organic peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich, and I have a chocolate milk right after, for recovery.

I made the decision to change my diet because, for the first time in my life, I noticed a slight increase in body fat. That is to say, I actually had body fat for the first time in my life. There wasn't much, but I didn't like it, and knew it indicated that my metabolism was, at long last, slowing down. 

I also have to think beyond athletics and toward the issue of general health. Even the best diet is no guarantee against cancer, heart disease, or other serious illnesses and conditions, but it's the single best thing you can do to tilt the odds in your favor. This, again, is something young athletes likely don't concern themselves with, and I understand that. But I have noticed several things that have definitely helped my athletic performance, and would apply to an athlete of any age.

You'll learn to love it - or at least tolerate it

The first is that I sleep much better since cutting out caffeine. I've gone from three or four sodas a day to, at most, one per week. I no longer bolt awake in the middle of the night, jittery and nervous, as I did regularly for years. Better, more restful sleep means I'm rising more refreshed and energetic, and also earlier. Not long ago, I needed at least eight hours of sleep, and would often go as long as ten. Now, seven feels just right.

I also have more energy now. This is not surprising, since I used to fill up on foods high in fat and simple sugars, both of which increase inflammation and interfere with the various processes involved in turning food into readily available energy. Related to both more energy and better sleep, I no longer feel like I need an afternoon nap. Even when my schedule allows for it, I rarely bother with what was once a necessity.

Finally, I no longer feel like a hypocrite. For years, I have preached the value of good nutrition to my players, then gone home and inhaled a pint of Ben & Jerry's. I always justified it by pointing to my general fitness levels and gym work, but I knew it was a poor excuse. A coach has a responsibility to set the example for his players. You either embrace that responsibility or shirk it. It feels good to finally be on the right side.

I stress that I am not a nutrition expert, and nobody should take specific instruction from me about what to eat. I simply have had the benefit of working with professional nutritionists and sports performance coaches. There are hundreds of great, reputable sources online, for anyone needing a little guidance. I will say only this: if you know you need to make a change, but think it will be too hard, just try it for one day. You'll be surprised how fast your taste buds adapt to a new diet. I get the same satisfaction from my grilled chicken salads now as I did from the double cheeseburger tray from CookOut a few months ago. And most experts agree that you should build 'cheat days' into your week, so you don't feel like you're punishing yourself.

If any of you have your own stories, recipes, or favorite foods, I'd love to hear about it in the comments, or on twitter. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Iker Casillas Is Not Finished....

....but he has a lot of work to do.

A hero to millions, and winner of the proverbial 'everything there is to win,' Iker Casillas saw his reputation take a double knock in recent months, first with a blunder in the Champions League Final, then with two entirely unconvincing displays at the World Cup. Spain slumped home, the defending champions out t the group stage, and Casillas came in for a large share of the blame. And it wasn't just these latest blunders that had people wondering. A pair of Real Madrid managers, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, have both preferred Diego Lopez in recent seasons. Clearly, 'San Iker' has been on the wane for some time. It's natural for athletes to decline with age. Nobody stays on top forever, and Casillas has been playing on the grandest stages since the late nineties.

But...he only just turned 33 last month. An age-induced decline really should not be happening now. What else could it be?

There's an old saying about cars: it's not the age, it's the mileage. Casillas has been performing at the top for a very, very long time now. He is approaching 500 appearances for Madrid, and ticked past a century and a half for Spain just prior to the World Cup. He has also, in that time, won a ridiculous array of trophies for both club and country. It would be fair to ask if his motivation may have waned, both to prove himself (which he will rightly feel he did long ago) or to win trophies. Goalkeeping is a very unforgiving position. Lose focus or drive even momentarily, and things will go bad in a hurry.

Casillas has always played a relatively low-risk style, preferring to stay on his line more often than not and rely on his outstanding reflexes and footwork. It's notable that some of his recent errors have come from him coming off his line ill-advisedly, as in the Champions League Final or for Robin van Persie's absurd flying header. There is a natural temptation, perhaps even for a decorated pro, to try to do a little more when you've been questioned, doubted, or dropped.

Iker Casillas doesn't need advice from me or anyone else, but he does need to get back to what he does best: playing the angles and making saves. The hard part will be finding the motivation for this career second act. For a player who enjoyed nothing but success and adulation, it surely can't be easy to be in this position now. There must be a temptation to shrug, point to his collection of medals, and insist there is no problem. But that's not going to get him back into the Madrid first team.

Edwin Van der Sar went through a similar mid/late career slump, which saw him bustled out of Juventus to Fulham, where he performed only adequately. To his credit, he recognized the massive opportunity presented him by Sir Alex Ferguson, and excelled during his time at Manchester United. His motivation would have been simple to find: a second chance at glory, success, and trophies.

Faryd Mondragon just played in the World Cup for Colombia at age 43. There is no physical reason Casillas can't go on for close to another decade; it's just a matter of his motivation.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ball Moves - Deal With It

Hakan Calhanoglu of Hamburg did this on Saturday:

How does a goalkeeper as talented and experienced as Roman Weidenfeller get beat from 40 yards - with the ball hitting not the extreme top corner, but a part of goal you'd expect a top-class keeper to reach?

