A Goalkeeper's Height: Advantageous, Essential, Or A Dying Necessity?

By Will Murray

News • Jun 5, 2024

A Goalkeeper's Height: Advantageous, Essential, Or A Dying Necessity?

Is one of goalkeeping's most traditional tropes disproven by the demands on the ‘eleventh man’?

When analysing specific positions across the football pitch, height is often key when discussing the qualities needed for a centre-back and perhaps a striker. However, both can be played effectively by short and tall players alike, with a variety of factors dictating what is preferred by a manager. 

But for goalkeepers it is generally accepted that you have to be tall. Is this true, and if not, what is the optimal height for someone in the sticks?

The average height of the number one goalkeepers in the Premier League for the 2023/24 season was just over six feet and two inches (6'2), about 191 cm.* Burnley's Arijanet Muric, Newcastle's Nick Pope, and Chelsea's Robert Sanchez are all 6'5+. On the other hand, the smallest was David Raya, who is 183 cm. 

When Mikel Arteta decided to switch to the ex-Brentford man in place of Ramsdale, there was a long-standing debate about whether or not it was the right decision. The argument over the selection of Raya over Ramsdale centred around his distribution and calmness in possession in comparison to the England goalkeeper’s supposed over-exuberance when under pressure. 

Before the turn of the new year, Raya’s performances were mixed, and the 4-3 win away at Luton in December 2023 brought into question the Spaniard’s height as a potential issue for the first time. The Hatters scored from two crosses, with the second goal coming from a corner in which Raya was comfortably beaten in the air by Elijah Adebayo to leave an open net to score. 

It also didn’t help that Luton’s third goal was another effort in which Raya should have done better as Barkley’s low shot slipped under his body. 

Throughout the game, the Spanish ‘keeper was specifically targeted from crosses, leading to questions about his height, which nearly contributed to dropped points for the Gunners. 

When asked about whether Luton tried to specifically target the Arsenal goalkeeper after the game, Hatters manager Rob Edwards said: “We tried to, we wanted to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them. We were probably going to have to be slightly different away from home when we play them again, but here we’ve got to use this place as a bit of a leveller and try to make it difficult for these top teams and not give them the game they want."

Raya’s performances improved in the new year, as did Arteta’s side, which nearly propelled them to the club’s first title in 20 years. In fact, Raya eventually picked up the Premier League Golden Glove with 16 clean sheets across the campaign. A big caveat to this was the stellar performance of the centre-back pairing of William Saliba and Gabriel across the season, who protected the goalkeeper with their dominant displays. 

Even though Raya is the smallest number one in the Premier League, he is still six feet tall, and with the average height of goalkeepers being 6’3 in England’s top division, it is evident that height remains an extremely valued asset. So, the question is: does height still appear to be a prerequisite for goalkeepers today? And what is the opinion of football experts from other parts of Europe? 

Starting at academy level, sports science has influenced decisions on which goalkeepers are signed and released for some time. ‘Growth pathways’ are known to take into account parents' and sometimes even grandparents' heights to create an estimate of how tall a goalkeeper will end up being.

It's something of a taboo topic in the academy system. Any random sample of released academy goalkeepers will include allegoric stories of goalkeepers leaving the system due to their height. The replies to the below Twitter thread tell a story in themselves. 

Fabian Barthez was 180 cm tall (under 6 foot). He was extremely successful at the top level of European football, winning the UEFA Champions League, the Premier League, and the FIFA World Cup for France in 1998. 

In an interview with Le Parisien in March 2023, he was openly critical of the evolution of goalkeeping in France, which he believes has prioritised athletic attributes over talent, regardless of size. 

Barzthez said: “I criticise the training for producing in France, as elsewhere, formatted goalkeepers devoid of creativity. We are on the wrong track. For four or five years, too many technicians have been campaigning for 1.95 m goalkeepers who could take up space in the goal. I have nothing against them. Besides, the number one the world is, in my eyes, Thibaut Courtois, who is 2m tall.”

Yet, Barthez added a crucial detail: “We are making a huge mistake by giving up on the edge of the road, by sacrificing, goalkeepers of 1.85 m or 1.86 m. Let's give talent a chance. I have the sad impression of seeing the same mistakes from the early 2000s being repeated with outfield players, when young players had to be tall and run fast. Real athletes in short. How tall are Messi, Neymar, or even Mbappé? Not 1.90 m! That doesn't stop them from being the best.

“The remark also applies to Griezmann, who was not selected in several training centres because he was considered too small. We must stop trying to standardize everything. At 16 or 17 years old, the size of a goalkeeper should not be an obstacle to his future career.”

Height has not always been a barrier to success for goalkeepers in the past. Smaller figures such as Iker Casillas, Victor Valdez, and David Ospina are recent examples of ‘keepers who were reportedly under or around six feet tall and excelled at the top level of European football. 

An attribute that all of these players had was creativity in terms of shot-stopping, like Barthez mentioned in his interview. This can be using their legs to save shots or having sublime reflexes to get down low and make close-range stops. 

Maximising the other aspects of their game away from their aerial presence, such as their ability to play with their feet, jumping, and mental strength, have also been noted as key attributes of successful goalkeepers in the past who were shorter than average ‘keepers. 

There are also, of course, outlying stories.

On Wednesday 22nd September 2020, 5'9 goalkeeper Zaki Oualah stood between the goalposts at Chertsey Town’s home ground, Alwyns Lane. Chertsey play in the Isthmian League; Step Eight of the English football pyramid.

Just over 20 miles away from Chertsey’s single-stand ground is Arsenal’s mighty Emirates Stadium. With a capacity of sixty thousand seats and a final construction cost of £390 million, the home of the Gunners represents a vastly different realm of the footballing world. A realm saturated with billionaire owners, dictated by mega-buck television deals, and littered with celebrity names.

Exactly one year to the day on from that FA Cup Qualifying Round tie at Chertsey, in which Oualah started in goal for non-league Leatherhead FC, the English-Algerian stopper was sat on the bench at the Emirates in the third round of the Carabao Cup. Oualah spent a year professionally contracted to Wimbledon, who he'd spent years training with alongside his semi-professional football. At the time, Oualah was the smallest goalkeeper in the EFL. 

Speaking to Kyle Cooke Goalkeeping on TikTok, Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Asmir Begović claimed that while height is advantageous, it is not essential to making it at the top level. He said: “There’s a lot spoken about the physical attributes of a goalkeeper. For me, I’m on the taller side for sure. But I don’t think height is that essential. 

"I think you can make up for it in different ways. As long as you practise well, do your fundamentals, work really hard and have that mental strength, you can overcome a lack of height. I don’t think it’s a necessity to be 6’5 or 6’6, especially in the modern game.”

Making sharp reflex saves from low shots can sometimes be harder for taller goalkeepers due to the time it takes to get down to the ground, though this can be offset by other physical and technical factors. 

This is also something that Barthez alluded to in his Le Parisien interview. Speaking about Donnarumma and his flaws as a shot stopper, the former French goalkeeper said: “Coman’s goal (in the Bayern vs. PSG in the Champions League last year) illustrates the qualities and flaws of a goalkeeper of his height. 

"The problem is not the responsiveness on the goal, but is related to his technique, which was not the right one. He should have repelled the ball with his foot instead of trying with his hands. A smaller goalkeeper with more instinct and technique would have parried it.”

The statistics show that football still intrinsically prefers goalkeepers who are six foot tall or over. No number one goalkeeper in the Premier League in the 2023/24 season was under six foot.* 

For shorter goalkeepers in the past, it has been about maximising the creative aspects of shot stopping to make up for their smaller stature. However, as Barthez mentioned, even the value of creativity is becoming a marginalised aspect of modern football, with clubs and academy systems increasingly opting for height as a starting point, before assessing talent.

*Statistics taken from FIFA, including all goalkeepers with 10+ league appearances in 2023/24 season. 

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