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1v1 Breakaways

Jeff Oleck

It seems like whenever I speak with goalkeepers or coaches about 1v1 goals they have given up, the common theme is "there was nothing the goalkeeper could do".  Often times, a breakaway is compared to a penalty kick and there is little expectation for the GK to make a save.
I fully disagree.
When dealing with 1v1 situations the GOALKEEPER HAS THE SAME RIGHT TO MAKE A SAVE AS THE STRIKER DOES TO SCORE A GOAL.  However, pressure is on the striker and the goalkeeper's mentality should be "try to beat me" - and in doing so the goalkeeper cannot give the striker an easy way out, or a "solution" to their problem of getting the ball in the net.
There is a lack of appreciation for goalkeepers who compose themselves and make saves in 1v1 situations.  In order to create that appreciation for the goalkeeper's actions in breakaway situations, we must first see what actually qualifies as a "good" 1v1 save AND, in turn, what are some of the common mistakes.
1) Approach
There are several intricate details within a goalkeeper's approach that we work on when training 1v1 situations - angle play, starting position, noticing striker tendencies, etc. - but specifically this section covers a goalkeeper's strategy and ability to control the situation. 
The most common tactic for goalkeepers is to rush out as fast as they can and slide through the ball before the striker can get a shot off.  This aggressive strategy can sometimes work as it cuts down the angle and can even intimidate a striker - BUT there are situations where patience and staying on your feet is actually the correct choice. 
Let's look at a situation, with MLS goalkeeper Andre Blake, when rushing out is NOT the preferred choice (scroll to 0:20 mark)
While you could argue that Kaka goes down easy, the problem from the goalkeeper's part is that Blake is out of control and hasn't assessed the situation correctly. There are three defenders in the area and Blake is by no means guaranteed the ball. For someone who is so good at explosive saves, it would make sense for Blake to stay home for this one and deal with the shot from distance. If Blake shows a little more patience, he has a much greater chance of saving the shot.
2) Timing
The second aspect of this is the reaction time of the goalkeeper.  This is less about reflexes and more about being set, although both play an important role.  The previous point, looking at the approach of a goalkeeper, is centered around the mental game plan while this is referring to the physical preparation.  Sometimes 1v1 saves incorporate both of these aspects.  Sometimes only one, depending on the situation.  
One of the easiest goalkeepers to beat is a moving goalkeeper. If they're carelessly charging forward there are a variety of options for a striker to put the ball in the back of the net.  A good example of this can be found in MLS goalkeeper Josh Saunders' first two conceded goals against New York Red Bulls last year.  
See photos below:
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In this picture (above), Saunders is caught out-of-rhythm on the play.  The shot is taken as he moves forward, vertically, leaving him unbalanced and narrow.  While he is cutting down the angle by moving forward, he is doing so at the risk of not being able to move horizontally (side-to-side).  He never gets set and instead ends up waving at a shot that isn't that far from his body.  
As he is moving forward, he is alternating his weight on each step.  This is OK as long as he is reading the rhythm of the shooter and there is a final set position that evenly distributes his weight so he can step, fall, or dive either direction.  Instead, you can see the shot is taken as Saunders is stepping forward with his left foot, which is why that leg ends up awkwardly in the air.  If he limits his last step and gets set, he can make the save.
Inline image 1
This photo (above) is not a 1v1 situation, but it shows the problem of not being "set" or in rhythm with the shot.  The header is struck from about 8 yards away from goal, but the photo is taken when Saunders finally gets set and balanced  By that time, the ball (looks like a blurry white dot near the white line) is 3-4 yds from goal and Saunders can't move to react in time.
To clarify, there are times to sprint to attack the ball.  If the striker is out of control or is close enough to goal, a goalkeeper needs to attack the ball. But there are also situations when a goalkeeper needs to stay on his feet. An incorrect, aggressive sprint at the ball can cause two problems:
  • The goalkeeper will put themselves in a bad situation that can lead to a penalty kick, a chip shot that easily trickles in, or a savvy striker will simply touch around the diving GK to shoot on an empty net. The movement needs to control the situation as much as possible, not result in conceding ground or giving an "easy" solution to the striker.
  • The excessive movement negates reactions and turns the goalkeeper into a moving wall. If the ball is not struck into the GKs body, the goalkeeper cannot extend out to make the save in time because he is moving so much.
3) Body Shape
Goalkeeper body shape when dealing with 1v1 situations has undergone quite an evolution in the last 10-15 years.  Traditionally, most goalkeepers handled almost every 1v1 situation the same way: with a hands-first dive, in an attempt to smother, block, or claim the ball off the foot of an attacker. This can still be an effective technique when the attacker has taken a poor touch and the ball is there to be won; but when facing a composed opponent with the ball under control, it presents a very low barrier to the attacker, one which good players have little difficulty beating with a simple dink or chip.  It also carries the significant risk of giving away a penalty if the goalkeeper fails to get a touch on the ball.  The chief drawback is that it commits the goalkeeper to a single course of action, with no possibility to adjust, should the attacker take an extra touch or change direction.
Traditional 1v1 Technique photo...
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In the 2000s, a generation of Spanish and Portuguese goalkeepers began popularizing a new way to handle 1v1s. The goalkeeper stays on their feet, advancing with small but fast steps, keeping the upper body upright while dropping the lower body close to the ground, with the hands in a blocking position to either side of the body. This technique, which originated in futsal, goes by various names, but I call it the "Screen" technique.  
The Screen Technique's two main advantages over the hands-first slide are that it presents a physically larger barrier to the attacker, and it gives the goalkeeper a chance to keep adjusting and improvising in the event the attacker tries to dribble, or the situation changes. By dropping the lower body but keeping the upper body upright, you take away the option of the easy chip/dink finish.
Screen Technique photo...
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A technique which keeps you on your feet also makes it far less likely you will give away a penalty, since there is no single ‘all or nothing’ moment of commitment, as there is with the hands-first slide.  A goalkeeper who can use their feet to close space with the attacker, but keep enough distance between them to be an effective barrier and be able to react to a shot, all while remaining upright, is going to have an excellent success rate with 1v1s.
Inline image 9
Here's a video of MLS goalkeeper Steve Clark using the "screen" technique this past March:
Clark does a great job of avoiding any of the three common mistakes listed earlier. He reads the play well, seeing the striker is not going to hit it first time and will instead take a lengthy windup.  Clark's movement is quick and in time with the shot.  If the shooter is looking to round Clark or lay off, Clark can adjust as need be.  The situation is set up well for the goalkeeper to come straight at the ball and Clark makes the correct save on the play.
Most goals that are scored on a goalkeeper should be the ones they can do nothing about.  For example, the GK can be outnumbered in a counter, the defense can give up possession in poor territory, a striker can make a phenomenal shot.  The examples go on and on.  But in the realm of breakaway situations, goalkeepers are actually empowered a great deal.  It truly is a 1v1 and both sides have their chance of executing their task.  The goalkeeper actually has the benefit of not needing to make a save.  They can force the shooter wide to a poor shooting angle, or delay the striker to give time for defenders to recover.
Every situation is different but for the most part, high-level goalkeepers should make more saves than conceding goals in 1v1 situations.
Thanks for reading and feel free to email me with any questions!
Coach O.