Why Alisson's goal could herald a wave of striker-keepers

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A leaping Alisson directs his header goalward  - SHUTTERSTOCK
A leaping Alisson directs his header goalward - SHUTTERSTOCK

The extraordinary thing about Alisson Becker’s winning header for Liverpool on Sunday was that West Bromwich Albion should have known what was coming.

There was, after all, a recent precedent - three weeks ago, St Johnstone goalkeeper Zander Clark also came up for a corner in the dying seconds of extra-time in a Scottish Cup tie against Rangers, heading goalwards before Chris Kane turned it over the line. It earned a 1-1 draw before St Johnstone won on penalties (Clark saving two in the shoot-out, just for good measure).

In terms of technique Clark’s header was nowhere near as good as Alisson’s. But there are parallels, not least because no defender attempts to mark him. Or rather, a bit like the West Brom players with Alisson, they just do not know what to do. Despite being the big bloke with the bright shirt on, he stands on his own.

So is this a trend? Probably not. The two examples are freakish outliers and there are countless other instances where goalkeepers have ambled up-field and then ambled back without having come remotely close to scoring.

But maybe the tactic should be given far more serious consideration, and not simply considered a last, desperate roll of the dice.

After all, research has claimed that a third of all goals are scored directly or indirectly from set-plays. Every club has someone who works on their corner and free-kick routines and, ironically, that person is often the goalkeeping coach. So why are managers so reluctant to use a tactic which allows them to get an extra player - and one who is generally among the tallest in the side - into the penalty area?

As long as they leave a defender as quick as Andrew Robertson to cover a breakaway – as Liverpool did – is there really that great a risk? And if a forward counter-attacks and is one-on-one with the goalkeeper the chances are he will score anyway.

No, the main reason for not doing it is because coaches are worried about being left embarrassed as the opposition walk the ball into an empty net while his goalkeeper is marooned up the pitch.

“There have been so many times this season when I’ve thought about going up and looked at the bench and they said ‘no’,” Clark explained. “I’ve had that situation against me many times when you are shouting for someone to pick up the keeper but everyone has a man.”

He is right. There are three ways to defend a corner: zonally (players allotted to an area), man-for-man or a mix of the two. Most coaches prefer the mix or zonal. Few go man-for-man which means adding a wild card, such as the goalkeeper, can create an unexpected problem.

We have seen the images of coaches giving final instructions, pointing to their iPads or flipcharts, to substitutes when they are coming on. A key one is the role they play at defensive set-pieces. It is partly why managers are reluctant to make changes just before their team defend a corner. There is a risk, as Manchester United discovered recently when Marcus Rashford came on and immediately failed to pick up Leicester City’s Caglar Soyuncu, who scored the winning goal with a back post header.

So can goalkeepers also take advantage of this? There have been goalscorers with gloves in the past and mainly, like the Brazilian Alisson, from South America: the Paraguayan Jose Luis Chilavert, the Colombian Rene Higuita (he of the ‘scorpion kick’) and the daddy of them all in Rogerio Ceni who was a penalty and free-kick expert and scored no fewer than 131 goals for his club, Sao Paulo.

Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita was famous for his high-risk sweeper-keeper playing style - AFP
Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita was famous for his high-risk sweeper-keeper playing style - AFP

Ceni was a hero of Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson who used to play as a left-back but went in goal because he was not quick enough. Ederson has already spoken about wanting to take free-kicks but such is his ability with the ball he would be a genuine threat at reaching set-pieces, as Alisson has proven to be. The outfield skills of these players are taking goalkeeping to a new level. It is not just about being a sweeper-keeper but, potentially, a striker-keeper.

And why not? Pep Guardiola has talked about his dream being a team of midfielders. Conor Coady recalled a game against City in 2019 when Wolverhampton Wanderers were down to 10 men and Ederson stayed out of his goal and played one-twos with Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho. “Ederson was out in midfield playing with the ball and then running back and then you’re going ‘this isn’t right’,” Coady said.

Guardiola did not look impressed at Ederson’s antics but such is the evolution of the goalkeeper, with the demands that he is effectively an 11th outfield player, that it is feasible that a coach such as City’s will be considering how best to take the involvement to the next level.

“Ever since the back-pass rule came in it has been step-by-step and the goalkeeper now is very much part of the team, the outfield group and is almost a normal player,” claimed Bournemouth’s Asmir Begovic, one of six goalkeepers to score in the Premier League.

Begovic’s goal came from what is more expected of a goalkeeper – a clearance upfield while he played for Stoke City that flew over the head of Southampton’s Artur Boruc in 2011. “I hit it, it bounced and then it’s like ‘woah, it’s in!’ It wasn’t like ‘this has a chance’ or anything,” Begovic admitted.

But will Alisson’s goal make a difference? Using a goalkeeper in a more attacking sense is an under-exploited area and just could become more prevalent – although the real innovation will be to see a coach brave enough to send his goalkeeper up during normal time and when the game is not being lost.

It just might happen one day and would bring a whole new meaning to the term ‘rush-goalie’.

Do you predict that more teams will start to use their goalkeepers in an attacking sense? Tell us in the comments section below
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