#Tournament observations

Goalkeeping: Saves and defending the space

FIFA, 11 Aug 2023


Former Germany national team goalkeeper, Nadine Angerer, and FIFA Senior Football Expert, Pascal Zuberbühler, have been keenly observing matches at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023™, with a strong emphasis on all goalkeeping matters.

Of the 56 games played in the run-up to the quarter-final stage, 51 consisted of clean sheets. 46% of teams at the tournament have finished a match without conceding a goal, which is a substantial increase from the 33% at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2019™. In this tactical article, Angerer and Zuberbühler explore some of the key technical components of goalkeeping attributing to this rise. 

Clean sheets come as a result of collective defending, where every player must play their part. Despite being in an era of multifaceted goalkeeping where goalkeepers are expected to contribute in a multitude of ways to their team's football, the Number 1's original purpose of preventing goals from being scored by their opponents remains most important. Two key types of goalkeeping interventions are saving attempts at goal and defending the space between the goalkeeper and their defensive line in situations when the opponent plays a ball in behind. The way 'keepers are performing Down Under in terms of these interventions forms the structure of Zuberbühler and Angerer's analysis. 

Key insights

  • A goalkeeper's positioning and decision-making are fundamental to their ability to make a goal-saving intervention. The starting position and the movement by the goalkeeper in relation to the movement of the ball plays a key role in whether they can make the save or not.  

  • Many of the actions performed by the goalkeeper are explosive, requiring speed and power. The modern goalkeeper must be extremely strong, agile and athletic in order to execute these goal-saving interventions and actions.  

  • The "set position" is the optimal position for a goalkeeper to be in when an attempt at goal is made.

  • Whether the goalkeeper is defending the goal or space, the communication and understanding of roles between them and their defenders are crucial. 


A goalkeeper needs to adopt the set position as soon as an opposition attacker can attempt to score. The position requires having good contact to the ground with both feet, knees slightly bent, a strong upper body frame and both hands primed. Using this stance prepares the goalkeeper and gives them the best possible chance of responding quickly to the attempt at goal with different parts of their body.

The percentage of goalkeepers that are in the set position when making a goal prevention action save has risen from 71% in 2019 to 87% (up to game 56) in 2023. This is attributed to faster movement, decision-making and athleticism of the competition's goalkeepers. 

According to Zuberbühler, "Saves are at the core of what goalkeeping is all about. We are seeing more control and better starting positions. In this tournament, goalkeepers are really mastering the fundamental techniques and skills to perform the fast actions that this position demands. Having observed many tournaments, I can clearly see an improvement in the quality of the saves but also in the variety of them."

While the percentage of goalkeeper saves with hands has risen from 74% (2019) to 78% (2023), there are more attempts at goal occurring inside the penalty area, meaning goalkeepers have less time to react to situations due to the shorter distance the ball must travel.

Angerer and Zuberbühler have selected four clips to highlight and explain some of the key technical factors that influence each goalkeeper's ability to make important and difficult saves. The pair note that these interventions are not through luck; they come as a result of strong training environments where goalkeepers are exposed to situational defending in games together with their defenders. 

Clip 1: Netherlands goalkeeper Van Domselaar saves in a 1v1 while her recovering defender covers the goal line.
Clip 2: Morocco goalkeeper Er-Rmichi demonstrates great strength and athleticism, saving with her right foot.
Clip 3: Japan goalkeeper Yamashita navigates her goal area at speed and in relation to the movement of ball before saving at close range.
Clip 4: Sweden goalkeeper Mušović uses quick and agile footwork to be set and ready to push when the ball is struck on the volley.

Clip 1: Starting position, decision-making and relationship with recovering defenders
Zuberbühler: "Netherlands goalkeeper, Daphne van Domselaar (1) is strong in 1v1 situations. The first decision she must make is whether to defend the goal or defend the zone and, in this situation, because the striker has good control of the ball, she knows it will be 1v1. Her advanced position from her goal line, and by being just four metres from the striker, reduces the angles available for an attempt at goal. The near post and far post are closed. Her body position is excellent, she is open, and she is in the set position.

"I also like how the nearest recovering defender van der Gragt (3) does not interfere with the situation. She trusts her goalkeeper to make the save and provides cover on the goal line. With the support of her defenders, Van Domselaar commits to the save and has a great line for her second reaction and ability to safely claim the loose ball," he added.

Clip 2: Saving with the feet
Angerer: "This is an outstanding example of a great starting position and body shape leading to a save with the feet. Morocco goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi (1) has a good set position and, with an eight metre distance from the striker, she could use her hands or her feet to make the save. She can see she has a defender who is trying to make a block so she can stay in her position. 

