Shot stopping ability is one of many vital attributes required for goalkeeping — along with distribution, communication, fitness & athleticism, bravery, concentration, mental strength. Plus many more that I’ve covered on this site.
A lot of the hard work involved in the #1 role goes unnoticed. But shot stopping is the one area of the game where goalkeepers are constantly judged — because it impacts scorelines. So making saves will always be a Keeper’s chance to stand out, to shine, and become the match-day hero.
While Goalkeepers are by no means expected to eliminate all goals, they are expected to reduce them. So in this article I explain when you should decide to catch, parry or — dare I say it — use your feet to maximise the chance of producing a save.
When to Catch Shots
As a general rule, if the ball is shot anywhere within an arms stretch of your body, or at a low enough pace that you can gather it, then the objective is to catch it.
Remember that the ability to handle the ball is your one (and only) advantage over the outfield opposition. So you need to use your hands effectively.
Sure, making those theatrical ‘Hollywood’ dives looks cool, but the very best keepers opt for safety over style. Brad Friedel springs to mind. He never stood out in a particular way, yet he was a solid performer for many years in the Premier League.
The correct technique for catching the ball is explained in the following posts:
I recommended watching the following video by The Kit Lab for an overview of the basic catches.
Note that in the above video, the Goalkeeper is in the set position, and often adjusts his feet to catch balls played around the body, thereby preventing the need to dive at full stretch or deflect the ball away. And this skill carries through into games — because the ball rarely comes at your body perfectly.
It’s also worth highlighting that many catches couldn’t be made consistently without a high quality pair of GK gloves. Be sure to purchase a good pair, and look after them properly to maintain maximum grip.
Now, there are cases where attempting to catch the ball around the body is a poor choice. And I’m going to elaborate on those situations in the following section on parrying shots.
When to Parry Shots
Parrying a shot is a secondary choice for goalkeepers; catching is always first choice. You choose to parry the ball out at times where the catch cannot be made.
Here’s the common situations where deflecting the ball is the safest choice.
Point Blank Range
When shots are made from close range Goalkeepers must react rapidly to deal with high speeds.
Attempting to catch those close range efforts — even when they’re shot straight at the body — can lead to unpredictable deflections and spillages. In those cases it’s much safer to deflect (parry) the ball away. This is common in five a side football, where most shots occur at the edge of the ‘D’ from just yards out.
With point blank shots you don’t always have the luxury to decide exactly where you’re going to parry the ball. Instead you have to act instinctively, getting any touch to deflect the ball away from danger. Take a look at this close range shot stopping compilation for some great example saves.
Whether its due to the wind conditions or the striker’s good technique, some shots move with an immense amount of swerve. The spin can cause the ball to ping off your gloves in an unwanted direction if you attempt to make the catch. Often parrying the the ball out in another direction is the safest option.
Importantly you need to make strong contact on a fast, swerving ball to offset the spin. You should aim to use the cushioned bottom part of your hands to absorb the blow, or strong fingertips if you’re at a stretch. Avoid doing what Karius did in the Champions League final in 2018.
High or Wide
If you’re at a stretch to gather a ball that’s high or wide of your position, then parrying it might be the best option.
Deal with fast-high shots by deflecting the ball over the bar for a corner. Similarly deal with fast-wide shots by parrying around the post.
Arguably the most difficult high/wide shots to deal with are those made into a congested goal area, where parrying is the only option — but not a particularly good one. Take a look at this goal.
As I said previously in this article: keepers can’t prevent every goal. The Dortmund debut goal from Axel Witsel rebounded from a great reaction save from a powerful header. The decision to parry the ball was the right one. Unfortunately it didn’t quite make it to safety. That’s the harsh reality of goalkeeping for you.
Another reason to parry the ball rather than catch, is when a deflection has occurred.
When the ball deflects off of another player and changes direction, it’s immensely difficult to respond within that split moment. You cannot always reset and adjust your position quickly enough. As a result, even the tamest of deflected efforts can result in a goal.
So a parry can be vital for producing an important reaction save from an unexpected change in the fight of the ball.
When To Save With Your Feet
Lastly, and most controversial of all, is the goalkeeper’s third choice option: to make saves using their feet.
Some coaches teach against (or just neglect) the use of feet for shot stopping. But in today’s conditions, with fast-moving artificial surfaces and near perfect grass pitches, as well as advanced sports equipment, the ball moves more quickly than ever. We can’t point to past eras with pig-skinned balls and sloppy mud as an example for today, because the conditions have changed. Players, including Keepers, have to adapt.
There are several situations where the use of feet deserves special recognition. Hence why I’ve give it it’s own section rather than incorporating it into the above ‘parry section’.
Low, Point Blank Efforts
At times it’s impossible to get down to quickly enough to save close-range low-driven shots with your hands. That’s where your feet will save you.
De Gea is well known for making saves with his feet. He’s both criticised and praised for it — depending on whether or not it worked. Football is a fickle sport…
Seeing It Late
If a crowd of bodies block your vision of the ball, you’ll see the shot late. As a result you’re often faced with the situation where you cannot prepare quickly enough to use your hands. In those cases, make the save with your leg, feet — or whatever limb is required!
It can take one or more unorthodox saves to ride out pressure in a game.
You have to do whatever it takes. If that means sliding in and getting a toe to the ball to stop it from rolling over the line, then so be it. Break the mould when you have to.
As Keepers we have to anticipate where a shot is heading. But we’re only human: we get it wrong from time to time. You can use your feet to get you out of trouble.
For example, if you’re already diving half way down to the wrong side, then shifting your leg out to the correct side can prevent the goal. That’s both a recovery and a reaction save in one. This scenario occurs in professional football on a weekly basis, and can be seen throughout the following video featuring De Gea.
Shot Stopping Isn’t Everything
The idea of pulling off amazing saves is what inspires most of us to get in between the sticks to begin with.
But every Keeper knows that being a good shot stopper doesn’t automatically make you a great all-round player. Some of the top savers aren’t the most solid performers. A great keeper is made up of many key components — such as bravery, communication, distribution, and decision making. Then there’s other more general sporting elements, such as good technique, fitness and strength.
So if you’re still not the strongest at shot stopping, remember to also work on other key areas on your game as they all feed into one another. Combined, it all helps to reduce the pressure on your team, and you.