Because the ball moved. A lot.

On first and even second viewing, I thought Weidenfeller was guilty of being flat-footed. And, technically, he is. But still images make it easy to understand why.

This picture (click to enlarge) shows that halfway to goal, the ball has traveled on a straight line, from Hakan's foot toward Weidenfeller in the middle of goal. It has no spin, so it isn't bending predictably to the keeper's right. It is flying straight at him.

What this picture doesn't show, but action replays do, is that the ball is also traveling in a severe arc. So not only does it look to Weidenfeller that the ball is coming straight down the middle of goal, it probably also looks to be going over the bar at this point.

Now look where the ball ends up, compared to its original line of flight.

A late swerve of a full six feet to the left, coupled with a vicious downward dip, leaves Weidenfeller helpless, despite his best efforts.

The lack of spin, of course, explains why the ball swerves and knuckles so deviously. If you'd like a scientific explanation of why this happens, you can read it here.

This free kick, effectively, is like a deflection. The keeper is set and tracking a shot going to one place (middle of the goal), only for it deviate to another late in its flight. It's irrelevant how far away Calhanoglu was when he struck the ball; all that matters is the time Weidenfeller had to react when it deviated from its original course.

So how to deal with these situations?

Footwork is key. If we're going to be at all critical of Weidenfeller here, we might look again at the first picture. There's a clue there:

We can see that he has got into a set position with his feet significantly wider than the width of his shoulders. When you split your feet this far apart, it consumes precious fractions of a second to get your center of gravity and weight to the outside of your foot, which is where you need it to be to dive. It also means he has to dive without the benefit of a couple of quick, small shuffle steps, limiting his range.

Ideally, in training we reinforce our set position and footwork hundreds of times. Still, we have these reactions in games. Splitting the feet wide is a natural response when we feel we need to brace ourselves for powerful shots struck right at us. The problem comes when it turns out they're not right at us.

I'll say again that because of ball movement, long-range shots demand much the same from keepers as deflections. Training for one, therefore, is useful for the other. Activities incorporating redirected shots, an unsighted keeper, or using balls designed to move unpredictably like the Responseball can all help.

We also must understand that you have to keep 'fighting' a moving ball throughout its flight. Dealing with a shot that moves like this demands multiple technical adjustments in our footwork and body shape, but just as importantly, it demands competitiveness. You have to be simply unwilling to be beaten, and do anything you can to prevent it. You have to also accept that these shots will always be much harder to deal with than your coaches, fans, and teammates may understand. It's just another challenging part of the special job we do.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Do Goalkeepers Stop Improving?

I recently took part in a three-day goalkeeper camp for boys and girls aged 14-17. The players worked hard, listened intently, asked questions, and in some cases, displayed real potential. The only concerning aspect of it is that several of the kids had been at the same camp back in July, and had not improved.

They were all much better than this guy, though

Now I wouldn't expect extraordinary improvement in just under six months, but 14-17 is a prime developmental period for goalkeepers. Some of the coaching points I made were very basic, and I'd made them multiple times back in July, but many of the goalkeepers still struggled. I'm not talked about advanced concepts; I mean basics like stance, posture, balance. So why weren't they getting it right?

Is it coaching? It could be. I'm not the world's best coach, but I'm not taking the blame for this one. I had these kids for a few sessions six months ago, and hadn't seen them since. The most likely answer is that in the intervening time, they simply hadn't had proper goalkeeper coaching, and slipped back into bad habits. Kids tend to focus just on stopping the ball, rather than worrying about technique. This is good in some ways, but not so good if the proper technique is not yet ingrained. There still aren't that many qualified goalkeeper coaches around. Most players have to make do without one.

But there are goalkeepers who DO get proper coaching, and still struggle with technique. Obviously, everybody has a talent ceiling. Some keepers are simply never going to have the athleticism or coordination to make a blinding top-had save or ping a side volley 60 yards. What's important, for serious young players at least, is maxing out whatever talent they do have. What I'm seeing is young goalkeepers who want to be excellent, and have decided that things like hand position and footwork 'don't matter.' What matters is spectacular saves. Fair enough; but my job as a coach is to make them understand that you need the stance, the footwork, the hand position to be right before you can consistently make those saves.

Coaching or not, goalkeepers who want to continue improving have to train. They have to play. This is the problem with organized soccer in the U.S, and increasingly in Britain. Everybody plays year-round, but only in an organized setting. That amounts to only a few hours a week. You've simply got to play more than that if you want to be truly good. You've got to play a frankly unreasonable amount, much more than the organized structure allows for, in parks and streets, in pickup games with your friends or neighbors of whoever you can convince to play. I built a pitch in my back yard when I was 12. We played on it so much that we churned away every last blade of grass, and soon nicknamed it the Dust Bowl.
It wasn't quite this bad

This is such a basic idea - train hard and you'll get better - that it seems silly to write a post about it. But it contradicts what has become the accepted model of improvement in the US: spend more and you'll get better. Parents send their kids to camps, pay for private training sessions, and buy them gloves and equipment. None of that is bad. But if the player isn't playing and training on his own or with their friends in between these financed sessions, he's not going to get much better, no matter who the coach is.