Thinking outside the box: learning from the modern goalkeeper coach

Robert Matosevic is a goalkeeper coach pushing the boundaries of what we expect from the modern goalkeeper

Modern goalkeeping has evolved significantly in recent years, with keepers now expected to be all-rounders involved in every phase of the game – as good as their feet as they are with their hands, and, in some cases, to be good at defending in open play as they are shot-stopping!

Robert Matosevic profile pictureI first came across Robert Matosevic, the goalkeeper coach for Adelaide United’s youth team, on Twitter. He posted a video of one of his keepers passing the ball almost twenty yards outside the penalty box. I’d never seen this modern concept taken to such extremes, and so I had to know more.

As such, the following interview gives a fascinating insight into modern trends in goalkeeper coaching, and gives a glimpse into what will be the next step in the great goalkeeping revolution. It really challenged the way I thought about the position, and opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about coaching.

As Robert preaches on Twitter, it is important for football coaches to constantly be challenging the status quo – thinking, in this case quite literally, outside the box.

The Interview

How did you become a goalkeeping coach, and how did you become involved with Adelaide United?

I was getting bored playing at NPL level, after 14 odd seasons, I was seeing the same people, same challenges and it wasn’t as enjoyable playing. However, I certainly wasn’t bored with the game so coaching was a natural progression for me.

After a chance meeting with Michael Valkanis (the current AUFC NYL/NPL head coach), he gave me the opportunity to be part of the Adelaide United Elite Academy, working with the U12 and U13 age groups. For various reasons, the Academy didn’t continue beyond one season. A few years later, Michael was appointed to his current position and he asked me to be part of his coaching staff! I’ve now been part of the Adelaide United Youth Team for four years now.

Talk us through an average day as a goalkeeper coach at Adelaide United. Specifically, what goes into a ‘normal’ training session for a keeper?

A normal goalkeeper session isn’t one of routine. Things change all the time. Often, I’ll have an idea of what I would like to work on during the week. This often is related to problems in the previous game and sometimes it’s based on our next opponent and some of the situations that the goalkeepers may face.

When I know what I want to work on, I’ll speak with the head coach and find out what he has planned for the session, and I’ll try to work around it all so everything matches up.

To give a simple example, if the players are going to work on building up from the back, then there’s no point in me working on shot stopping, and so the focus may instead be on distribution.

I’m fortunate enough that there are times when the head coach, Michael Valkanis, will adapt his sessions to suit what I want to achieve. There are also times when the goalkeepers will not do any specific goalkeeper work because they will be involved in possession and positional play exercises.

In short, there is not really a “typical” session, but rather a variety of sessions.

What specific individual qualities do you look for in your keepers?

The specific quality I am looking for is having a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at their feet. Being able to retain possession at the back is a vital component of Adelaide’s game style, so this quality in a goalkeeper is really non-negotiable.

To add to that, because I’m trying to get goalkeepers to the level of the A-League, there are two other aspects I look for. First, there is character, referring to off-field behavior and secondly, personality, referring to on-field behavior.

An umbrella term for this would be the mental qualities of a goalkeeper. I don’t believe you can be mentally weak and get to a professional level as a goalkeeper.

Focusing specifically on the quality of being comfortable with the ball, how do you develop a goalkeeper’s technique in terms of their first touch and distribution?

I think it is pretty easy to work on first touch, passing and positioning.

The real difficulty is the decision-making process. In football, it is about being able to make the right pass to the right player at the right time in a game and under pressure. It can be very hard to replicate that pressure at training, not only in terms of the execution, but also in terms of the consequences – it can be difficult to create situations at training where the player fully realises what the fatal consequences are of a poor decision or execution when in possession.

Some of the ways that I try to address these things (working in isolation) is by closing the goalkeeper down when the ball is played back to them, have a moving target in order to replicate movements in a game, and, depending on the number of players and goalkeepers I have to work with, putting the goalkeeper in a position when they have to decide which player is the best option, considering that the outfield players will have also have opponents closing them down.

