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Four Build-Up Options Using Your GK

Updated: May 12, 2022

It’s crazy to think that only ten years ago, many coaches were quite happy if their goalkeeper had the ability to simply keep the ball out of the back of the net and either distribute to the nearest teammate in possession or kick it as far away from the goal as possible. The game today however, has evolved to such a level that goalkeepers are now becoming key components of build-up play and decision-making in-possession is right up there with judging situations with crosses or through-balls. And if that wasn’t difficult enough for goalkeepers, build-ups have to become more varied with pressing systems and scouting able to read patterns and anticipate tendencies sometimes with only one game notice. Almost every situation is subject to change and the goalkeeper must assess every situation at game speed, knowing that one small mistake will lead to a goal and a huge amount of scrutiny. I typically leave the goalkeeping to the experts and we have had some excellent coaches on MSC in the past with Rade Taskanovic, Lloyd Yaxley, Sergio Gonzalez and Nathan Thackery all delivering excellent presentations during the 2020 lockdown (which you can access here). In this article however, I wanted to look at some ways that goalkeepers can be utilized in the build and help create attacking situations higher up the pitch, specifically playing out of a back four. Like most articles I write here, I have been inspired by different trends and ideas that I have seen in recent months of analyzing games, so below are four concepts that I've taken away.

The Diamond

This is a pretty common shape that we see nowadays for teams with a back four creating a diamond with their goalkeeper, two center backs and one holding midfielder. The advantages of this shape is that it allows you to break-out if you have two pressing forwards, with a pass from goalkeeper to holding midfielder splitting the press and allowing the build to advance. It also gives your full-backs a license to position themselves higher up the pitch. If the opponents commit another player to the press, which happens in the clip below from the New England Revolution, the holding midfielder can play on the weak-side of the pressing midfielder and receive on the half-turn, to play forward and turn build into attack. This may look routine and straightforward from the goalkeeper but the weight of the pass and timing are crucial here because there is almost two lines of pressure that you are trying to manipulate and, with the center backs split, the margins for error are extremely small.

The Back Three

In this scenario, the center backs drop alongside the goalkeeper to create a row of three players across the six-yard box. This situation draws an aggressive press centrally from the opposition and again allows you to advance your full-backs, which Chicago do in the clip below. However, rather than opting for possession as the tool to break the press, Chicago use their goalkeeper’s range of passing to help solve this with a long, diagonal outlet pass to the attacking full-back. Although this looks like the build-up is done, it’s only the beginning of their attack. Sometimes build-up training sessions stop once possession is lost, but this is a good example of why they shouldn't. Jurgen Klopp famously once said that there is no better playmaker than a counter-press and the response from Chicago suggests that this is definitely an intentional action to recover possession quickly with numbers and favorable positioning. They regain the ball higher up the pitch, take advantage of the transitional moment and score a very good goal. Does the goalkeeper give away possession with a longer pass? Yes. But Chicago are structurally set up to deal with the second ball and that provides them with an excellent opportunity to pressure their opponents and create a goalscoring opportunity.

The False Center-Back

I remember a few years ago seeing clips of the Ajax goalkeeper replacing one of the defenders in the build and this build from Florida State University reminded me of that, but it also has a little twist which definitely got me thinking. With the opponents, defending in a block, Florida State use possession to move their goalkeeper into the right-sided center back position. It's interesting that the center back moves into the holding midfielder position, which allows Florida State the opportunity to commit more players into advanced areas, and gives their opponents more decisions to make in terms of marking. You can imagine what a midfield three would think when suddenly they are facing four central midfielders that they have not planned for. The other twist which I really like is that Florida State used this scenario for longer vertical passes rather than a lower overload to beat the block. This may be because it suits the goalkeepers positional profile for passing range, but also they are set up to counter-press and push their opponents back further to help break them down. It does not result in a goal, but it challenges the shape of the block and also could naturally alert the opposition back-four to more direct service, causing them to drop and opening up keys spaces in front of them.

In the clip below we can see another clip from the same game where the goalkeeper looks for a longer pass out of possession to the full-back in an attempt to break the defensive block of the opposition.

The Quarterback - Orlando City

This was a build that I saw recently from Orlando City MLS Next Pro team and I thought it was a fascinating approach to beat the press from the opposition. Initially it looks as though the goalkeeper here will have limited involvement in beating the defensive line. With center backs split inside the box, you can see that a defensive midfielder drops in to take the short pass from a goalkeeper. However, as soon as the defensive midfielder plays the ball wide, he then moves forward into an advanced area, opening a pocket of space for the goalkeeper to move into and become an option in possession. With the Columbus Crew press initiated, the backwards pass is an opportunity for them to become very aggressive with their positioning, and as they commit numbers forward, it then opens up the space in the center of the pitch for an Orlando player to receive and quickly turn build into an attack. What’s also interesting for me, from an Orlando perspective, is that they have inverted their ‘weak side’ full-back into the middle to create that central overload and spring an attack. The goalkeeper’s pass into the middle looks fairly routine, but for me it’s a very specific and deliberate ball into a higher line that allows them to break out. If this is played in the air, it may be intercepted or slow down the attack.

We have talked on the MSC Podcast many times about the changing role of goalkeeper coaches. Perhaps we are moving away from a session plan where they are left to train two goalkeepers for an hour and then join the team for 5-a-side games at the end. With more complexity and variations in the builds, the goalkeeper must now become a key part of training and become comfortable with both these types of situations and the level of risk involved. The initial organization is only a part of the solutions that we have shared in this article and there is still so much work to do to break these defensive systems. With the risk so high, the timings and techniques have to be so exact. As the demands on the keeper continues to rise, we are also seeing goalkeeper coaches being asked to oversee defensive organization, build-up scenarios and also set-pieces. Are we getting close to NFL style shotcalling for build-ups? That's definitely something I would consider watching some of these pictures in recent months, especially as both team and keeper continue to intersect. Either way, I think that we are definitely at a stage where the positional profile of a goalkeeper in terms of passing range and dealing with pressing situations, is definitely growing and it will be very interesting how this impacts every level of the game.

This article was written by Gary Curneen as part of a promotion for the new book 'Detail'. If you would like to support the free content at Modern Soccer Coach, 'Detail' is a collection of takeaways from the interviews we have done on podcasts and webinars throughout the past four years. It is also a personal perspective of how Gary views the game, experiences on why he has changed, as well as an insight into what lies ahead for the coaching community. CLICK HERE TO ORDER YOUR COPY.

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