The Unique (and Not so Unique) Challenges of Goalkeeping in Women's Soccer

By Paul Riley | November 16, 2018

The Unique (and Not so Unique) Challenges of Goalkeeping in Women's Soccer

The first professional women’s match I attended in person was the 2010/11 Champions League Final between Lyon and Turbine Potsdam.

A few rows in front sat Trevor Brooking and Michel Platini.

Yeah, I didn’t slum it for my first game.

It was a great match with the technical French side winning 2-0 against the more physical Germans. Three things stood out. Firstly, Potsdam No 10 Fatmire Bajramaj, still one of the best technical players I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Secondly, Lyon substitute Lara Dickenmann’s half-time warm up that would’ve given a Ronaldinho trick show a run for its money. And lastly, but not erm, leastly, Sarah Bouhaddi, Lyon’s goalkeeper.

Man, was she good.

She effortlessly plucked every cross out of the air and was comfortable with the ball at her feet. Bouhaddi made a Champions League Final look like a training session. The last professional women’s match I attended in person was last week’s FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) game between West Ham and Chelsea. The Irons’ keeper Becky Spencer was given player of the match and certainly deserved it having made three great saves in the first half alone. Watch them here.

It’s all a little bit odd as every time I speak to any male friends (who barely watch women’s football) they immediately raise the state of the goalkeeping as being terrible…

The guys at Statsbomb have started collecting data on the FAWSL and the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States this year. Now, the data set is still waaaaay too small to conclude anything but imagine my delight on discovering that so far, when you lay a shooting model from the professional men’s’ game over the women’s data, the goalkeepers in women’s football are performing better than their male counterparts. They’re breaking the model.

As the data gets gathered I felt it was a nice time to get some views from within the game itself. Andy Elleray is goalkeeping coach at Birmingham City Women and is England Women’s Youth International goalkeeping coach too. Do his coaching sessions for women look different to ones he coaches for men? What differences must be accounted for?

“The sessions don’t look amazingly different to be honest,” says Elleray. “It’s all based around the keepers you’re working with and the way the club wants them to play. In terms of attributes, female keepers are not as powerful so lots of work is done on jumping mechanics, speed to cover the goal and defend the area. Distribution is a big area for us and the goalkeepers must be able to play with variation - especially in our half of the pitch. The length that females can strike a ball is more often than not shorter than males so we look for our goalkeepers to play what we call PACE (positively, accurately, consistently and effectively) rather than rely on hitting areas and turning the opposition defence."

The data collected so far backs these statements up. Only Sophie Baggaley at Bristol City and Megan Walsh at Yeovil relentlessly go long. Here’s what Birmingham keeper Ann-Katrin Berger’s distribution looks like:

“With the role of the goalkeeper ever evolving I can see more statistics based around distribution,” says Elleray. “I have developed my own distribution analysis that I use at various points to assess how well we are retaining the ball or penetrating the opposition.”

Lloyd Yaxley, goalkeeping coach at NWSL club Orlando Pride is in agreement. “I think there will definitely be statistical differences between the men's and women's data.  With distribution, the male goalkeepers’ range of passing is for the most part significantly longer than in the women's game. I think if you were to take something as simple as a long goal kick and compare the average length of a Major League Soccer goalkeeper to a NWSL goalkeeper there would probably be at least a 15-20 yard difference.”

Despite this, Yaxley states that like Elleray, his sessions for men and women don’t look that different. “I try and keep my philosophies towards the role of the goalkeeper as set as I can and how I want my goalkeepers to perform wouldn't change all that much. I would want them to be aggressive in certain situations and then in other areas less aggressive and maybe play deeper in their goal. With shot stopping I like my goalkeepers to be deeper so to allow for more reaction time - especially when there are a lot of bodies in front - this I would keep the same for males and females.”

Yaxley thinks having the ability to parry into safe areas is a significant attribute to have and is working to bring this to the women’s game as standards continually rise. “Men are used to the ball being struck at greater pace and therefore with greater movement too. We work on this with the Pride goalkeepers - especially if it’s a reaction exercise or I connect with a strike really well then we look at manipulating the body to best control the rebound. For example, when the ball is struck at pace and straight at you, rotating wrists and leaning with the shoulders late forces the ball into a wide area. If the lean of the shoulders comes too early, the control of where the ball ends up is often lost.”

How much does data influence training at present?

“I don’t really use data on a daily basis, but the higher you go at international level there is lots of work done on goalkeeper specific stats throughout the teams to analyse, review and compare keepers,” says Elleray. “I have written lots of research on goalkeepers from various view points and am a massive advocate of using video analysis throughout the coaching process. Recently there has been clubs using GPS data to measure goalkeeper training load and different types of movements and this is an area that I will be moving more towards. At any turn statistics should be used to aid the process not take it over."

Yaxley uses numbers in a different way.

“The main data I analyse is where the opposition is shooting from and scoring from and on the flip side, where we are conceding shots from and conceding goal from. We look at opposition trends and their style of play, danger players’ traits - do they like to cut in from the left and shoot with their right, are they getting to the line and cutting it back, for example. That will all help shape my focus for the weeks training.”

The level of detail StatsBomb collects at goalkeeping level now would aid such a process, and enable quicker analysis of your own players too. You’ve all seen the shot maps on site by now but there’s some cool new stuff deeper under the hood:

We’ve never been able to dive down and get dirty to this degree until now. As one keeping coach I follow on twitter is fond of saying…I’m #alloverit   Header image courtesy of the Press Association