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Goalkeeper Positioning in Thirds of the Field

Jeff Oleck - August 29, 2017

As we often discuss in training, the role of the goalkeeper continues to evolve to require more of the position than just stopping shots.  Strong emphasis is placed on not only keeping the ball out of the net, but also the ability of the goalkeeper to distribute the ball consistently and effectively to his/her teammates, to communicate assertively to minimize threats, and to read the game as it changes and develops.
Much discussion has surrounded German (Bayern Munich) goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer and his role as the "sweeper keeper".  While he is an extreme example, many lessons can be learned from his positioning in/around the penalty box and how it helps him to disrupt opponent's attacking play.  To see how much time he spends outside his box and not just stopping shots, take a look at this heat map image from Germany vs. Algeria match played in the 2014 FIFA World Cup:
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The physical positioning of the goalkeeper is a key element to being able to distribute and combine with teammates as well as an important factor in how effectively he/she can read and react to the developing play of the opponent.
Below, you can see a picture which displays guidelines for goalkeeper positioning as it relates to the "thirds" of the field.  We discuss the field of play in thirds because it helps us to understand the relative threats on goal as well as the outfield player's priorities in possession and defense.

In the Attacking Third (Green Zone) - You should be at the top or outside of your box, at a minimum.  In this position you can walk around communicate effectively with your back line, read the play as it develops and as the ball moves left/right/forward/backward, and mentally prepare yourself for the ball to move into the Middle Third.  Be very mindful of the amount of defensive pressure on the ball, because when there is no pressure on the ball the attacker can look up and try to exploit the space behind your back line.  If a ball is played behind your back line from this zone, you should make a decision whether to sprint out and clear the ball, or retreat to the box if you cannot reach it in time.
​In the Middle Third (Yellow Zone)​ - you should be in the middle area of your penalty box.  From this position you are ready to sprint forward to a through ball at the edge of the box or retreat if the opponent builds play into the Defensive Third.  Your movement in this zone is more like a goalkeeper: shuffling with a high level of awareness, head/eyes checking side to side and reading movement of opponents, weight on the balls of the feet and energy in the body.  In this zone you are constantly talking to your teammates and trying to force the opponent into less dangerous areas of the field (i.e. wide and away from your goal).   If a ball is played behind your back line from this zone, you should make a decision whether to sprint out and clear the ball, or retreat to the box if you cannot reach it in time.
In the Defensive Third (Red Zone) - you are on the ball line and angle arc at all times (the only exception will be crossing).  If you want a reminder on Angle Play/Ball Line, read this archived blog article:  Adjustments in positioning are made constantly as the ball moves around the penalty box or wide into the flanks.  You should communicate urgently with your teammates to mark up and stay with runners, but you need to also remain calm and composed.  Anticipate the player's intentions and be ready to deal with a shot, cross, through ball, pass, dribble, etc.
COACH'S TRAINING TIP:  To assist your goalkeeper in their positioning and connection to the team in the thirds of the field, place cones/markers on the playing field and a corresponding cone in/around your goalkeeper's penalty box to mark these positional areas.  For example, if you are playing a scrimmage - put a yellow cone at midfield and a yellow cone around the penalty spot.  When the ball is around the yellow midfield cone, the goalkeeper knows he/she should be at the yellow GK cone.
I encourage all our goalkeepers to read and understand these guidelines and begin to implement them in their team training and game environment.  Physical connection with your team and especially your back line is critical in disrupting opponent's attacks as well as communicating effectively with your teammates.
Be the 11th player on the field - not just the shot stopper!
Go Storm!
- Coach O.