Irish goalkeepers playing their part in the goalkeeping evolution in modern soccer

Irish goalkeepers playing their part in the goalkeeping evolution in modern soccer

Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher makes a save during the penalty shoot out during the Carabao Cup quarter final match at Anfield, Liverpool. Picture date: Wednesday December 22, 2021.

SOCCER is a dynamic game which is constantly changing and evolving. 

One of the biggest innovations in recent seasons has been the reinvention of the goalkeeper as an outfielder who passes the ball out. 

This remodelled view of the traditional shot stopper is a hallmark of some of the most successful teams in recent times, like Manchester City and Liverpool.

Ireland; who have goalkeepers Caoimhín Kelleher at Liverpool and Gavin Bazunu at Manchester City, are leading this positional overhaul.

To fully understand this tactical revolution, a deep dive into the history books is needed. 

The 1970s began with an Ajax team who pressed their way to three consecutive European Cups. 

Their style was referred to as Total Football and it involved playing a high-line which pinned the opposition back. 

Johan Cruyff was the star of this team and he had an idea to improve the system. He believed that a goalkeeper should act as an outfielder with the responsibility of starting attacks and pushing a defensive line. 

He preached this idea to Rinus Michels and the Dutch coach took it on board by selecting Jan Jongbloed for the 1974 World Cup. 

2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier Group A, Stade de Luxembourg, Luxembourg 14/11/2021
2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier Group A, Stade de Luxembourg, Luxembourg 14/11/2021

The goalkeeper was ‘quick, comfortable sweeping behind his defences, good with his feet and perfect for Total Football’ according to Michael Cox. Jongbloed ended up playing a key role in the Oranje’s run to the final.

One of the first coaches to take inspiration from this era was Arrigo Sacchi. 

“As a small boy I was in love with Honvéd, then Real Madrid, then Brazil, all the great sides. But it was Holland in the 1970s that really took my breath away,” he said. 

Sacchi took the Total Football template and implemented it at AC Milan when he took over in 1987. 

Milan were immediately successful as they won the Scudetto in Sacchi’s first season, and then back to back European Cups. 

Their playing style and success led to L'Equipe claiming: “After seeing this Milan, football will never be the same again.” 

Sacchi’s work caught the eye of Jürgen Klopp who said “He is one of the most influential coaches in the history of the game and a complete game-changer for me,” in a 2020 interview. 

The Liverpool coach is known for his high line, which pushes defences right back. A key aspect of his style of play is a goalkeeper who can pass the ball out. This is where Caoimhín Kelleher excels. 

Klopp made sure to note this last month after Liverpool knocked Leicester City out of the Carabao Cup.

“He is an outstanding goalie; with his feet, game understanding, all the goalie skills.” 

Back in the 1980s, Cruyff was plotting while Milan dominated. The former Ballon d'Or winner had been appointed Ajax coach in 1985 and he was slowly building a team to fulfil his high pressing vision. 

Cruyff’s goalkeeper was academy graduate Stanley Menzo, who was a known passer of the ball. He was later replaced by Edwin van der Sar, another outfielder turned goalkeeper. 

“He has a good understanding of space around the goal and he could play out to the defenders,” Dutch goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek described Van der Sar to Michael Cox.

The Ajax goalkeeper was the backbone of three consecutive Eredivisie titles and the club’s 1995 Champions League success. 

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp celebrates with Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher at full time after the Carabao Cup quarter final match at Anfield, Liverpool. Picture date: Wednesday December 22, 2021.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp celebrates with Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher at full time after the Carabao Cup quarter final match at Anfield, Liverpool. Picture date: Wednesday December 22, 2021.

A number of future stars took note of his ability to build play from the back. “I was inspired by his style of play and enjoyed the philosophy of Ajax,” goalkeeper Manuel Neuer told France Football.

Over the last ten years Neuer has won nine consecutive Bundesliga titles, five DFB-Pokals, two Champions Leagues, and one World Cup. 

In 2020, Kelleher cited the German as his main inspiration in an interview with YouTube show UMM: “He’s so class with his feet. He comes off his line to help the team and he can make unreal saves so obviously when I was growing up as a goalkeeper, watching him was the best thing for me.” Neuer was also coached by Pep Guardiola, who worked under Cruyff at Barcelona in the 1990s. 

The Catalan was clearly inspired by his former mentor, who played Carles Busquets as an outfield goalkeeper at Barcelona. 

When Pep Guardiola stepped into senior management in 2008, he made sure to implement this system with Víctor Valdés at Barcelona. At Bayern and Manchester City, Guardiola has used Neuer and Ederson in this role.

When Bazunu was playing for Shamrock Rovers, he was known for his ability to pass the ball. 

“From an early age, you could see how comfortable he was on the football, he was ahead of most ‘keepers his age. You’d have no problem putting him into an outfield session. 

"He was like a holding midfield player where he was comfortable receiving the ball under pressure, playing passes. He was like a little playmaker,” Richie Fitzgibbon, a former League of Ireland goalkeeper who worked with Bazunu, told The 42 last year. 

This caught the eye of Man City, and they signed the goalkeeper in 2018.

Bazunu is now on loan at Portsmouth in League One and the City manager gets monthly reports on his progress. 

The Premier League champions have high hopes for the Dubliner, who has already trained with Ederson and the first team.

Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a shot on goal by Olivier Thill of Luxembourg during the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying group A match between Luxembourg and Republic of Ireland at Stade de Luxembourg in Luxembourg. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu saves a shot on goal by Olivier Thill of Luxembourg during the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying group A match between Luxembourg and Republic of Ireland at Stade de Luxembourg in Luxembourg. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The goalkeeping evolution could mean that Kelleher faces Bazunu one of these days when Liverpool play Man City. 

This is one of the standout games in world football, and two Irish goalkeepers could be the face of the fixture. 

Should this happen, it won’t be a simple clash between footballers from Cork and Dublin. 

It will be an important marker for fifty years of tactical reinvention.

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