There has been quite a lot of movement at the goalkeeper position at FC St. Pauli recently. Robin Himmelmann and Svend Brodersen have left the club after many years. Dejan Stojanović has already left after half a year. With Nikola Vasilj, FCSP has a new number 1, while Dennis Smarsch has to be content with the role of cup goalkeeper. How should these decisions be assessed? We asked someone who knows a lot about goalkeeping.(Cover picture: Peter Böhmer)
The first impression Nikola Vasilj has made at FC St. Pauli is pretty good: three games, only two goals conceded, seven points. But how big is his part in this good start to the season? To be honest, I don’t really know much about goalkeeping. Accordingly, I always have a hard time evaluating goalkeepers and have therefore sought competent help. In an interview, Sascha Felter gave MillernTon a brief overview of the evaluation of goalkeepers and the changes in goalkeeping. And of course he also provided an assessment of the goalkeeper situation at FCSP.
Sascha Felter writes as a goalkeeper expert for 11Freunde and Cavani’s Friseur, a football blog that mainly deals with player scouting. Felter was a goalkeeper himself for a long time and is now goalkeeper coach at Rotation Leipzig (Marco Rose’s youth club). Since there are few if any experts on goalkeeping in the media, he took it upon himself some time ago and analyses the performances of various goalkeepers on Twitter, among other things, in much greater detail and competence than anyone else.
Sascha, you are a goalkeeping expert. Can you briefly explain how goalkeeping has changed over the last ten years?
Sascha Felter: At the 2014 World Cup, Manuel Neuer was a kind of additional outfield player who single-handedly ran through the spaces in the defence. In recent years, there have been a few keepers who have followed this trend. For example, Stefan Ortega from Arminia Bielefeld or Marc-Andre ter Stegen at Barcelona. The trend in recent years has clearly been that many have tried to defend the area more actively. Goalkeepers who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to do that are also trying to do so. Péter Gulácsi from Leipzig, for example, controls the space quite well and is often quite underestimated.
The even bigger trend is that goalkeepers are now the playmakers from the back. It’s not so much that they play precise long balls out from the back, but rather that they can play the ball cleanly out from the back despite pressure, e.g. with chipped balls to the full-backs or at best to the sixes so that there can be a clean flow of play. This is certainly the biggest trend at the moment so that even keepers who have the phlegm of the “line tiger” have developed to the point where they can open up a game superbly. Koen Casteels, for example, is often underestimated, but he plays great balls out the back.
At least as important as holding balls: Penalty area control
Many people find it difficult to evaluate goalkeepers correctly. What are the most important skills of goalkeepers?
SF: You can’t really tell from numbers, as you can with field players, where, for example, the number of tackles won at least gives a trend. With goalkeepers, it’s not quite so easy. There is now the “post-shot xG” value, with which you can compare how many goals a goalkeeper has prevented compared to the xG values. With this, slight trends can be recognised, but it is also not the solution to the puzzle.
For me, it is always very important how a goalkeeper behaves when shots are coming at his goal. Does he take up a good position beforehand? Does he have a calm position or does he fidget around? Timo Horn is a good example. He pulls his elbows back when a shot is coming. But you need your hands in front of your body if you want to hold balls. It’s very important that there’s always good preparation for goal kicks. Goalkeepers also need to have good footing on the ground and not jump around when the shot is taken, because they need to push off the ground in time to get into the action. These are important aspects when it comes to goal defence, shots on goal.
In the game with the ball, it is important for goalkeepers to have good first contact. They also need to know how to receive the ball and in which direction to move away from the pressure of the opposing striker. Especially technically strong goalkeepers are characterised by a good first contact and a good pre-orientation and also tactical understanding. All further actions are then rather the cream on the cherry if there is work with the heel or the outside of the foot.
Would you, therefore, recommend that clubs bring certain goalkeepers into the team depending on their tactical orientation?
SF: Yes, of course, if you rely more on long balls, like Arminia Bielefeld, then you need a goalkeeper like Ortega who can play long balls and thus contribute to the team tactics. If, on the other hand, you let the opponent come most of the time, like Atletico Madrid, for example, and play on the counter-attack, then you need a keeper who is especially good on the line. You need fewer keepers like Neuer or Ortega, who often rush out of the penalty area and intercept balls.
