An insight into how Liverpool’s veteran Head of Goalkeeping keeps some of the world's best goalkeepers sharp…
In fifteen years on the red half of Merseyside, John Achterberg has seen and felt some of the highest and lowest moments in Liverpool’s modern history.
From a masterstroke of a transfer in bringing Alisson Becker to the club, and the euphoric highs of finally securing a Premier League title in 2020, to the night that Liverpool let a three goal lead slip away to Crystal Palace (and with it their hopes of a first top flight crown since 1990) and supporting Loris Karius in the aftermath of that Champions League final night in Kyiv, the Dutchman has been a beacon of stability in a goalkeeper department that has been through many highs and lows.
Indeed, it’s a level-headed approach that reflects his view of goalkeeping.
“I think I learned over the years - and definitely when you look at the two goalkeepers we have now [Alisson and Caoimhin Kelleher] - that you need a steady kind of mind to succeed as a goalkeeper at a club like Liverpool,” he explains, speaking exclusively to Goalkeeper.com from Merseyside.
“When you look at our goalies they are pretty calm human beings and really steady when they play. If they are steady in the mind, they can make a lot better decisions as well on the pitch.
“They don't seem to get nervous under pressure. If you play for Liverpool, you're not playing just in front of the stadium, it's about 500 million people around the world with social media nowadays.”
The spotlight placed on the Reds’ goalkeepers has, for some time, been one of increased intensity. It reflects the way that Jurgen Klopp’s revolutionary side plays; pace, precision, and rapid transitions that often rely upon Alisson’s excellent distribution.
And it fits Achterberg’s goalkeeping philosophy perfectly.
Born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, the Dutchman spent his formative years between the sticks with NAC Breda and was christened into the Dutch school of total football. He describes his philosophical education on the pitch as founded in “advanced, attacking football…playing high lines [and] to have attacking goalkeepers on the front foot, but, most crucially, the importance of developing all-round goalkeepers who could go into any team.”
That’s the key: all-round goalkeepers. Achterberg knows the value that ball-playing goalkeepers can bring. It’s why signing Alisson was so crucial for Liverpool’s successful style of play. But, ever the measured mind, he also recognises that a goalkeeper’s predominant job is to stop shots. It’s a digestible blend of forward-thinking play, and remembering the core reason as to why the goalkeeper exists.
“Shot stopping is still the number one because that can win your game,” he asserts.
“But the thing is, if I have a goalkeeping programme, I would train every aspect of goalkeeping every week and it'd be crosses, one-on-ones, playing with the feet, left foot, right foot and so on. It’s not the case that one week I do some crosses, or I have a block for three weeks of only doing crosses.
“No, you need to brain train the goalie and help them learn one thing in relation to another to the point where it repeats and sticks in the mind. A goalkeeper is still a goalkeeper and that will never change. If Ali could only play with his feet and Ederson could only play with his feet they would not be winning anything. Neuer is the same, and he needs to make match-winning saves.
“It’s not just about the goalkeeper either,” he continues. “Some styles of team need a goalkeeper who is a little bit better with the feet, but we need to have the players as well to be able to do that because if the goalie can play with his feet but the team around him can’t then it's not too useful.
“Obviously the ones better with their feet will suit more for Liverpool, probably, but those who don’t still make a good career. You know, you [might] have a really good shot stopper but who cannot play for Liverpool because we want everything on the highest level and unfortunately, there's not too many who can do every aspect of this,” Achterberg admits.
It’s an interesting point he draws upon. The Dutchman has seen lots of different types of goalkeepers over the years at Anfield - and many who have gone on to have good careers elsewhere, but haven’t made the pay grade on Merseyside.
A case in point is Péter Gulácsi, for example. The Hungarian goalkeeper never made a first team appearance for Liverpool. Yet, with RB Salzburg, and then RB Leipzig, Gulácsi has made nearly four hundred appearances in the Austrian and German top flights to date. He has been an ever present in Leipzig’s goal throughout their Champions League campaigns, achieving various personal and team landmarks in the process.
At Anfield, meanwhile, the interregnum between the end of Pepe Reina’s custody of the number one shirt in 2013, and Alisson’s assumption of the position in 2018 saw Liverpool repeatedly criticised for the standard of goalkeeper the club were recruiting. Simon Mignolet enjoyed a fantastic breakthrough season in 2013/14 as the Reds narrowly missed out on the Premier League title under Brendan Rodgers, but came under heavy fire in the following two seasons.
Goalkeeper recruitment is a difficult task, though it is being advanced by the likes of Goalkeeper xG. As Achterberg notes, there is not a plethora of genuinely ‘world class’ goalkeepers constantly in supply, and at times, clubs will temporarily fall out of the goalkeeper transfer cycle when it comes to recruiting one of the world’s best.
