Whenever a cross or corner is played into the box, goalkeepers need to make a high ball decision: stick, catch, deflect, or punch?
Let’s suppose you’ve decided to catch the high ball.
- What steps can you take to win the ball amongst a crowded box of players?
- How can you reduce the chance of dropping or spilling the ball out to an opponent?
Positioning, technique, communication and confidence all contribute. Here’s how goalkeepers can improve their approach to catching crosses and corners.
1. Team Positioning (Cross Preparation)
Crosses are difficult enough as it is — let alone when your team isn’t well positioned.
When a defence sits deep, it leaves the keeper very little time and space to attack the ball.
I experienced this problem when I entered men’s football. The opponents were more physical (and less elegant) than in the U18 league, and they regularly played the ball over the top. Our deep defence meant that I was pinned back to the goal line for crosses (and free kicks) leaving no room to gain momentum to gather the high ball.
It was catch-22. If I allowed the ball to sail over the top of the defence it would bounce dangerously within the six yard box, and I’d see it too late. Yet if I came out to claim the ball — and misjudged it — then that would create a goalmouth scramble. There was absolutely no margin for error.
And once an opposition sensed the turmoil deep crosses caused our team, they’d exploit it all the more. I never took as many knocks — or faced as much criticism — as I did during that ‘transitional’ period.
The point is, this whole situation was avoidable if my team pushed higher. One video from Gary Neville (from around 1:40 onwards) explains how to correct it.
- Push your team out to create space. Having a deep line invites pressure within the goul-mouth and makes it harder to catch the ball. So being a good communicator is key. When you feel pinned back — tell you team to push out and hold their line. Check out my goalkeeper communication guide.
- Know that some elements are out of your control. As a keeper you can’t physically force your team mates to perform how you want. So even if you know they’re making mistakes, you’ve still got to do your job by cleaning up their mess, and preventing goals. You can however give your team a piece of your mind when it’s necessary!
2. Position Yourself (Prior to the Cross)
Before the cross or corner is even played into the box you have to read the situation. Make sure you’re in the optimal position to attack the ball in the air should it enter your “domain” (e.g. the six yard box for a corner).
- Use quick, sharp steps to calibrate your starting position. Avoid standing flat-footed. Instead, stay focused, on your toes, set, facing the action slightly side-on. Keep one foot slightly forward, as if you’re ready to run.
- Don’t be drawn in towards the ball. Resist the temptation of guarding the front post closest to the cross. This common mistake (in amateur football) can result in the ball sailing over your head and into a dangerous area where you’re neither able to attack the cross or in any place to protect the goal.
- Stand where you can drive “through” the ball. It’s vital that when you challenge for the ball you have forward momentum and balance. Start from deeper position, where you can come out to meet the ball in flight.
Trying to correct your position (e.g. back-tracking) while the ball is in motion is the cause of many goalkeeping errors.
Anticipation is the key. Position yourself early to gain an extra second; it makes all the difference when trying to make a ‘clean’ catch.
3. Adjust Your Feet (As the Ball is in Flight)
As the cross comes in you, again, need to call upon good footwork to make sure that you attack the ball in front of you. This is harder than it sounds — because you cannot entirely predict the presence of other players — or the spin/speed/flight of the ball — until the cross/corner is struck.
- Decide whether you can go around opposing players. Catching a cross doesn’t mean travelling in a straight line and bulldozing everything in your path. Keepers need to be smarter than that. In many cases you have the option to catch the ball either in front (before it reaches) or behind (after it sails over) opposing players. Quick, sharp steps will enable you to find the easiest path to the ball.
- Limitations of footwork. If there’s too many bodies in your path and it’s impossible to side-skip around them, then your decision to catch might have been a weak one. Should you be punching the ball?
- Read the spin, speed, and swerve (including wind conditions). As you approach the ball you need to be aware of how it’s moving in the air. For example it could be an in-swinging or out-swinging cross. Always concentrate on the ball and adapt by adjusting your feet accordingly.
The following training video demonstrates how keepers can practice evading obstacles before making the catch. Note the quick feet and small adjustments.
Navigating the box for crosses is just one of many reasons why keepers regularly practice their footwork using agility ladders.
4. Shout for the Ball (As You Start Your Run)
As you come out to make the catch you need to shout “keepers!”. This signals to both your own players, and opposing ones, that you’re claiming the ball. It’s important to be loud and confident in doing this.
- If you shout, it’s yours. Remember that your shout for the ball overrides any other shout your team makes (that’s how it works). So if you shout, you have to go. Hesitancy and miscommunication in the box will lead to goals.
- Shout loud, clear and early. There’s two main reasons for this:
- Clarity. Your defence needs to be absolutely positive that you’re coming to claim the cross. A weak shout will put doubt in their minds. You don’t want them to try heading the ball out while you’re stranded outside of the goal-mouth.
- Dominance. The more confidence you exuberate, the more opposing strikers will back down. Being dominant gives you an advantage.
- Your defenders should shield players off you. Encourage your defenders to block off players as you come out to make the catch. Having that understanding with your team means you’ll work together towards the same target: safety.
5. Attack the Ball in Front (As You Make the Catch)
As you gather the cross or corner, take the ball in front of you using the W’s catching technique.
- Bend your elbows slightly. If your arms are straight when you catch the ball you’ll lose strength, protection and balance. It’s far too easy for strikers to knock the ball out of your hands.
- Raise one knee. This provides elevation, momentum and protection. Some coaches recommend that you learn to use both knees (as opposed to just your strong one), and raise whichever side you need to protect. You’d raise the right knee when the cross comes in from the left, and left knee when it comes in from the right.
- Go to ground if you need to. When there’s a crowd of players attacking the same ball you’re likely to be pushed, shoved, kneed, and pulled around. So if you’re off balance with the ball then go to ground with it — and smother it!
If you can spare half an hour, I highly recommend watching this training video from J4K from start to finish. It covers everything I’ve summarised in this article, but with some additional details.
While confidence, communication and handling techniques are vital for catching crosses & corners, it’s equally as important to make the right call in the first place. So if you’ve found this article on catching crosses & corners useful, check out my Goalkeeper’s Guide to Making the High Ball Decision.