Basically, especially teams at the bottom need a keeper with very good penalty area control. Such teams will also get shots on goal against them, but the majority of them are deep passes, loose balls in the penalty area, crosses – if a team has a keeper who is present in the penalty area, then it helps immensely. It’s even more useful than a goalkeeper who thwarts great chances because goalkeepers with good control of the penalty area thwart many chances beforehand. As a club, of course, you have to look at which keeper is most useful to you with his skills, but most clubs don’t do that in their scouting.
Penalty area control is a good keyword. For me, it’s one of the terms that sports journalists use to deal with, but usually can’t tell whether goalkeepers have good penalty area control or not. How can you assess something like that? The number of intercepted balls is probably not enough, is it?
SF: To some extent, yes. But there, too, you have to look at how the crosses came about. You have to look at how many crosses come into the penalty area and how often the goalkeeper was able to distinguish himself. You also have to look at the height of the goalkeepers. A negative example is Jiri Pavlenka from Werder Bremen, who, despite his 1.96m, hardly intercepted any balls in recent years. His rate was 5%. A very good rate in the Bundesliga is around 8 to 10%.
For me, it’s also important how active a keeper is on crosses and long balls. By the way, when it comes to penalty area control, I am very convinced of Robin Zentner from Mainz 05. If a goalkeeper in open play already sees that the ball is being knocked in from half-field, for example, he can stand passively at the five-metre area or actively try to intercept the ball at the edge of the penalty area. It is also always important to see how the keepers position themselves on crosses. For example, when the ball is hit away from the goal, a goalkeeper should always stand a little closer to the far post. Because he can still go towards the ball. Running back when the cross becomes longer is always more difficult.
Sascha, who was the best keeper in Europe last season?
SF: Well, if I were to drop Stefan Ortega’s name here now, it would probably be a bit too much of a good thing. I would definitely single out Thibaut Courtois from Real Madrid. I would exclude Atletico Madrid’s Jan Oblak a bit from this assessment, because he is not as involved in the build-up to the game as his colleagues, although he is tactically and technically outstanding. In the Bundesliga, I would still single out Péter Gulácsi and Koen Casteels because they are very rock-solid keepers who hardly have any weaknesses without having a stand-out feature like Manuel Neuer, for example. I didn’t like Alisson Becker from Liverpool that much last season. But Emiliano Martínez from Aston Villa is certainly one of them. He’s had a pretty cracking career too, was only ever loaned out by Arsenal for years and, much like Leon Goretzka, pumped himself up quite a bit during the Corona break and replaced Bernd Leno in the Arsenal goal afterwards. So Ortega, Casteels and Martínez, that’s a nice trio, isn’t it?
No spectacular flying displays? – A quality feature
Yes, that sounds pretty good. Nevertheless, I’ll put forward the counter-thesis: If you only consider the save rate together with the prevented xG, then it is Nikola Vasilj, the new number 1 of FC St. Pauli, who stood out in European comparison last season. How do you rate him as a goalkeeper?
SF: I would actually put him in a similar category to Gulásci and Casteels. Nikola Vasilj is a keeper who absolutely knows his trade, who clearly has his strengths in penalty area control and makes a very solid impression. As of now, I can hardly see any weaknesses in him. He seems very confident in his movements, is always ready early and in position early, and doesn’t wave his hands around a lot. That’s why he can often make unspectacular saves, which in my opinion is a sign of quality. Because if you have a keeper who often flies around spectacularly in goal and still makes three rolls after the save, then that’s usually a sign that the preparation for the shot on goal wasn’t optimal. Therefore, I would say that the signing of Nikola Vasilj was a very good transfer for FC St. Pauli.
But I wouldn’t say he has any playmaking skills…
SF: I didn’t find it that outstanding either, I would agree with you. But if your keeper can handle medium-length and long balls and has a good first contact, then that’s also completely okay. In the 2nd division, not so much champagne football is played.
