Football is a sport that has incessantly evolved since its inception, with all positions on the field undergoing drastic tactical changes. The brightest coaches have acted as innovators in the industry as they redefine what it means to play a role in the team.
For example, take the fullback position.
As recently as 2020, the year Liverpool lifted their first Premier League trophy, the attacking role of fullbacks was in fashion. The Reds found success in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson overlapping the wingers to deliver deadly crosses into the penalty box.
A few years later, this tactic seems ancient as the managers have widely adopted the use of inverted fullbacks – popularized by Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning Manchester City team.
And now, even Jürgen Klopp has embraced the same principles – inverting Alexander-Arnold into midfield to form a double pivot ahead of Liverpool’s defensive line.
Likewise, the goalkeeping position has also experienced its maturation over the years.
Once upon a time, the men between the goalposts were only concerned with guarding it. But as time passed, they were assigned to perform as ‘sweeper keepers’, helping their team in ball progression by offering themselves as a passing outlet in the penalty box, to now pushing higher up the field to fill in as a center-back.
But, why are football managers adopting it and what are the benefits of the latest tactical shift?
Before analyzing the tactic, let us discuss the cause that has triggered managers to expand the duties of goalkeepers – pressing.
A few years ago, only the traditional big teams engaged in high-pressing systems to ensure quick possession turnovers and halt the opposition’s ability to play out from the back. But now, almost every team in the Premier League implements an aggressive man-to-man pressing system.
And they execute it at the highest standard.
Take Brentford’s second goal against Manchester United last season in a memorable 4-0 victory at home as a perfect example when their aggressive high press broke the Reds’ build-up structure.
The data justifies the same as it illustrates a momentous upward swing in tackles won in the attacking third over the past six seasons by teams in the Premier League.
As a result, possession-dominant teams struggled to play out from the back, causing managers to explore alternative means for ball progression.
The remedy: Goalkeepers as center backs
A solution that managers have formulated is the use of goalkeepers as center backs.
Arguably, the founding father of this tactical principle in European football is Pep Guardiola, who experimented with it during pre-season, and has continued its implementation during the opening stages of the new campaign.
Glimpses of the same idea seem to be adopted by other top managers in the Premier League.
But why is this the case?
It is because this provokes an overload that allows the team in possession to outnumber the opposition and retain the ball in the deeper stages of build-up.
If an opposition player were to step up and press the keeper, it would free the man he was initially marking, thereby causing a chain reaction that would create space for the team in possession to exploit.
Let us show an example from the opening game of the domestic season.
Against Arsenal in the FA Community Shield Final, Manchester City formed a back four with Stefan Ortega stepping up to fill in as a center-back, as illustrated by the screengrab below.
The defensive shape deployed by Mikel Arteta in this match relies on two players occupying the double pivots, with one player pressing the center-back with the ball.
The players constituting the pressing roles will change when Manchester City shifts possession to the other side.
In the situation below, Kai Havertz is marking John Stones while Declan Rice and Martin Ødegaard stay on the two defensive midfielders. The Norwegian attacker is also assigned to press Ruben Dias on the right if a pass is made to him, which would cause Rice to mark Mateo Kovačić, while Havertz would shift to Rodri.
It is difficult to say whether the next move is by design or impulse, but Havertz breaks the defensive structure to press Ortega, who has joined the last defensive line with the center-backs.
This movement leaves Stones and Dias in space (yellow) on either side.
Although the straightforward option for the keeper was to pass it to Dias on his left, it would squeeze the pitch and cut out all passing lanes for the Portuguese defender.
The riskier path was to find the Stones on the right as it would open space for the center-back to run into as Havertz would be out of the picture.
And that is what happened as Ortega played Kovačić (white arrow), who passed it to Stones (white arrow) – the Englishman then carried the ball forward (green arrow) and gained territory for his team.
Then you may ask, why press the goalkeeper at all? If a player does not step out and charge at the keeper, wouldn’t everyone remain man-marked?
Well, nowadays keepers are equipped with a wide range of passes in their arsenal that can be executed to set off attacking chances for their team.
Take this sequence by Brighton & Hove Albion against Newcastle at the Amex in August.
As The Magpies commence a high press, they leave Brighton’s keeper, Bart Verbruggen, with time and space to pick a pass.
And pick a pass he does as the Dutch ‘keeper plays an inch-perfect ball to Solly March.
After ten seconds of that long kick, Brighton won a corner kick on the other end and Newcastle is on the back foot.
Against goalkeepers with better distribution and vision like Ederson and Alisson, a pass like that could lead to dangerous goal-scoring chances within a few seconds.
And that is the gamble of leaving a quality ‘keeper with time to pick a pass.
Elite teams like Manchester City could also use the time the opposition takes to leave their keeper alone to pull apart their defensive shape by instructing the players to execute off-ball runs to lure their man markers and create space for their teammates to attack.
Therefore, opposition coaches have a dilemma before every match.
If they order their players to press the opponent’s goalkeeper, capable teams will cut open the defensive structure. But if they leave the ‘keeper alone, they risk conceding a goal within the blink of an eye through a direct pass.
Nonetheless, there is never a foolproof plan.