"Modern goalkeepers are using their feet to make saves more often than before and this can be attributed to better athleticism. It is also a faster action than trying to get down to save with the hands. When the attempt at goal is made, she shows great athletic ability and leg strength, to save at full stretch with her right foot. Her reaction to get back to her feet quickly is also excellent."

Clip 3: Positioning and moving in relation to the ball
Zuberbühler: "The days of the goalkeeper just standing in the goal are long gone and here we see a fantastic example of fast footwork and movement around the goal area (six-yard area) in relation to the movement of the ball. In their game against Norway, Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita (1) engages brilliantly with the progression of the opposition's attack.

"Her starting position is good but as the attacker dribbles forward with the ball and takes the ball past her defender, she takes a step forward towards her front post and stays open to defend the zone. This open body shape allows her to get across the goal quickly and set her feet as the cross reaches her back post area. As the ball is headed back across her goal, she turns and scans to see where the danger is. Her contact with the ground allows another quick adjustment to the centre of her goal where she is set again by the time the attempt at goal is made from seven metres and she makes a brilliant reaction save." 

Clip 4: Fast footwork
Angerer: "We have observed how fit and athletic the goalkeepers are, and that conditioning is leading to faster and more explosive movements when the goalkeeper has to push to make an intervention. Sweden goalkeeper, Zećira Mušović (1), demonstrated this attribute brilliantly in one of her saves following a cut-back cross.

"She starts in a great position adjusting with small steps and communicating with her defensive line to step up as the ball is switched across the pitch. The speed of her footwork and her contact with the ground are so impressive here. By the time the cut-back cross is delivered, she is already set and ready to push to make the save with a strong hand, despite the ball being hit first time, on the volley." 

Defending the space

A goalkeeper requires decisiveness, timing and courage to defend the space between themselves and their defensive line. In situations where defending the space may be necessary, the goalkeeper must first recognise if they have a defender between themselves and the attacker with the ball. If the 'keeper does not have this, they must determine whether their current position is suitable for defending the space or if they need to protect the goal instead. When a team-mate can reach the ball first, the goalkeeper must make herself available as an extra player to help regain possession.

When defending space, the goalkeeper's relationship with their defenders is paramount. Defenders must recognise when to concede space to their goalkeeper and consider how and where they can provide cover, while trusting and not interfering with their goalkeepers' ability to make the intervention.

Starting position, athleticism, communication, and decision-making are all vital components in these match situations, as Angerer and Zuberbühler highlight in the clips below.

Clip 5: Zambia goalkeeper, Musonda attacks the space in front of here to punch the ball clear
Clip 6: Switzerland goalkeeper Thalmann adopts a perfect starting position and uses all her athleticism to push and intervene at full stretch.
Clip 7: USA goalkeeper Naeher connects brilliantly with her centre-back Ertz to defend the space and make a crucial intervention.

Clip 5: Defensive line height and goalkeeper defending the space
Zuberbühler: "The pace and power used, and the line (route to the ball) that Zambia goalkeeper, Catherine Musonda (1) takes, are all so important here. She does not stay on her goal line and follow the cross, instead she is proactive, commands the space brilliantly and punches the ball clear from 11 metres. Her decision-making and bravery to attack the ball are excellent. 

"The height of her defensive line is very important in this situation because it means she can defend the space. This a great example of a strong connection between the goalkeeper and the defenders."

Clip 6: Starting position and athleticism when defending the space
Angerer: "In their game against Spain, Switzerland goalkeeper Gaëlle Thalmann (1) demonstrated how important starting position is in relation to the defensive line when defending space. As the ball is carried into the 16 metre zone she holds her position four metres from her goal line. This is a crucial starting position.

"When the ball is played into the space behind her defensive line, she takes fast first steps and pushes explosively to make the intervention at full stretch. It requires incredible technical and athletic ability to push off her right foot so powerfully and to keep her body so strong as she reaches the ball. If she started from just half a metre further back, it would not have been possible to make this intervention." 

Clip 7: Relationship with defenders when defending space 
Angerer: "The relationship and trust between goalkeepers and defenders is so important when defending space. The defenders must create and give ownership of that space to their goalkeeper who in turn, must be brave and fast when defending it. A good example of this relationship is evident between USA goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) and her defender in a long-ball situation against Sweden.

"Firstly, her defence holds a high line, giving her control of the space in behind. But as the ball is flicked on, it is the relationship with her centre-back Julie Ertz (8) that takes precedence. Once the flick-on occurs, Naeher takes responsibility and makes the decision to defend the space the ball is travelling into. Her defender, Ertz, is aware of the striker's run and tracks her into that space, but she trusts her goalkeeper to make the intervention and times her recovery run to ensure she gives protection inside but does not interfere with Naeher's ability to defend the space or intervention." 

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