Where do you see him compared to the other goalkeepers in the division?
SF: I see him together with Michael Zetterer and Daniel Heuer Fernandes in the top 3 of the division. I like his skill set and I don’t have any concerns that he will break down during the season. I really liked him in the opener against Kiel because he was very present in the penalty area, intercepted many balls and was able to nip many of the opponent’s chances in the bud. Even when he had the ball, he slowed down at the right moments or made the game quick. It all seems very, very rounded.
At the start of last season, Robin Himmelmann was still the No. 1 at FC St. Pauli. Can you compare Vasilj and Himmelmann?
SF: I always liked Robin Himmelmann in 1-on-1 situations. He had a good feeling when he had to go out and when not, rarely showed bad timing. He had a good understanding of how the angle to the shooter had to be. And he was also good at deciding which type of defence was best, i.e. whether he had to go out with his hand or whether he had to take a straddle step, a so-called big block, or just put his knee down, i.e. take a small block.
However, there are de facto not so many 1-on-1 situations in a game compared to the space-defending actions where you have to intercept balls and leave your goal. And then if the 1-vs-1 is your strength, then that’s nice, but if you don’t master the other one, then you’re just not a complete keeper. I think at the 2018 World Cup there was a statistic from FIFA that showed that just under 70% of defensive goalkeeping actions are space-defending actions and only just under 30% are the goal-defending, i.e. holding shots on goal, and then of that 30%, far fewer are 1-vs-1 situations. That’s why, for me, space defence is much more important. If you have a good keeper, that helps you enormously as a team.
Robin Himmelmann – (not) a complete keeper?
I find that particularly exciting. Because it is usually the defence of the goal that is used by the spectators for evaluation.
SF: Yes, that is a big problem. That’s why it’s difficult to evaluate goalkeepers on the basis of highlight videos. Viewers of Sportschau or Sportstudio can’t really say anything about the performance of goalkeepers because they only see highlights. They have to watch entire matches to be able to better assess that.
At FC St. Pauli, Dennis Smarsch is the No.2 or cup goalkeeper. Before his transfer, he was considered the future No.1 at Hertha BSC. How do you see his development?
SF: I was very surprised that Hertha gave him away so early.
I think they have a buy-back option….
SF: I would be surprised if they didn’t. Smarsch is a very big talent in Germany and in my opinion, together with Nico Mantl, one of the best young keepers. But he is now 22 years old and needs playing practice soon. It’s good that with Vasilj he now has someone in front of him from whom he can learn a lot, but at that age, he should quickly play at least in the fourth division. It’s not enough if young goalkeepers only train alongside experienced goalkeepers. The difference between junior and men’s football is something you can really only learn in competitive matches.
FC St. Pauli currently has no third goalkeeper in its professional squad. Would you fill such a position at all if there are also several keepers in the U23s and, as you say, young keepers should get as much playing time as possible?
SF: Personally, as a squad planner, I would name a clear No. 1 and also want to have an experienced goalkeeper in the squad. Because let’s assume FCSP signs Marius Liesegang, who was in trial training and also has little experience, and Vasilj gets injured: Then you have two young keepers in the squad without any real professional experience, and you don’t know whether they can perform in men’s football. Because, as I said, the difference between junior and men’s football is enormous. Accordingly, I would advise FC St. Pauli to sign another experienced keeper, put him on the bench and let Dennis Smarsch play in the U23.
Thank you for your assessment, Sascha!
The game of goalkeeping has changed. Whereas in the past it was mainly skill on the line, today it is topics such as penalty area control, but also playmaking skills that a keeper must bring to the table. With the signing of Nikola Vasilj, FC St. Pauli seems to have made a top transfer. It is questionable how things will continue behind Vasilj. Ideally, goalkeepers who are expected to play a leading role in the long term should gain as much playing experience as possible, e.g. in the U23. The position of the third goalkeeper in the FC St. Pauli squad, which has been vacant up to now, could go to an experienced goalkeeper. So there is still a lot of uncertainty at FCSP. What is certain, however, is that after this interview I will look at the goalkeeping game in a completely different way.
// Tim (translated by Arne)