Goalkeeper High Ball Decision — Stick, Catch, Deflect, Or Punch?

The high ball causes goalkeepers more grief than any other aspect of the game. Whether it’s a cross, corner, free kick, or shot — attacking players know that putting the ball in the air forces the keeper to make a tricky “high ball decision”.

A goalkeeper’s high ball decision can be categorised as follows:

  1. Stick
  2. Catch
  3. Deflect (Parry)
  4. Punch

Like everything in goalkeeping, there is no “right” choice. If you prevent goals then that’s mission accomplished. There is however, quite often, a best choice that takes the most pressure off your team.

So when should goalkeepers apply each of the four high ball choices?

 

1. Stick

You know what? Sometimes the best choice is to stay in position and shout “away” to your teammates.

High balls played outside of the six yard box are tough for strikers to score. To convert them they’d need to fend off your defenders, as well as generate enough power and accuracy on the ball to beat you. So when the high ball is played outside of your “domain”, don’t be too hasty to rush off your line — unless you’re absolutely certain you can get there.


A very common goalkeeping error (at all levels) is to unnecessarily commit to a high ball that’s out of reach. This leaves a gaping wide goal for the opposition to aim at.


The moment a high ball is played into the penalty box you have to instinctively decide: is going for the ball reducing the chance of the opposition scoring, or improving it?



If Petr Cech stayed on his line, the header would’ve been an easy save. It’s these misjudgements that are costly.

Stick when you strongly feel that it’s too dangerous to commit yourself. Your defenders have jobs too, remember! 

 

2. Catch

Catching a high ball (e.g. a cross or corner) diffuses all danger. But it’s not always on.

Underhanded tactics — such as pushes, shoves, shirt pulling, and barging — are commonplace on the approach to many high balls (unless you have VAR). As you jump, you’re likely to be disrupted in-flight. That’s why the process of catching a high ball around a crowd of bodies is so challenging for keepers.

Weather is also a huge factor. While the wind conditions influence the speed and flight of the ball, the ball itself can also be wet and slippery from rain and mud


If you make the decision to catch a high ball, you have to succeed despite the obstacles. You can’t afford to spill the ball out onto the box, as the opposition will be ready to pounce on any opportunity.


It’s generally thought that goalkeepers should catch a high ball if it comes into their path, or around the six yard box. The timing is crucial, though. Always aim to meet the ball while it’s:

  • In front of you, where you can see it 
  • Above the heads of opposing players
  • At a height where you can grip the palms of your GK gloves around it.

Ultimately, the aim is to time your run so that you take full advantage of the one tool you have over everyone else in the box: your hands. You can learn more about timing, protecting your body, and maintaining your balance from my post on catching crosses and corners.

 

3. Deflect (Parry)

Deflecting a high ball is to treat it more like a regular save. Make this choice to reduce any further pressure. 

You would deflect (parry) if the ball if it’s:

  • In your domain; it’s yours to deal with.
  • Coming towards you at speed/spin, where attempting to catch it would be too dangerous (high risk of spilling).
  • Played awkwardly:
    • Over your head, such that meeting it in the air is not possible.
    • Dropping too close to the goal line, where tipping it over the bar is the safest move (common with dipping corners and crosses)
    • At speed, dangerously, into the six yard box. Any touch disrupts the flight of the ball.
    • Entering a wide area within the six yard box. Parrying out wide diffuses the danger.

Note: unless you know a defender is out wide to retrieve the ball, you’re best off trying deflect difficult high balls out of play for a corner. However, in many cases you don’t have the luxury of choice; you’re simply reacting to the play.

In the following video Hugo Lloris deals with a high ball by tipping it round the post. There’s no other choice he could have made in this scenario; it’s a great save.



 

4. Punch

Punching a cross is often seen as a sign of weakness — but it shouldn’t be. 

Make the decision to punch a high ball if you sense danger within your “domain” and have determined that getting the ball out to safety is the best (and most realistic) course of action.

Usually you’d choose to punch, rather than catch or deflect, when you’re:

  • At a stretch to reach the ball through a crowd of players.
  • Under heavy pressure, where it’s too dangerous to attempt the catch (at the risk of spilling it out to an opponent).

A goalkeeper should not punch when there’s no danger around. Here’s an example of punching the high ball when catching would’ve been the better choice (skip to Danny Rose’s goal, 3:27).



That’s one of the greatest ever goals in a North London derby. And it could have been prevented if Manuel Almunia realised he could afford to safely take the ball to ground, unhindered. His punch, although very clean, landed to Danny Rose who scored the greatest goal of his career.


My Views on Punching

When I played in goal, I felt pressured to catch rather than punch. Catching was the standard set by many great goalkeepers in the English game and there was a strong sense that punching meant you hadn’t mastered the basic skills. At the time, it felt ‘wrong’ to punch.

But in hindsight, if I could go back, I probably would’ve punched more crosses than I did. It would’ve reduced mistakes I made in the box.


I’ve often thought to myself: would an outfield player try to control a high ball within a crowd of people near to the goal, rather than head or kick it to safety?


More often than not, no. So it’s not necessarily smart for the goalkeeper to try catching it, either.

There’s also several other prevalent elements in amateur football — such as the thick mud cementing you to the floor, and the deliberate (unseen) fouls aimed at intentionally preventing keeper from gaining the elevation to catch the ball.

Being tough is one thing — being foolish and trying to catch when it’s not on is another. Think smart. And if you decide to punch the ball, make sure you get a clean hit. 

 

Don’t Be Caught In Two Minds

The worst mistake you can make with the high ball is to be caught in two minds where you neither stick, catch, deflect or punch. This leads to ‘flapping’: one of goalkeeping’s most unforgiving mistakes. A flap is neither a punch, cross or deflection!

Assess the situation, and make the best high ball choice based on your experience and ability. Remember that you can make a poor choice and still prevail by being strong, alert and determined to beat others to the ball. 


Recap: always think to yourself “what reduces the risk of the high ball?”. Be realistic in your choice. Be 100% committed to whatever decision you to make.