However, the best way I believe to develop the decision-making process is to play the goalkeeper as a centre-back in games. By doing this, this now exposes the goalkeeper to far greater pressures and decision making processes than what they would face if there were to just play in goals.  Working well outside the goalkeepers comfort zones should, in theory, enhance the development process.  

[quote align=”left” name=”Robert Matosevic”]In football, it is about being able to make the right pass to the right player at the right time in a game and under pressure[/quote]

Playing the goalkeeper as a centre-back to develop their decision-making skills on the ball seems a logical progression on the modern idea that keepers are the ’11th outfield’ player. How do you encourage your goalkeepers to play positionally in relation to this concept?

It is difficult as the goalkeeper naturally wants to be in a position to always protect the goal.

The first step is to make the goalkeeper realise that the goal does not exists when we are in possession. If they can break that defensive mindset, the concept of ‘positioning the goalkeeper as a centre-back’ becomes clearer, and easier.

The next step is applying the “level and outside” concept that we may use for a wide player to the goalkeeper. Traditionally, the goalkeeper supports play underneath or on the near side of where the ball is.

I’ve tried to look at it another way, where the goalkeeper supports on the opposite side of the goal. This means the level and outside instruction is about asking the player to “get beyond the line” of the striker, if looking at the game sideways.

The ‘positioning goalkeeper as a centre-back’ concept also comes from questioning the general idea that the goalkeeper should be in and around their 18 yard box when the team is in possession. If there is space for them to receive higher up the field, why not advance into that space?

Modern goalkeeper recognises the space to move forward
An example in-game of the Adelaide United keeper moving forward.

How do you teach a goalkeeper to move forward into a centre-back position? Is there a specific cue for when they should move into this position? And when the goalkeeper becomes a centre-back, what happens to the other centre-backs? Does one move forward into midfield?

You also talk about ‘breaking the defensive mindset’. How do you achieve this? Would it only possible to use the goalkeeper as a centre-back in a team that dominates possession to the extent that Adelaide do?

A coaching cue for the goalkeeper is ‘to be able to receive the ball as high and far forward as possible’, but this is always dependent on the position of the opposition. The cue needs to take into account questions such as how far have the opposition shifted across, how far forward have they pushed, is there still a clear passing line?

These questions, therefore, are the real cues. The goalkeeper should take a position in accordance to the answers to these questions at any point in time during a game. If they get this position right, and are able to receive the ball beyond the line of the striker, multiple advantages are created.

For example, being positioned on the opposite side of the goal allows for a better switch of play and also, this shortens the next pass the goalkeeper will have to make, whether this be into the midfield, to the full-back or into the winger.

Now we are starting to get to the real reason for this concept! If the goalkeeper makes this movement, the centre-back also needs to move somewhere. The trend that I have already noticed is that the centre-back will already be in another advantageous position to receive a pass because more often than not, the goalkeeper is moving into space when advancing forward.

In principle, the centre-back could push in to the midfield to create an overload there, or, they could open up into a full-back position. This would create a positional structure similar to what we at Adelaide have done in the past when we have played with three at the back.

This video highlights the goalkeeper moving forward into the traditional centre-back position, providing a clear passing line.  In this clip, we have one centre-back in possession, and our other centre-back is in the middle of the pitch, already in a new position to receive and progress the ball.

On this occasion the ball was switched directly to the far-side full-back. However, if the ball was played to the goalkeeper, the opposition winger now has a problem because it has become a 3v1, or an overload, on that side (including the central midfielder who would theoretically move across to support the ball).

So how do we develop this mindset? I think the best way to achieve it is through trust. This includes trust in that the goalkeeper trusts the other players not to lose possession; trust from team-mates in their goalkeeper when they play a pass into him when he is in a position to receive, and most of all, trust in the coaches (i.e. me!) that they (the coaches) will take full responsibility if something goes wrong.

It is important to note that this concept can only be used in a team that has possession as a key principle of their playing style. Otherwise, the goalkeeper can take up a more traditional and safer starting position and lump the ball up the park.

I feel it is important to point out that this is part of Adelaide United’s style. The head coaches, Michael Valkanis and Angelo Costanzo, are both forward-thinking coaches who I have discussed this with at length as to how this all works and what we are trying to achieve.

