“Toughen Up!”: Are goalkeepers over protected?

A keeper flustered yet the goal stands - a rare thing in modern football.

A 'keeper flustered yet the goal stands - a rare thing in modern football.

I’m getting pretty good at moaning on these blogs aren’t I? But the last couple of posts have been quite positive and so I feel in having another little whine today. I take solace in the belief though, that this is one rant that I think is in line with the opinion of most football fans: that of the over protection of goalkeepers in the modern game. And lets face it, you all know what it is that makes football special for you, and discussion, as a rule, is all about improvement. Let’s call it constructive criticism, and get on with it.

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since before I setup this site even so I always knew it was only a matter of time until I got round to it, and with a few obvious recent examples giving me fresh ammunition, as well as transfer gossip taking the place of most other football news (I’m not into gossipping about transfers too much, it gets tiresome and the tabloids do more than enough for us) I figured now was as good a time as any to discuss it.

In Everton’s recent game against Middlesbrough Ross Turnbull, who is in the main a fine ‘keeper, was awarded a huge amount of free kicks from set piece situations such as corners and free kicks. And that would be fine, if they had been justified. But the Everton players were simply challenging for the ball. There was little to no contact between player and ‘keeper and what there was is simply to be expected in a crowded penalty area. Anyone who has played football to any reasonable level has experienced the lung crushing feeling of going up for a header against someone who is far bigger than you. It’s disappointing, but it is also part of the game, and you accept it, pick yourself up and try harder next time.

But as soon as Turnbull felt contact from any player (even his own) he dropped straight to the floor and waited for the inevitable whistle from the referee. In saying this, I am not criticising Turnbull in particular for his theatrics. All goalkeepers do it, and they do it purely because it gives them an obvious advantage because the referees fall over themselves to protect them.

Indeed, in the Middlesbrough game, Steven Pienaar was denied a perfectly good goal after a corner was floated into the box. Turnbull flapped at the ball from five yards away behind a scrum of players (both Middlesbrough and Everton) before falling to the ground as Pienaar tucked the ball into the net. Our celebrations were cut short as the referee blew his whistle for an offence that no one could spot. Replays have confirmed that there was nothing untoward going on in the box, but it was clear enough on the day. The only offence was some criminally poor goalkeeping.

A similar occurence happened in the game between Aston Villa and Hull City. Nick “Judas” Barmby (it’s an Evertonian thing, a touch of research into his career and you’ll understand) had a goal disallowed early on in the contest after the usually reliable Brad Friedel flapped when coming for a ball forward under pressure more from his own defender than from the loyalty-challenged Yorkshireman. After the two of them had conspired to stuff up what should have been a reasonably easy to deal with threat, Barmby poked the ball into the net. But of course, the whistle blew once Friedel was lying prone on the floor, and the goal struck from the record, and eventually Hull lost out to a late own goal.

What I’m trying to say is, that these ‘keepers are developing new ways of preventing goals. They still have a crack at doing it the old fashioned way, using their hands to good effect quite often. However, on those occasions when they find themselves lacking in the talent or ability to prevent the ball entering the net they have realised that if they can manage to come into contact (however slight) with an opposing player before falling desperately to the ground, they are entirely likely to be given a helping hand by the referee.

And that’s just not on. The point of having goalkeepers is that they are there to prevent goals, yes. But they are already given plenty of advantage in being given the license to use their hands to aid them in doing so. When crosses come in, the outfield players have to challenge for the ball using only their heads or feet. Goalkeepers are allowed to use their hands and that gives them an extreme advantage over the other twenty players on the pitch. Once they are in position they should not be beaten to the ball. It is the getting into position that seems to trouble them.

But why is it that goalkeepers are now given a free kick if they cannot manage to get to the ball in the first place. That demeans the very idea of having someone who is ‘good at taking corners’. Of having someone capable of whipping in a pin point cross to the head of their best target man. The idea of a good corner is that it is out of reach of the goalkeeper. Now though, if it is out of their reach, the ‘keeper will fluff at it, fall to the ground and gain a free kick. The same can be said for free kicks.

In that game against Middlesbrough we had Mikel Arteta, one of the best set-piece takers in the League, firing top class ball after top class ball into the box. We had Tim Cahill, who is incredibly dangerous in the air given his size, and Maruoane Fellaini, who is formidably tall making him a good weapon, attacking these crosses, and yet, each time we won the ball at the expense of Turnbull, we were punished for it. In the end, a game that we totally dominated ended up only being won by one goal, when if the referee had been even slightly reasonable, we would probably have won by a very clear margin.

Likewise, Hull will feel very hard done by after conceding a late own-goal against an in-form Aston Villa side despite having scored what appeared to be a legitimate goal. I’m not just talking about isolated incidents here either, those are just two recent examples to illustrate my point. The thing is as well, that though refereeing mistakes are common (quite possibly too much so but that’s a topic for another rant!), they don’t often prevent goals, or at least, very good goal scoring opportunities. The penalty area is a part of the pitch where all the most controversial decisions are made, usually regarding penalties, and I think that this issue of goalkeeping over protection is well up there.

The problem for me is that the referees we have in our League have very little experience of playing the game properly. It is a point that has been raised often before, but is often simply dismissed. It should be taken more seriously though, as I mentioned before, if one has had a little experience of football and been flattened in an aerial challenge by a burly centre half, you will have quickly learnt it is part of the game.

Indeed, it is simple physics. You each have an equal right to go for the ball, and you do so. The unfortunate thing is that the big burly central defender has a larger mass and therefore greater force of momentum through the air than you, and you will likely be displaced from the desired territory. It’s not a foul, it’s simply that they have a natural advantage over you in that aspect of the game. Those characteristics are the very same ones that give you a natural advantage over said defender in a 100 yard sprint for a through ball. It’s a simple fact of life that one can’t always win the ball. Just because they are goalkeepers does not change that fact, and referees need to understand that.

Until we get more referees in who know and accept and apply this thinking, important goal-scoring situations will continue to be compromised. Whether the answer lies with encouraging more ex-players or at least young players who don’t make it to get into refereeing via some sort of scheme that makes it worth their while (let’s face it, no one really fancies being the hate figure of a nation) or by some other tactic I don’t know. I’m sure everyone has, at some point, suffered at the hands of this sort of decision in recent seasons, and it is not hard to spot really. When someone has made a genuinely unfair attempt at the ball is clear, but if all parties are generally going for the ball and not flailing limbs inappropriately, why should they be punished?

Let me know if you agree with my point of view on this. I think it is something that isn’t picked up on too often, yet it does have quite a large impact on football matches and that deserves recognition. If you have a suggestion for how to improve the policing of these suggestions, do outline it! I fear my blogs are often rather good at outlining problems but rather lacking in bringing forward plausible solutions, and I would like to amend that, so do help me out! Once again, thanks for reading.

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