“We’ve always tried to find the best goalies for Liverpool,” he says.
“In the end, you can suggest things but the club decides in the end which way to go.
“I followed Ali since 2013 when he was at Internazionale, and kept following him. When we played a few years ago against Roma in pre-season, I told Jurgen ‘that's the goalie I told you about’.”
“Recruitment will come up with statistics and make videos, and obviously the boss needs to like the idea, and the coaches, and then the owners, but it’s not always that easy.
“There was a time when people always criticised Simon [Mignolet]. But it’s not as simple as that. They would say we needed a ‘better’ goalkeeper, but I say, okay, how many big clubs are there in the world? You can give me ten world class clubs in five seconds, but you cannot give me ten top goalies.
“We’ve got to remember that everyone is looking for a top goalie; all of those clubs want the ‘world class’ one. And ideally, they want a second one as well. We’ve worked hard to get the squad to the shape it is in. If you want to win, then you need a good goalie for sure.”
But are these ‘world class’ goalkeepers born or made? Achterberg has worked with a fair few, but also closely monitors the pathway between Liverpool’s academy and the first team. There are parts of goalkeeping you can’t teach; decision making, for example, is one of the harder areas of the game to coach, he admits. Nonetheless, Liverpool’s large goalkeeper department aims to have all bases covered.
Brazilian legend Claudio Taffarel’s arrival on Merseyside in 2021 enlarged Liverpool’s first team goalkeeper department to three coaches. A club appointment, Achterberg leads the entire set up, and Jack Robinson provides support during training sessions. Taffarel’s relationship with Alisson from their work together in the Brazilian national team set up has brought a little piece of home over to Liverpool for the club’s number one - as Achterberg notes, “Claudio does the Brazilian exercises Ali likes in training” - but the department is very much a complementary one.
Naturally, individualism is a virtue when nurtured positively. This is especially true for goalkeepers. However, when it comes to a club goalkeeping vision, Achterberg and his team work hard to keep it cohesive.
“We are a team; we work together,” states Achterberg.
“We have a big goalkeeper coaching squad now, but also a big team of goalkeepers. We work mainly with six goalies, three seniors, three young ones. And obviously, you want to make individual programmes for them, and improve them individually and also prepare them for the next game, especially the number one and two and three.
“From the academy to the first team, we have six goalkeeper coaches. Mark Morris and Neil Edwards do the older age groups, and then Ian Dunbavin who played in the youth team. Lots of our coaches have either been here for a long time or played themselves in the system, so we all know what is required.”
Achterberg is committed to transparency and integration throughout the club when it comes to goalkeeper development, explaining how “they [the academy coaches] all have access to our training sessions, and way of work, and we pretty much talk I would say one or two times a week. I speak mainly to the Under-21s coach, but also the Under-18s coach, and sometimes the Under-16s coach. And then I watch all the young goalies from Under-15s up as well.
“We keep it very current. I’m asking them if we have the right profile in-house and how it goes and do they think we need to change or get someone in and stuff like that.”
The competition for the best first team goalkeepers is intense, as Achterberg has already explained. That pressure doesn’t let up at academy level.
“There's a lot of clubs around. So you all have to compete in the same area. Ideally, you can find three to four goalies who look like they're going to be tall and then hopefully, we’ll filter them long term in the right way with the right training hours and the right work, if you like.
“Harvey Davies is one of them who came through. We signed him I think at Under-10s. He's now on loan at Crewe. But Caoimhin Keller we signed when he was 16. So we didn't have that profile at that moment. He wasn’t too expensive. And he was really agile and quick with his feet, he was not really fully grown as well. So we thought you know, the price is right, he is moving really well. Let's take the gamble on that. And that worked out pretty good!” Achterberg laughs.
There are also practical barriers to academy recruitment. “Now with Brexit, you have to be even better in your academy, in my opinion. Generally, the thinking really has to be long term. Sometimes, we may see a goalkeeper who looks good at a young age. You think okay, yeah, he suits for the first two, three years in the small goal. But you have to think whether we can develop the goalies for the long term and not for the short term.”
The word ‘coach’ seems a funny one to use when the calibre of goalkeeper that Achterberg has worked with for so long has only increased season-on-season. To non-goalkeeping eyes, the question of ‘what can you teach Alisson?’ isn’t illegitimate. Of course, at the academy level, perpetual education is as much technical and tactical as it is social.
Yet, Liverpool’s goalkeeper guru knows that there’s no such thing as perfection, and that learning is a continuous process.
“The goalies we work with are on a good level, but there's still things that can be better,” says Achterberg.
“Sometimes you make exercises to improve them without them knowing it, and sometimes you show them also on video. It doesn’t always have to be made obvious. We as coaches have to keep the confidence in the goalkeeper. They know if they’ve made a mistake.
“We need to try and be on the positive side and say, Okay, what can we do to carry on improving?”, he continues.
“If you try to include these improvements and work them automatically, then it will be stored automatically also in the head.
“It's important that we coaches are able to create the kind of exercises where you also challenge them and also ask something of the brain again. It might be shape and balance, because these are the details which matter in the game. It might be something more technical.
“As a coach, you are there to help and as an individual not to be thinking that you're more important than the goalie. The goalies are the most important because they have to do it in the end, and you need to help them and give them the best chance to make it happen.”
This is part of the reason why Achterberg believes it’s beneficial to work with multiple goalkeepers and coaches. They’re very much a team in their own right, and extend the number of learning opportunities for all the goalkeepers in the group.
Over the course of a working week on Merseyside, the three coaches split responsibilities between them.
“We normally work like four days leading up to the game. So the first day we'll be getting the goalies all moving, lots of running around, but also get some shot-stopping going. That will be, most of the time about an hour, sometimes one or two, and the number two and three goalie goes to the team training. We keep Ali always on the first day back with us for the full session. And then we can finish with crosses or kicking at the end of the session to bring that in.
“The second day is pretty similar, but then we do more power. So it's more like hurdle jumping, more physical, it can be elastic bands and stuff like that. So we get more resistance, but still at a good high intensity and speed of movement, because we want them to move quickly, think quickly, react quickly and make quick decisions.
Because if you look at the Premier League, it's the quickest in the world. So you want to work in that way as well. So the brain training, again, works at the highest level, the highest intensity, the highest decision making and the highest reaction.”
Achterberg notes that the match-speed realism is something embedded into his philosophy from his upbringing in the Dutch school of football. Matching technical precision to speed of decision is at the core of Liverpool's goalkeeper sessions.
Time is of the essence in so many ways in a professional environment. Over the course of a session, it’s the predominant reason why Achterberg doesn’t favour some of the more ‘innovative’ practices seen in the goalkeeper training world. If he can smash a tennis ball at a goalkeeper, he explains, he can kick it more realistically in the same amount of time.
Matchday minus two sees focus turn to the weekend’s opposition.
“If we know we're going to play a team who blocks the goalie, we would already block the goalie there in training to mentally prepare for Saturday. It conditions the goalkeeper to have to be aggressive in the situation and make the right decisions. If it’s somebody who puts low crosses in behind or they come inside and put the ball to the back post, or they come inside to shoot, so we try to create this kind of exercise in between with reactions. For teams who play on the counter we do a lot of 1v1 situations.
“The more game-realistic, the more you automatically train the brain as well. We take the gas off a little on the minus two, also, knowing that the boys, the team, will do most of the time on the minus two finishing and then they get more work really.”
When it comes to the day before match day, training focus turns more to mental preparation than any technical focus. Achterberg explains that the main thing is that “they feel good”, going on to say that “we put some crosses in, we do some kicking, we show them where the space is to play, and then give them good shots to feel good. And, for this number two, we do exactly the same, and then the others train separately. And then they get ready for the game. And obviously, we have the meeting on the minus one to talk about everything we need for the game and what can happen in the game.”
“As a coach, it’s not always about who makes the first team at Liverpool,” admits Achterberg. “There are plenty who have come through Kirkby who haven’t started a professional game for the Reds, but have gone on to have respectable careers elsewhere. The best in their field look beyond what’s immediately in front of them.
“What I do care about is that they make a good career and that they all reach the highest level they can and that's in their own hands by improving and making themselves learn from the other guys and get to the highest level they can.
Years of wisdom from a career at the highest level of goalkeeper coaching shine through brightly in everything Achterberg says. His rhetoric is very balanced, and it’s this calmness and moderation that underpins Liverpool’s goalkeeper department.
At the core of it is a deep understanding of the ‘brain training’ required to keep the goalkeepers at one of the world’s most famous clubs on top of the footballing pyramid.
“Everyone knows the mistakes,” Achterberg adds as a final remark, in response to a customary question on how he supported Loris Karius in the aftermath of the 2018 Champions League Final.
“If you work with kids, you also sometimes show the things that they didn't do well, but only for one reason: that they learn from it. And you will always show more positive things that they do than the negative ones, because the negative ones you keep training on anyway to improve.
“But we have to always be positive to any individual because no one wants to make mistakes and you want to get the best out of someone.
And, ultimately, “when you’re trying to get the best out of someone, negativity won't get you far.”