To put this into context, we are specifically talking about developing a goalkeeper who is just as good with their feet as they are with their hands, and being comfortable when in possession. It is very easy to isolate a goalkeeper and work on their first touch and distribution. However, it is often the decision-making that is the problem. All goalkeepers at elite level have the ability to pass and control the ball but they also need to be able to make the right pass and movement at the right time. That is the decision-making component.

I believe this decision-making component can be better developed in the skill acquisition phase (U9-13) of a player’s development. Generally, a goalkeeper specializes too early and plays in goals too soon, whereas I believe that even up to the ages of 14-15 a goalkeeper should spend at least some time playing as a field player. This might mean playing a young keeper as a centre back, as that position creates similar situations to what a goalkeeper might face. Importantly, playing as a CB would greatly increase the decision-making process.

The bottom line is that while there is the modern expectation that goalkeepers should be just as good with their feet as a field player is, we neglect the development of these skills when goalkeepers are taken out of the critical “golden learning” age and they focus on how to catch and dive instead.

How have your goalkeepers personally reacted to the tasks that you have set them? How important do you feel it is having role models like Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris who are comfortable with the ball at their feet?

I believe it has been easy for my goalkeepers to understand the concept I have proposed and more importantly, they have understood why we want that movement and the positional adjustments it creates. It has been a bit more difficult to implement in games because we are still talking about young players, and their general tactical knowledge is not at the level that a seasoned professional would be at.  So it has always been a “when and where” type of issue, where we are able to get the players to reflect on their traditional position, and begin to think about when they need to provide a supporting pass to the player in possession.

However, this is a continual, evolving process, and even I’m learning more and more about it as I coach to players.

I like that you bring up the point about role models because they play an important part in showing younger goalkeeper how this is done by the best in the country.  Specifically, at Adelaide United, our keepers are privileged to have Eugene Galekovic be part of the club.

Inevitably, players lose the ball in possession. How does the team deal with the moment of transition in regards to the fact that the goalkeeper is positioned high up the pitch? Does the cue to step forward to become a centre-back only exist when the opposition is defending deeper?

You have pinpointed the first common reaction to this movement of the goalkeeper, which is always “what if?”! This is the negative mindset. We are looking at it the other way by saying “why not?” It is important to challenge traditional thinking and particularly, in reference to our playing style which focuses heavily on possession. We want to have more of the ball and we want to have it positions higher up the pitch. If the goalkeeper can help us keep the ball and get it higher up the pitch, then we can start to ask questions about whether it is easier recover defensively when you lose possession 50m from goal, or 15m from goal.

The other thing that people forget is that if there is a loss of possession, the offside rule become effective. If the goalkeeper is in front of a defender, there still needs to be two players goal side when the ball is played forward!

The ultimate countermeasure to a loss of possession is immediate pressure on the ball. This may even mean the goalkeeper has to step forwards towards the ball to win it back, rather than retreat when we lose possession. Fortunately, this situation has not occurred yet, because the movement has happened at the right moment and the goalkeeper has had plenty of time and space on the ball.

Less early specialisation and more practice in the CB position is, as you have highlighted, one way of increasing the decision-making process for goalkeepers. What are other ways that the coach can introduce decision-making into the skill acquisition process in training sessions?

It is pretty simple …play games! Small games, big games, medium games – this is not just about goalkeepers, but players in general.

The traditional “run here, step there, the ball will be served here, you make this save” training method does not replicate anything what might happen in a game. A little less emphasis on the technical aspects of goalkeeping and a bit more on playing football where you are keeping possession will help in developing smarter and better goalkeepers.

I have the view if you continue to follow the same process, you will get the same results. Therefore, if we want to develop a different “type” of goalkeeper to what we have in the past, we should consider alternative development processes.

Again, I feel it’s important to state that what I’m discussing is about is a specific type of goalkeeper and one that suits the playing style of Adelaide United.

[button text=”Follow Robert on Twitter” url=””] [button text=”Follow Tim Palmer Football on Twitter” url=””]

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply